Emergency crews cut Zach out of the Mercury. He was flown to Grande Prairie’s hospital before being transferred to Edmonton. He’s still upset that his new Under Armour sweater, bought weeks earlier in San Diego during his first trip outside Canada, was ruined by doctors saving his life. The only thing they left were his shoes, black Nikes with pink soles, filled with blood that had poured down his legs.

Police, by that point, had called Zach’s grandmother, who understood, incorrectly, that he had died. Louis’s friends kept texting him condolences, some refusing to believe that Zach was still alive. Ms. Judd arrived at the scene and was taken to Louis. They followed Zach to the hospital, where staff asked if they could identify which boy was Zach.

“How about the fact he’s black like me,” Louis screamed. “Does that help identify him?”

Football players flocked to the crash site, then to the hospital. Vince’s mom was awakened at 1:45 a.m. by a phone call asking if she had heard from Vince. She hadn’t, and couldn’t reach him. She tried texting him, asking if he was okay, a message she would next see when police gave her Vince’s phone. She still has it; all the parents do. The phones are memorials and time capsules.

Mr. Gilson worked all night, a de facto liaison between the Mounties, the school and the parents. He went with the police to each home. It was the sight of Mr. Gilson the next morning that made Drew Wilkins, Walter’s father, feel his stomach drop.

“I got woken up at 7 in the morning for one of my worst fears – my kid not coming home,” Mr. Wilkins said, his lip quivering. “And he still hasn’t come home.”

When I arrived in Grande Prairie two days after the crash, orange and black ribbons hung everywhere. There was a Friday Night Lights feel to it all, a town fixated on its high-school football team in good times, and now, in tragedy, rallying around it. That evening, a vigil was held at the football field. Hundreds came, wearing orange hoodies, releasing balloons into the black sky, mourning the four dead and praying for Zach’s recovery.

Two days later, the Warriors were back on the field. Mr. Gilson shouted orders to about half his team, the ones who showed up; he forgave the others, but he never considered cancelling. After light walk-throughs and drills, the team ran back inside, helmets in hand, past the parking lot where parents sat nervously in idling cars.

“The best place for these kids all week has been between the white lines,” Mr. Gilson said. “The practice – that’s been their sanctuary.”

They returned to the field a week after the accident, obliterating a rival school 40-0 to earn a spot in the regional championship (which they’d go on to win). The stands were packed and TV lights shined. Louis took up his usual spot on the offensive line, thinking of Zach all the while. Their aunt sold sweatshirts near the back of the south end zone. Tanner’s family set up at midfield, wearing orange shirts with his photo on them, cheering loudly. It was The Comp’s wake.

As a town grieved and cheered, Zach lay in a coma, his mother by his side. She uprooted her life to stay with him in Edmonton, five hours from home. In Grande Prairie, classes resumed and her other two children returned to school. Their grandma cared for them. Ms. Judd wasn’t leaving Zach.

He was surrounded by cards, stuffed animals and memorabilia, including a football signed by the Edmonton Eskimos. Money poured in: A trust fund was opened and eventually raised about $150,000 for the five families, plus a separate one for Zach, the amount of which has been kept private. “It was overwhelming,” Ms. Judd said.

At first, doctors said Zach could be in a coma for three months, but in early November, 11 days after the horrific crash, he opened his eyes.

Rehabilitation began soon afterward and included simple cognitive tests. In one, nurses gave Zach letters. He would arrange them slowly: Z – A – C – H. One nurse would gently remove the H, and replace it with a K. Zach would swap the letters again. Finally, Ms. Judd intervened, telling the nurse how to spell his name correctly.

Everyone had been talking to Zach, who was awake but seemingly miles away, occasionally muttering “mom” or “grandma.” He hadn’t responded to questions. At one point, about a month after the accident, Mr. Gilson – a regular visitor – asked whether Zach wanted to make a phone call.

“Sure,” Zach replied.

His mother was awestruck. “It was overnight,” she said. “One day he wasn’t talking, the next day you couldn’t shut him up.”

His speech improved as he emerged from what is called post-traumatic amnesia. He told the story about the horses. He moved with a walker, then a belt attached to an aide worker, before finally being able to walk on his own.

I first met Zach in January at a McDonald’s next to the hospital. His mother cringed whenever he strayed too far from a wall, in case he needed to throw out an arm to steady himself. He spoke in short sentences, if at all, but smiled often. His playful personality was stirring again. He talked about sports and music, and was optimistic about his recovery. He wore his black Nikes with pink soles – his brother had washed them off, in the snow, after the crash.

Doctors warned Ms. Judd that Zach would not be the same, and it was bound to frustrate him. His frontal-lobe injury would compound matters, making him more aggressive. She was also warned about the onset of survivor’s guilt.

“Life is going to carry on as normal,” Ms. Judd told her son in hospital.

“It’s not going to carry on as normal,” he replied.

She smiled. “As normal as can be.”

Zach was starting over. He needed a new e-mail and a new Facebook page, because his brain damage made him forget every password he had ever had. Once he had dreamed of playing university football – the receiver and punt returner retained a heady memory of a kick he had run back for a touchdown in his final game – but now he set himself a new goal: to be a gym teacher.

On Feb. 29, Zach hugged staff at the hospital and left. While his mom finished packing, he headed to a barbershop. He wanted it buzzed, close-cropped. The barber objected, leaving the top longer to cover the scars.

It was these sorts of reminders that set Zach off. “The accident ruined my life,” he said soon after, wolfing down a Taco Bell burrito at a nearby mall before departing for Grande Prairie. Between bites, he waxed philosophical: “I was an atheist before the accident, but now I kinda believe in God. God kinda saved my life.”

Months later, he would revise that. God couldn’t have saved him. “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to be dead, but since the rest of them are dead, then it’s only fair I’m dead too.’ ” The others had “more going for them,” he figured. “One of them should have been, like, alive instead of me right now,” he said, adding: “I wouldn’t have felt anything anyways.”

There’s a cold reality to Zach’s second life. He is no longer a competitive athlete, not even a fresh-from-the-hospital survivor; just a 16-year-old who struggles in school and quit his part-time jobs, one of them pumping gas. Strangers still ask him whether he’s the boy from the wreck, and don’t shy away from sharing their thoughts.

Some blame him and his friends, sending messages online saying it was Matt’s U-turn that caused the crash. Zach defends Matt; to do so, he has been piecing together what happened that night, even if he would prefer not to. “I almost died, and four of my friends died,” he said. “So I don’t see why anyone would want to remember that.”

He and his brother Louis don’t talk about the crash. “Every time I bring it up, he, like, gets mad,” Zach said. In fact, Louis was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after that night. Sitting in the family’s kitchen, I once asked his mother whether the crash could affect Louis, with no physical injuries, as much as it would Zach. “Very much so,” she replied.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Source: The Globe and Mail


Last updated on: 2012-10-24 | Link to this post