W. Virginia center found peace of mind before car crash put him in hospital

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CUMBERLAND -- Peace lasted about 250 days, less than two school terms, for Wilfred Kirkaldy and his mom. It was eight months ago --in mid-July -- when Evelia Kirkaldy knew that all sexual-assault charges against her son had been dropped, ending a nightmare that led her to lose 15 pounds and endless hours of sleep.

There was only so long for them both to get over it -- only so long for Wilfred to enjoy being a subject of affection and praise at West Virginia University, and for Evelia to love every moment of her son's happiness -- before the late-night phone call every mother dreads rang out in the Kirkaldy household, and chaos took over again.

Late last Sunday -- Easter Sunday -- Wilfred Kirkaldy, the passenger, and teammate and close friend Lawrence Pollard, the driver, were involved in a one-car accident on an interstate in western Maryland that has both still lying in the intensive-care unit at Cumberland Memorial Hospital. The accident occurred on the final leg of a seven-hour trip from their family homes in Brooklyn to Morgantown, W.Va., where they attend school and play basketball for the Mountaineers.

As of Thursday night, Wilfred Kirkaldy was listed in stable condition, Pollard as "guarded," and both were spending their fifth consecutive night in intensive care. Hospital officials, family members and those on the West Virginia coaching staff have been exceedingly close-mouthed about the condition of the athletes, despite repeated requests by both local and out-of-town members of the media. Even Bennie Kirkaldy -- Wilfred's mother's aunt -- did not have any details concerning his condition until Evelia called her at midweek.

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For Wilfred Kirkaldy, Morgantown had become a sanctuary after horrible senior year of high school -- a year in which he was charged with rape after a recruiting incident at Syracuse University and expelled from Oak Hill Academy, a private school in western Virginia. Kirkaldy eventually came to live in Philadelphia with Bennie Kirkaldy and played his senior year of high school basketball for Public League champion Simon Gratz, which was ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN.

Several months after the accusation, the charges were downgraded and Kirkaldy was indicted on two sexual-assault charges and one count of disorderly conduct. Two weeks before the final ruling, Onondaga County (N.Y.) Judge J. Kevin Mulroy dismissed all but one count of first-degree sexual assault because of insufficient evidence. Then, on July 15, he dismissed the final charge, stating that Kirkaldy "was the victim here."

Still, Evelia Kirkaldy was fearful that Wilfred would long suffer from the fallout of the accusations he faced. But in Morgantown, that wasn't the case.

"He is very well-loved in Morgantown and was always cheered when he came into the game," said Dominion-Post sports writer Ed Kratz, who regularly covers the team. "He was a popular kid."

Kirkaldy had gone from being almost an exile in his neighborhood in Brooklyn after his dismissal from Oak Hill -- "He was afraid to leave the house," Evelia Kirkaldy said -- to being a popular, happy student who made the athletic director's academic list (3.0 grade-point average or better) in his first semester at school. He averaged 1.7 points and 2.5 rebounds as a first-year center and found a niche within the team. He maintained a particularly close relationship with Pollard, his old friend. As one family friend put it, his time in Morgantown was "a redemption, a total success."

And, in part, that is why it was so sad to see Evelia Kirkaldy standing outside the intensive-care unit at Cumberland Memorial Hospital last week, looking so helpless and so fragile, tears coming to her eyes whenever Wilfred's name was mentioned. In her eyes, something like this happening now "just wasn't fair."

"I just can't talk about it," said Evelia, tearfully, in the hallway down from ICU. "They're stable, they're stable, and we can thank God for that."

From a nurse's description -- no outsiders were allowed near the players -- Wilfred was attached to a maze of machines, his body wrapped in gauze and plaster, bones broken in both his legs and his face. To this day, there has been no report as to the extent of Pollard's injuries.

The stretch of road where the accident occurred is largely unknown by even the locals, opened so recently that the roadside signs still have "NEW" printed in bright black and gold letters in front of the red, white and blue interstate symbol that reads "68."

It is a brilliant stretch of road, usually nearly empty, a four-lane expressway where a two-laner previously ran. It is the ultimate temptation for speed demons, the steep declines almost always followed by long flat stretches carved into a mountain side.

The Maryland State Police said Monday that the accident looked like a product of one fast-moving driver trying to pass on a dangerous stretch. The car -- a rental, taken out in Pollard's name -- careened off the right side of the road and ended up skidding into an embankment, pieces scattering everywhere. A West Virginia student, one of the first on the scene, said there was smoke in the air and almost nothing left of the car's front end, and that Pollard was slumped across the steering wheel, with the windshield and front windows blown out.

No charges have been filed, and the Post-Dominion has reported that a police representative said alcohol does not appear to have been a factor in the crash.

Mountaineers coach Gale Catlett, who visited his players on Tuesday, described Pollard as being monosyllabic and "barely able to open his eyes." Kirkaldy could barely speak, either, Catlett said. According to hospital officials, Catlett was the only individual allowed to visit the two players other than the immediate families.

"I think it's too early to speculate on their basketball futures," Catlett said after his visit. "We are mainly concerned about their personal well-being at this point. All I'm concerned about is that they're alive, they're stable and they're making progress. That is the most important thing."

For those who know him in the Philadelphia area -- Bennie Kirkaldy, his high school coach, his high school friends -- the news of Kirkaldy's accident brought first shock and then frustration that this could happen to one who had been through so much. When contacted, Bennie Kirkaldy responded by saying repeatedly, "We're so upset, we're just so upset."

Bennie gets her updates from Evelia, who, with her sister, makes up something of a small, silent vigil outside the ICU. Evelia has brought needlepoint to the hospital to keep her hands -- and mind -- occupied, as she spends almost all day within a few yards of her son.

"It was an 'Oh, no' kind of response," said Gratz coach Bill Ellerbee, who became close to Kirkaldy during the player's year in Philadelphia. "It's the kind of thing where it's just nice to know that he's still alive. . . . It's unfair, but you have to feel like he's young, and he'll probably fight back from this, the way he did

[from the sexual-assault charges]."

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