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

April 26, 1992|By Jennifer Frey | Jennifer Frey,Knight-Ridder News Service

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.

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