‘Garrett’s Legacy’ lives on in Napanee – and hopefully across Ontario soon

Unveiled in 2019, a beautiful memorial to Garrett Mills stands in Napanee’s King Street Park. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

“If this keeps one kid from getting hurt, it’s been worth it,” Dave Mills says of his repeated interviews on the subject of unanchored soccer nets. His son, 14-year-old Garrett Mills, was killed by one six years ago, on Friday, May 12, 2017.

It’s hard not to wonder what kind of young man Garrett Mills, by all accounts a loyal and loving friend and great kid, would be today at the age of 20, and how he would be making his own mark in the world. Garrett and his dad were hanging out in the hot tub on a fine May day in 2017, relates Mills, “and he asked me out of the blue… ‘Dad, what’s a legacy?’ I explained to him … it’s kind of a footprint one leaves behind, usually a positive reputation that you’re known for or whatever. He thought about that for a second, and then he said, ‘Yeah… when I go, I want to leave a legacy.”

Four days later Garrett died in what should have been an easily preventable accident. He did a pull-up on a soccer net in a park he’d been playing at since he was little; the net wasn’t anchored, and it toppled. The heavy steel killed Garrett as his best friends watched helplessly.

Most people know Dave Mills by his professional persona, Buzz Collins — radio host and stage hypnotist — but talking to him it’s pretty clear that his most important name is Dad. Still, in the shock of having lost his boy, Mills says the day following the accident he had a moment of panic: “I remember wondering, how is he going to leave his legacy now?”

“So that, hand in hand with the thought that God forbid this should ever happen to anybody else… that’s what kick-started the whole thing,” Mills explains.

The “thing” is Garrett’s Legacy Act, a private member’s bill that had its second reading last Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in the Ontario Legislature. The bill to establish requirements for the secure installation of movable soccer nets used by the public will go to a committee next, before being brought back to the Legislature for a third and final reading in the early fall.

“You know, in the grand scheme of things, one can say it’s truly a freak accident,” observes Mills. “There have only been four kids in Canada, including Garrett, that have been killed by a falling soccer net, and 44 kids at last count in the [United States].”

But, he ventures, “it’s the type of accident that doesn’t have to happen… and on top of that, hundreds more young people and adults have been injured or maimed by soccer nets falling over up to this point.”

Behind Garrett’s memorial, children once again play soccer on the field where the young man lost his life six years ago due to an un-anchored mobile soccer net. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

“I had been oblivious that there was any kind of a risk inherent with a soccer net,” Mills acknowledges. So even beyond the bill, he is willing to share Garrett’s story over and over, despite the pain it inevitably causes, if only to raise awareness of the danger for others.

This particular net in the Town of Napanee was the only one of the over 20 similar nets in town that wasn’t anchored. A family friend checked each one personally in the days after Garrettt’s death, says Mills. “Even the other one on the same field was anchored, but that one wasn’t.” 

Mills says he has had a lot of help getting the bill enacted over the last six years. Within days of the accident he reached out to Todd Smith, who was the Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Prince Edward Hastings in 2017. “He and I and the detective who was with the [Ontario Provincial Police] overseeing the case, as well as the Coroner — we sat down in a room, and we talked about how we could keep this from happening again.”

Smith and his staff wrote up the first version of the bill. However, with not one but two elections occurring in the province after 2017, the bill was shelved twice. Mills explains, “Todd Smith had been appointed to the cabinet after the first [of those two elections], so [MPP] Stan Cho of Willowdale picked it up, and we were there when it passed second reading. We were very optimistic at that time, [but] then parliament was prorogued,” and the bill got put back on the shelf.

But Mills didn’t give up. Instead, he contacted local MPP Ric Bresee. “Ric is a fellow bereaved father, and I thought, if anybody gets it and can connect with the drive that I have behind this, it might be him.”

Bresee happily sponsored the bill, says Mills. “So huge kudos to Ric Bresee for getting it to where it is. There’s nothing that we can perceive that could stop it from passing third reading in September. Hopefully within that same amount of time, having royal assent would make it become official.”

It’s been a long process, Mills says. “I always had a gut feeling this would happen; I just needed to be patient. It’s a common-sense bill… I will be much happier when it passes the third reading and it’s pretty much crossing the finish line.”

Not only has the Mills family had the support of MPPs; Mills is also grateful to all those who have supported his family since the tragedy occurred, neighbours and strangers alike. Mills notes that Ray Callery, who was the Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Napanee at the time, was instrumental in securing a beautiful memorial to Garrettt in his favourite park on King Street, near where he lost his life. “Ray went above and beyond what we were looking for. I can’t thank him enough for that.”

Mills observes, “It is challenging. In a lot of interviews, I’m kind of asked to go through the events of that day, which is not an easy thing to do. And so thank you for not asking me to do it… [However], I will talk about this as long as the sun is up… You can have bills in place and make it law that mobile soccer nets must be anchored, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. Getting the awareness out there to other parents is better than the bill.”

“Garrett, ever since he was a little guy, played at that park. Had I known he was in any danger, I would have cautioned him about the soccer net — but I had no clue there was any risk. If I had been able to tell Garrett that, he’d still be here today,” the local father expresses.

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