GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. – Walter Borden-Wilkins loved football and adored his little sister.
Each morning before heading off to high school in Grande Prairie, Alta., the 15-year-old would hang out and take care of Kylie, who uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy.
After classes were done and football practice was over for the day, Walter would spend more time with his sister before she went to bed.
Early on Oct. 22, 2011, the same day Kylie and her twin sister, Kiara, were to have their 12th birthday party, police officers and Walter’s football coach came to the family’s home with bad news.
The teen and three of his fellow players on the Warriors high school football team had all died in a car crash on the outskirts of the northwestern Alberta city. A fifth player had been rushed to hospital.
Walter’s mother, Holly Borden, recalls telling Kylie that her brother had been in an awful crash and wasn’t coming home. They would have to cancel the birthday party. The girl didn’t understand.
“Why do we have to cancel the party, mom? Why?”
Borden said she was so upset she blurted out: “Because your brother’s dead.”
“And then it clued into her and then the tears started.”
Borden said Walter’s death was difficult for everyone to accept. But it was nearly impossible for Kylie.
“For five months, every morning before she went to school and every night before she went to bed, she would cry. And not just cry a little bit, but gut-wrenching, horrific cries. She would start crying. I would start crying. It was horrible.”
Borden plans to be in court Tuesday to see the driver of the pickup truck that crashed into the car carrying Walter and his friends.
The Crown has said Brenden Holubowich, 23, is expected to enter a plea in court and lawyers are to argue over what sentence he should receive. He faces 16 charges, including impaired driving causing death and failing to remain at the scene of an accident.
The initial shock of the crash turned the entire community upside down and had football players across the country mourning four boys they never knew.
People packed an arena for a memorial service honouring Walter, Tanner Hildebrand, 15, and Matthew Deller and Vince Stover, both 16. And there were prayers for the boy still in hospital, 15-year-old Zach Judd. Zach spent several weeks in a coma with brain injuries, a fractured skull and punctured lung.
Many high school teams across Canada honoured the players with moments of silence at their games. Even the Canadian Football League Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders put the Warriors logo on their helmets for the last couple of games of the regular season.
The Warriors toughed it out and finished their season. They went on to win their league championship before losing in the quarter-finals at provincials. Their final run made national sports headlines.
Coach Rick Gilson, the same man who helped RCMP deliver news of the crash to the boys’ families, was later named NFL Canada’s youth coach of the year for being a rock and role mode after the crash.
Besides shouldering the team, Gilson also added his voice to others who publicly asked for calm following talk of vigilante justice against the pickup driver.
Through it all, Zach improved in hospital and spent weeks undergoing intense physiotherapy. Four months after the crash, he returned to his Grade 11 class at Grande Prairie Composite High School, although he didn’t get back on the football field. Doctors told him he had to take a break from sports for awhile.
Carol Ann MacDonald, superintendent of the Grande Prairie Public School District, said the school has learned how to better cope with grief since the crash.
“What the crash taught us was to talk to one another and let people know it’s OK to talk.”
A new wing, called a health and wellness centre, opened at the school in January. The $600,000 addition houses a full-time social worker, three guidance counsellors, career counsellors, RCMP liaison officers and a health nurse.
MacDonald said that after the crash, upset students had to huddle with counsellors in corners and closets in the school. The new centre gives them a confidential space and even a quiet room when they need help.
She said there are no memorials or tributes dedicated to the dead boys. Grief experts told school officials it was best for students not to be reminded of the deaths and to try to move on.
“We will never forget the boys. The boys certainly have a place and will always have a place in our hearts,” MacDonald said.
“But we don’t want to dwell back. We always want our kids to move forward and that’s why we provide what we do by talking about it. It has made a difference.”
Borden said she wants to stand up and tell Holubowich and the judge how much her family’s life has changed.
She would like Holubowich to go to prison for a long time but, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.
Her boy with the bright smile, who dreamed of playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL, is never coming home.
“No amount of time to me is going to make any difference really because Walter’s gone,” she said. “It’s never going to bring him back.”