Garrett's Legacy Act fulfils Napanee father's promise to his late son (2024)

Dave Mills celebrates the life of his teenaged son Garrett, who died after an unanchored soccer net fell on him in 2017, as law establishing requirements for safe usage of movable soccer goals that are used by members of the public receives royal assent

Author of the article:

Jan Murphy

Published Jun 18, 202421 minute read

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Garrett's Legacy Act fulfils Napanee father's promise to his late son (2)

Four days before he was tragically killed in an accident involving an unanchored soccer net at a park in Napanee on May 12, 2017, Garrett Mills asked his father what the meaning of the word legacy was.

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Garrett's Legacy Act fulfils Napanee father's promise to his late son (3)

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Garrett's Legacy Act fulfils Napanee father's promise to his late son (4)

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The 15-year-old, ever the inquisitor, posed the question to his father, Dave, while the best buds sat in the family’s hot tub.

“I explained it to him as best I could and he just kind of said, ‘When I go, I want to leave a legacy.’ And four days later, he was gone,” Dave said as he sat on a bench at the monument dedicated to his son at the very park where he died, just a few hundred feet from where the accident happened.

Neither could know in that moment how much meaning that conversation would take on in the tragic, turbulent, heart-wrenching days, months and years ahead.

This month, more than seven years after Garrett’s death and after two previous political pushes to bring it to fruition, Garrett’s Legacy Act, which establishes requirements for safe usage of movable soccer goals that are used by members of the public, received royal assent, making it law.

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Dave Mills smiled when asked what his son was like as a child, still as happy to brag about the boy as he was the day he was born.

“He was such an amazing kid,” Dave said as the sun peeked through the clouds for the first time in days. “He made us laugh every single day.”

Dave Mills said he and his wife, Gwen, were extremely close with their youngest of four children.

“To say he was such a good kid is an understatement,” he said. “From the day he came into this world, we never had any grief from him. We never had an argument from him, we never had to discipline him. He lived to make people happy, particularly his mom and dad. Everybody loved Garrett because Garrett was so easy to love.”

So tight were mom and dad with their baby boy, Dave said, that they affectionately referred to themselves as the Three Amigos.

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“He wasn’t embarrassed about his love for his parents,” Dave said. “And he chose quite often to hang out with us. If he was invited to go to a sleepover, the first thing he would ask is, ‘What are you guys doing?’ If we were doing something fun, he wanted to hang out with us. My other kids had already moved out, so the three of us did everything together.”

When life would present itself as a violent storm, Dave said, Garrett was the sun and calm that followed.

“He was so easy to be around,” he said, recalling how his work life in radio when he worked in Kingston was particularly difficult for him personally. “There was something about getting home and as soon as I was talking to Garrett about whatever, all the troubles of the world just kind of didn’t matter. I never said this to Garrett, I don’t know if I’ve said it to anybody, but Garrett was my best friend, aside from being my son. You really couldn’t ask for a better kid. He was fantastic.”

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The night before Garrett’s death, father and son shared what turned out to be their final evening together, going out for dinner at a Napanee burger joint. It was there, Dave said, that his inquisitive son posed another question that, at the time, seemed innocuous.

“He was always asking random questions out of the blue,” Dave said. Garrett asked his father what he thought Heaven was like. “I said, ‘I’m not exactly sure,’ but … I’m pretty sure I said something like, ‘I can guarantee it’s better than what we’ve got going on here,’” Dave recalled telling Garrett. “In hindsight, I didn’t stop to think about this until maybe days or even weeks later, but I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, less than 24 hours later … I believe he got that question answered firsthand.’”

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The following day, a Friday, Garrett, his girlfriend and his best friend finished school for the day and headed out walking, stopping by Springside Park in Napanee before ultimately making their way to the King Street Park, which features play structures and a soccer pitch. Along the route, Garrett made sure to check in with his folks.

“He texted us, Gwen and me, through Gwen’s text,” Dave recalled of the last communication they had with their son. “His last text to us, we still have it, was, ‘I love you guys so much.’ And that was probably about two hours before the accident happened.”

Around dinner hour, at the park, Garrett and company were hanging around the soccer field when the teen jumped up to grab the bar of the soccer net on the east end of the field to perform a chin-up. The 200-pound net, which was decrepit and unanchored — unbeknownst to the youngster — tipped and fell on Garrett, the bar striking his head, killing him instantly as his horrified friends looked on.

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At home, Dave and Gwen were getting dressed for a fundraiser they were to attend in Belleville when Dave’s cellphone rang, a call that forever changed their lives.

“I often say as a parent, there’s nothing more memorable than the birth of your child other than their death,” Dave said, recalling that horrible call that effectively ended their lives as they knew it to that point. “I remember that day very clearly,” Dave said, noting how he was being playful with his wife at the time the call came in. “I was being really goofy, as I used to be. I had put on my blazer and my shirt and everything, shoes and socks, and I was just standing there in my (underwear) and made an announcement to my wife that I’m ready to go when my phone rang. It was the OPP.”

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The officer on the line asked if he was speaking to Buzz Collins, which is Mills’ radio personality name. Mills said his first thoughts were that he was either being pranked by some friends or that perhaps the OPP were looking to hire him for an event, as besides being a radio personality, he’s also an entertainer.

“I thought maybe they wanted to book a gig in that split moment when he asked if this was Buzz Collins. I said, ‘Yeah.’”

The next question immediately changed the tone.

“He said, ‘Do you have a son name Garrett?’” Dave recalled.

When he answered that he did have a son named Garrett, he wasn’t prepared for the words that followed.

“He said, ‘He was in a serious accident this afternoon on a soccer field. He’s at the hospital right now and you need to get here as soon as you can,’” Dave recounted. “My response was, ‘Is this for real?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘Yes, it is.’”

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With Garrett in grave condition, officers used the teen’s cellphone to track down his parents and offered to take them to the hospital, Dave Mills said. He told the officer he would get himself to the hospital.

In that moment, Dave said, there were no thoughts going through his head that involved his son’s life being in danger.

“I’m thinking in my head, how serious can an accident on a soccer field? Like ball to the face, twisted ankle?” he recalled.

The officer’s next words, however, changed that thinking.

“He said, ‘You need to get here fast. He’s in grave condition.’ When I heard the words grave condition, my stomach dropped. I hung up, I hollered down the hallway and I said, ‘Gwen, we’ve got to go. Garrett’s been hurt and we’ve got to go and we’ve got to go fast.’”

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As they sped toward the hospital, Dave Mills said, his only thoughts were to pray for his son.

“The whole way there I was just saying to myself, ‘Please God, please God, please God, please God, please God, please God, please God,’ over and over and over,” Dave said. “Honestly, when I look back and think about that, I don’t think I thought there was any chance he would have died. I thought maybe he’ll be in a coma, maybe he’s paralyzed. I thought, ‘hopefully it’s not that bad.’”

When they arrived at the hospital, OPP officers met them at the doors and delivered the worst news possible.

“He said, ‘I regret to tell you that Garrett did not survive his injuries,’” Dave recalled, his voice trailing as he relived his darkest hour. “That part was a blur. I had to ask (the officer) what it was that I said at the time and he said, ‘You tried to stop me from finishing my sentence.’ As soon as he started talking, I was like, ‘No, no, no, no…’ and I hit the floor.”

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In retrospect, Dave said, he wishes he’d have had the strength in that moment to reach for his wife, but he was so grief-stricken that he collapsed. The mother of Garrett’s girlfriend was also at the hospital, he recalled, and did wrap her arms around Gwen in her moment of need.

Garrett, their third amigo, their sunshine, their baby boy, was gone.

The Mills were moved to a room inside the hospital to process the devastation that had just been dropped on them. Not long after they were put in the room, Dave had the difficult task of delivering the news to Garrett’s siblings, one by one. Rather than tell them over the phone, he asked each to come to the hospital, telling them that Garrett had been hurt. As each arrived, separately, he delivered the tragic news, he said.

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“The other hard part that night, was, one at a time, I had to meet them in the hallway and tell them what happened. And then I can’t remember how long we sat in (that room).”

As they sat, Garrett’s best friend, Josh, who’d been with Garrett when the accident happened, came over to console the grieving parents.

“Josh came over to me and he said, ‘I just wanted you to know that I told Garrett how much his mom and dad loved him,’” Dave said, fighting back tears.

Time stood still that night. Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes hours and hours days.

“Eventually, they brought us in to see Garrett,” Dave said. “They had his head all wrapped up so we didn’t have to see the damage. We sat there with him for I don’t know how long.”

As the grief and shock gave way to sadness and despair, Dave had to get some answers for himself, he said. He stepped out of the room and decided to go down to the park to see what had happened to his son.

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“I wanted to come down and see what the f— happened,” he said “I came down to the park here and the entire field was all taped off and they’ve got drones photographing every inch of the park. These aren’t the original nets, obviously, these are smaller, safer ones, these are lightweight, smaller nets,” Dave explained as he pointed toward the area where his son died. “As a matter of fact, these came in and they were scheduled for the replacement the Monday following that weekend. The old ones had been on this field since 1999.”

Police let Dave through the taped-off area and walked him to the site.

“He jumped up just to do a chin-up,” Dave said, pain still evident in his memories. “I remember, several hours later, there was still this pool of blood on top of the grass,” he said, his eyes welling up. “The net wasn’t anchored; it was the only net in the entire town that wasn’t anchored. And this one was rotting out at the bottom. It was top heavy, you could have pushed it over with your finger. But Garrett didn’t know that.”

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Left with more questions than answers, Dave made his way back to the hospital to say a final goodbye to his son.

“We sat there for a while longer, quite a while, and said our goodbyes. I gave him a kiss on the cheek,” he said.

Dave Mills’ last contact with his son came the night before his accident.

“I always went to bed earlier because of my job, and he was in his room playing video games and Gwen was sitting beside him, she liked watching him play video games,” he said. “As soon as I walked into the room, he puts the game on pause, puts the controller down and walks over to me, wraps his lanky arms around me and gives me this big hug like he often did, and I think the last words we ever said to each other were ‘I love you.’ It’s funny, no b——-, when I walked into my room, and I’m not making this up, I honestly thought to myself, ‘God that kid hugs me every single time like it’s going to be the last time.’ He’ll do this big hug and then right before he’s done squeeze you even harder. I’m so glad that that was the last interaction I had with him.”

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That was also the last time, Dave Mills said, that he saw the man he was before his son was taken from him.

“There was pre-May 12th, 2017, Dave and now there is post-May 12, 2017, Dave,” he said. “For better or for worse, maybe a little bit of both, I’m not the same guy I was before.”

Garrett’s death was both devastating and life-altering, Dave Mills said.

“For me there was a dose of instant wisdom,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself, this was before they even took us into see Garrett, that everything that I ever thought was a problem wasn’t. Bills I was behind on, conflicts with management or whatever at work, all of these different things, I thought, at least have the potential for resolve. This, on the other hand, there’s nothing I can do about it. And it gave me this perspective of what really matters and what doesn’t really matter.”

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Even his wife noticed how their son’s death changed her husband.

“I was Mr. Neurotic,” Dave said. “Ever since I was small, my mom used to say to me, ‘You wear the weight of the world on your shoulders.’ And I did. I would worry about everything, get stressed about everything, get wound up about everything, I could be moody at times. Instantly, that all changed, and to this day, it’s very rare for something to rattle me anymore, which for lack of a better way of putting it, is kind of a silver lining to this whole thing. I would trade everything to have him back and be my old self, neurotic and f—– up, but I do like who I am, I like this Dave better than the old Dave.”

In the days and weeks following Garrett’s death, the family worked to come to terms with what was a senseless loss of their son. From grief spawned anger.

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“I went to a really dark place,” Dave said. “There was a while when I wanted f—— revenge. I thought somebody’s got to be responsible for this. This didn’t have to happen. So, in a short amount of time, I got the names of who administers the park and things like that. I’m not going to mention names, but I was angry for a long, long time.”

Ultimately, the family settled with the town and local soccer club. Today, the only evidence of a once tragic scene is the memorial park dedicated to Garrett at the site where his life was taken.

While Dave Mills said the family is now at peace with how things were settled, when asked if the town did right by his son, he took a long pause to carefully choose his words before answering.

“I’m going to try to say this without getting too choked up,” he said. “If they truly had done right by Garrett, he would be here today. But it was acceptable. Let’s put it that way. The best of a bad situation.”

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Almost immediately after Garrett’s death, Dave Mills began to feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to ensure that what happened to his son wouldn’t happen to another family, particularly one in Napanee.

“I don’t know why, but I was thinking, ‘I’m obligated now, it’s on me, if nobody else, to get awareness out about the risk of unanchored soccer nets,’ because I thought, ‘My God, if this happens again, particularly in this area, and I haven’t spoken out about this risk, how am I going to live with that?’” Dave Mills said. “It really bothered me.”

While talking with his radio co-host about the situation, his co-host suggested Dave reach out to former Quinte Broadcasting employee-turned-politician Todd Smith, then the MPP for Prince Edward-Hastings. Following a meeting between the Millses, Smith, the coroner and the detective leading the investigation into Garrett’s death, Smith set out to create Garrett’s Legacy Act.

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“This was within a couple of weeks after the accident,” Dave said.

At the same time, Dave Mills was leading a social media campaign that saw him raising awareness about the dangers of unanchored soccer nets, a campaign that caught on around the world rather quickly. To raise awareness, Mills was placing checkered duct tape around the left posts of soccer nets.

“Lo and behold, that caught on worldwide,” he said. “I was getting photos from Denmark and Africa and Texas of people putting up their checkered duct tape. That same week, somebody reached out to me from a school in Johannesburg, South Africa, a 14-year-old boy, same thing, doing a chin-up on a soccer net, it fell over. He hung on for a week before he passed away in the hospital,” he said, his voice trailing off.

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Meanwhile, Smith and Mills and company pushed Garrett’s Legacy Act through the political process, without resistance, which, Dave said, isn’t typical for a private member’s bill. Yet, it would ultimately take seven years for the act to receive royal approval.

“There were some glitches along the way,” Dave Mills said. Smith’s bill flew through second reading with unanimous support but was stalled before third reading due to a provincial election being called, which killed all bills on the table at the table. Following the election, Smith was appointed to cabinet, which meant the Mills’ needed a different MPP to get behind their cause. Stan Cho, the MPP for Willowdale in Toronto, stepped up and sponsored the act. Again it reached second reading with unanimous support before provincial parliament was prorogued, again killing all bills on the table.

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“At that point, honestly, I just felt maybe I’m dangling a carrot in front of myself,” Dave Mills said. “(I was asking myself) is it even worth all this effort, and I let it sit. I don’t remember the timeline, but it could have been up to a year maybe.”

In the back of his mind, he kept questioning how he could live with himself if someone else had to go through what his family did.

“I’m not trying to paint myself as some kind of do-gooder or anything like that; you could even look at this as me and self-preservation,” Dave Mills said. “I don’t want to have to be that guy who didn’t speak up when he should have.”

It was after speaking with Ric Bresee, MPP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington, that Dave Mills said he knew he had to act on Garrett’s behalf again.

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“I reached out to him at some point after that and I gave him the backstory of whole bill and I asked, ‘Would you be willing to pick it up and see if we can get this across the finish line this time?’ And he did. And I can’t thank him enough. It was his staff that essentially rewrote the bill so it could be more feasible and palatable to all the interests concerned.”

Earlier this month, the bill received royal assent, concluding a seven-year roller-coaster of pain and emotion that Dave Mills said he’s glad is over.

“Relieved,” he said when asked how he feels. “Now we can just kind of move forward and remember Garrett for Garrett and celebrate those memories rather than flogging the soccer net thing. Somebody asked me recently if it brings closure. Nothing’s ever going to bring closure to the loss of your child, but certainly a sense of a worthwhile accomplishment. There has to be something that can come out of this tragedy that is worthwhile and good or it will truly, truly be for nothing.”

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The past seven years have taken a toll on the Mills family, Dave said.

“I went to therapy for about a year and a half after the accident,” he said. “I remember it was really weird going back to work. I went back to work way too soon. It was jarring. I’m going from mourning the loss of my kid back to a morning show cracking fart jokes and, literally, I wouldn’t even be out of the parking lot after the show and be in tears again. This is during the first few weeks of going back to work. I remember one time specifically just losing it so bad I had to pull over in the truck. I felt I was going to pass out because I was just losing it.”

Dave Mills said he had rediscovered his faith about a year prior to losing his son, which helped him wade through the sea of darkness and emotions that followed Garrett’s death.

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“I think anybody in the same situation would be asking why,” he said. “If you have any kind of a belief in a higher power, or God, those questions are going to be, ‘Why God?’ I remember screaming at God.”

In the process, Dave Mills said, he came to terms with the reality that he’ll never have the answer to his most burning question.

“I had realized within a few weeks I’m not going to get any answers asking why — why did this happen?” Dave said. “You’re not going to get an answer. I mean there is the physical: the net wasn’t anchored, that’s why it happened. So I consciously decided I’m going to stop asking why and I’m going to start asking what, as in what can I do with this now. I think in a strange way, looking back, pursuing this bill, dragged out as it was, was not only kind of therapeutic for me because it gave me something to focus on, something that was positive, a positive outcome to focus on. And every time that it was before provincial parliament, press reached out to me and it gave me an opportunity to get the awareness of this risk out there. That’s probably just as if not more important than the legislation because people can still break laws or be negligent, but if we were aware, if we knew of that risk, and I just once had mentioned to Garrett, ‘Hey, don’t play on the soccer nets, there’s a risk of them falling over,’ he’d be here today if I knew that. I had no clue. So it gave me that opportunity every time, every interview, to get that awareness out there.”

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Today, Garrett Mills’ answer to his questioning of the meaning of legacy has been answered. Seven years after his life ended, his legacy lives on, at a beautiful park in Napanee named in his honour and in a law that aims to prevent any other family from having to experience the nightmare that his family endured.

“The irony is we will never know if this indeed has saved another life down the road, but I can sleep at night knowing that if it does happen again, God forbid, at least I did everything I could to get the awareness out there,” Dave Mills said.

And now, Garrett’s father said, the focus can shift back to Garrett himself.

Dave Mills said he carries himself differently after a longtime friend of his who’d also experienced the loss of a child suggested to Dave that perhaps he is Garrett’s legacy.

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“I thought, ‘Wow,’” Dave said. “The more I thought about it, I kind of thought, ‘Well that’s up to me, I guess, right, and what am I going to do with it?’ So I made that conscious decision that I’ve got to take this amazing example that Garrett left on how to live life, how to be non-judgmental, non-opinionated, loving to everyone, making people smile and make that my MO.”

While attending therapy sessions, Dave said, he noted a sign in the window of the waiting room that possessed a quote that still resonates with him today.

“It said, ‘Be the reason for someone’s smile today,’” Dave said.

From that moment on, in honour of Garrett, Dave Mills has been making that his mission.

“I didn’t know why; I do now in retrospect,” he said. “I know why that helped me, because if you’re working to make somebody else happy, if you’re working to make somebody else smile, you’re taking the focus off yourself. I try to make that effort every day if I can at least once be the reason for somebody else’s smile. If I could give anybody any kind of advice for trying to crawl out of a dark hole, that would be probably No. 1 on the list.”

Like father, like son.

“(Garrett’s) girlfriend told us earlier that afternoon (on the day he died), Garrett just out of the blue said, ‘I’m having the best day of my life.’”

A night earlier, at dinner with his son, the song Take on Me by A-ha came on, which prompted Garrett to start bouncing joyfully in his seat.

“He said, ‘I like this song,’” Dave recalled, which prompted him to tell his son that the song was a favourite of his grandmother’s back in the ’80s.

“(Garrett) said, ‘It makes you feel happy,’” Dave Mills said. At Garrett’s funeral service, his girlfriend shared a story that on the day he died, Garrett serenaded her with his version of Take on Me.

“I never really paid attention to the words, but it’s kind of eerie because there’s a line that says, ‘I’ll be gone in a day or two,’” Dave Mill said.

Garrett, Dave Mills said, gave so many people a reason to smile, right to the very end.

“He accepted everybody at face value,” he said, while beaming about his son, noting that following his death, a stranger posted on Garrett’s Facebook page, noting how when Garrett spotted her crying in the halls at school, he made a point of stopping to console her. ‘You saw me sitting there in the hallway crying, you didn’t know who I was but you stopped to talk to me until I felt better,’ she wrote on Garrett’s page. “I just felt so proud that was who my son was.”

Another story the Mills heard was of how their son was gathered playing video games at a friend’s house when a text came to his phone from his mother, prompting Garrett to stop what he was doing so he could reply.

“Gwen texted Garrett and he paused the game, put down the controller to reply back and somebody was kind of teasing him, ‘Oh, gotta drop everything for mom,’ and instead of making excuses, he just said, ‘What? I love my mom.’”

A lasting legacy, indeed.

janmurphy@postmedia.com

x.com/Jan_Murphy

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