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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Newport football and community intertwined through tragedy

NEWPORT – When tragedies occur, often the first place we seek to take our minds off the senseless loss is on a ballfield.

Watching a high school football game might ordinarily be a matter of little consequence, but for a few fleeting moments this afternoon it may help to heal the wounds of the greiving Newport community.

The Newport Grizzlies face the defending champion and No. 1-ranked Royal Knights in a State 1A semifinal.

It’s a daunting task. Royal outscored its opponents 628-38 this season, including a 49-0 win over Okanogan last week in a quarterfinal matchup and a 35-0 win over Freeman in the first round on Nov. 10.

But the challenge on the field is nothing like the challenge the team and the town have faced since a fateful day in early May when a car full of teenagers collided with a dump truck along a a rural highway.

It’s a memory most folks in Newport don’t like to dwell on. Yet they speak about it with respect and love for those affected – and pride in how the community responded.

Michael “Dylan” Warner, 17, a gregarious member of Newport’s football, basketball, tennis and track teams who was nearing the completion of his junior year, died at the scene.

According to the Washington State Patrol, 18-year-old Braden Nichols – the driver of the car – was unable to stop when the school bus in front of them stopped to drop off students along state Route 2. Nichols managed to avoid hitting the bus, but instead was struck by the dump truck.

Nichols and his other two passengers, 16-year-old Cody Warner and 17-year-old Lilly Gray – Dylan’s brother and girlfriend – were injured.

Nichols and Cody Warner, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, had minor injuries. They were treated and released from the hospital that night. The rear of the vehicle, where Dylan and Gray were sitting, bore the brunt of the collision.

News of Dylan’s death stunned the community, and concern for Gray gripped her friends and family. A medical crew flew her to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane to save her life.

The collision happened at the end of the school day while some teams had games going on at the school. A school employee witnessed the accident and notified Principal Troy Whittle, who opened the school as a place for students and the community to gather while awaiting information on the injured.

“People just started gathering by the hundreds at the cafeteria at the school,” Whittle said. “It was a situation with people holding hands and hugging and trying to come to grips with what had just happened.”

Belinda Wayland, mother of Dylan, Cody and sister Kayla, has worked as a cook in the Newport High kitchen for a couple of years.

She was home after school when she received the news.

“I got the phone call (from a friend) and she said, ‘Belinda, your boys were in an accident.’ She told me where, and my husband and I got in the car. He couldn’t get close enough with all kinds of traffic, so we parked on the side of the road and we ran like crazy.”

When they finally got to the accident site, Wayland said, Cody was crawling out of the car covered in glass and Dylan was on the other side of the car, with paramedics attempting CPR.

“Cody and Dylan were the best of friends,” Wayland said. “Inseparable.”

A local chaplain provided Wayland and her family privacy and support in the immediate aftermath of the accident, while Cody and Lilly were rushed to hospitals.

Meanwhile, students and residents continued to hold vigil at school.

“Communities like Newport, and many other communities that satellite Spokane, the school is the center of life,” Whittle said. “Kids just started congregating.”

The tennis team had a match that day, but Dylan wasn’t scheduled to play. Whittle, in his fourth year at the school, had two sons on the tennis team – including Dylan’s usual doubles partner.

“One of the hardest things for me as a parent and a principal was having to tell the tennis team what happened,” Whittle said.

The next morning they opened the high school up again and hundreds of people gathered, just to come together to support each other. Those in attendance were told that Gray would recover from her injuries, and Cody spoke to a group of students to provide information about the circumstances.

Wayland explained that while it was a gut-wrenching experience, she took it as a source of pride how her son was able to address his peers that day. She also was incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support.

“If it hadn’t been for all those kids at the high school, giving me a hug, or a ‘We’re glad you’re back,’…” Wayland started, before not finishing her thought. “Just, the support has been great.”

A dinner to raise funds for the family was hosted at the school a few days after the accident. They brought in food for 400 – and quickly ran out.

A local shop printed “Rest Easy, Fly High” shirts that were distributed through the booster club, with all the proceeds going to the families. Students were encouraged to wear the shirts to school on Fridays, and a few of the school’s teams wore them during pregame warmups.

A Facebook page was set up under #Grizstrong in memorial.

Funds were established at area businesses and banks, while separate GoFundMe sites for Dylan and Lilly were set up for donations. A local grocery store provided meals for two weeks until the families could get back on their feet.

The family qualified for assistance and a foundation provided the funds to pay for Dylan’s funeral.

“It was overwhelming,” Whittle said.

A student-organized candlelight vigil was held at Newport City Park on the Friday following the collision and another took place at the football field.

“The silver lining to such a dark cloud is how communities come together,” Whittle explained, as donations came in from across the area. Other area high schools – normally perceived as opponents – sent cards and signed posters of well wishes.

“We saw it, of course, after the Freeman tragedy,” Whittle explained. “But schools – in like ways to the situation at Freeman – were very kind to us.

“It was touching to see people thinking about us in that moment.”

When school reconvened after the summer, football coach Dave Pomante was tasked with bringing together his players – especially Dylan’s senior classmates – and uniting his team following the tragedy.

“I was very intentional about not bringing Dylan up at the beginning of the year because what I did not want to do was use the loss of a young life as a motivation to win football games,” Pomante said.

“I’m sure some of our guys have played inspired (this season),” Pomante said. “But what really matters is what’s in their heart.”

Pomante stressed that the tragedy hasn’t been used as a sort of rallying cry for the football team, but the outpouring of support has grown organically throughout town.

“I think it’s the nature of this community, whether it’s something tragic or something to celebrate – there are some very generous people in this community, with generous hearts,” Pomante said. “They are very supportive.

“The community has rallied in times of tragedy, but as we have been successful (on the field) this year, just the generosity and the support that we have had has been tremendous.”

Whittle concurred. “I think the experience of how the community rallied and how the school rallied together in the wake of this tragedy has helped to shape (the football players) to become the people that they are.”

Asked if she thought the football team and community drew support from each other during this historic run for the program, Wayland answered emphatically, “Wholeheartedly.”

“This community, if you want a big family – the Newport Grizzlies, we are that,” she said.

It’s the first time that 10th-ranked Newport has advanced to a state football semifinal.

As the Grizzlies face the juggernaut Knights in the 1A semifinal at Lions Field in Moses Lake at 1 p.m. today with a state title game berth on the line, there are plenty who think the Grizzlies won’t be alone on the field.

“(Dylan) knows what’s going on,” Whittle said. “He’s watching us.”

His mother agreed. “The football team, the fans in the stands – they all believe Dylan is there with them.”

Teammates of Dylan have greeted Wayland after each win. “They say, ‘Momma Warner, “D” was out there tonight.’ After each game, when my son (Cody) comes up to give me a hug, he says, ‘Mom, I felt Dylan.’ ”

“He’d be proud of the team,” Cody added. “Maybe (his memory) is helping guys push through to have the best season.”

Cody, a junior wide receiver and cornerback, has always kept his brother in his heart, but he now wears Dylan’s No. 1 jersey on the field, too.

“We were not going to have anyone wear it this year unless Cody wanted to wear it,” Pomante said. When Cody told Pomante that he wanted to wear Dylan’s number, the coach said: “Absolutely.”

“It makes it feel like he’s there with us,” Cody said.

The accident that affected several families, the entire school and so many lives throughout the community has become ingrained in Newport High. But those involved are determined to not let it define them.

“It was a unifying thing from the standpoint that (Dylan) was a liked kid, a funny kid,” Whittle said. “It just seems some of the ones easiest to like are the ones taken too soon.”

“Dylan was the type of kid that had a heart,” Wayland said. “He was goofy, always joking and making people laugh.”

Pomante wants to make sure his players remembered Dylan for the person and player that he was.

According to Pomante, Dylan was projected as a starting receiver this year. He didn’t have many catches last season, but was a hard-working blocker as a receiver.

Pomante said Dylan was committed to the program with regard to working out and studying the playbook, and he was tremendous as a teammate and friend to other players on the team.

“We honored (Dylan) on Senior Night like we did with all our seniors,” Pomante said, “and we talked to our kids about how we hoped that Dylan was in their hearts.”

Whittle said Senior Night was really special. “It was a beautiful ceremony,” he said. “They had stickers with his number on the back of their helmets.”

Pomante said many players on the team have been inspired because “Dylan is part of them.”

“And he will be part of them for their lifetime.”

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