David John DeGroot was born on April 9, 1970, 30 minutes after his identical twin brother Stephen, in Trenton, Ont., but grew up in Thompson, Man. He was the youngest of four boys for Adrian DeGroot, a machinist who had immigrated from Holland, and his wife, Sandra. Close in age (brothers Adrian Jr. and Michael were born in 1968 and 1969), the boys were a handful, tag-team wrestling and pretending to be a rock band. Though their dad wouldn’t let them play ice hockey (“he said it was ‘too violent,’ ” says Michael), he encouraged them to get involved in lacrosse, which he coached.
The twins, pudgy little boys with magnetic personalities, played off one another like a comedy act, prompting what Michael describes as “knot-in-your-stomach belly laughs to the point that you can’t breathe.” Yet they were sensitive, too. “Dad always joked about Dave and I having hearts that were too big,” says Stephen. This was especially true of Dave, who, at age nine, was once in tears “because he didn’t know how he was going to support his wife and kids,” says Michael. Dave’s main physical difference was internal: when he was young, doctors detected a heart murmur. But due to his athleticism (after shedding his childhood chubbiness, he shone on the lacrosse field and the volleyball court), no one paid it much mind.
Dave was 16 when he met Kyla Koons, a feisty ninth-grader with remarkable confidence. He calmed down considerably, content to go bowling and watch movies with “all my girlfriends,” she says. They forged a close bond, staying together when he went to Winnipeg to study phys. ed. at the University of Manitoba. (She transferred there in her second year to be closer to him.) While camping in 1994, a nervous Dave got down on one knee and, after nearly dropping the ring in the bonfire, proposed. They were married the next year.
Dave’s first teaching assignment was in Gillam, Man. He poured his abundant energy into the school’s athletic program, and on weekends, after rollerblading and playing tennis, “He’d be like, ‘Wanna play frisbee? Wanna play catch?’ ” says Kyla. “It was like, ‘Okay, we have to have children so they can entertain you.’ ” When Kyla learned she was pregnant in 1999, Dave was out of town, coaching at a basketball tournament. Though they’d planned to wait three months before sharing the news, he was so excited that “he didn’t wait three hours,” says Kyla, telling his team almost immediately.
In 2001, Dave accepted a position as vice-principal and phys. ed. teacher at another elementary school, and his family, which by then included daughter Marley and son Paxton, moved to Roblin, Man. (Sons Jasper and Garnet followed in 2007 and 2009.) He became well-known in town, coaching at the high school and teaching CPR to staff in his division. Never content to sit on the sidelines, Dave, who sometimes exercised twice in a day, “would be out on the floor participating,” says principal Randy Langstaff. He encouraged students to be engaged: on bus rides to sporting events, he challenged them to stopwatch races; on the way home, he often bought a round of Slurpees.
“Being with Dave,” says Kyla, “was like being in a summer camp all the time.” On camping trips, says Kyla, Dave would organize baseball games for the kids; at a family reunion, those doing dishes with him wound up with tea towels on their heads, banging on pots and pans. “He did not like the idea that anyone was unsalvageable,” which, says Randy, “caused some grief among staff members” when he was transferred to the local high school (he later became principal). But Dave, whose middle name, Randy says, should have been “Second Chance,” stood by his convictions. He came up with alternative programs for struggling students, and found space so they could start a band. But the job was stressful, and with two young children at home, he decided to take the next school year off. “The kids were pumped and he was pumped,” says Kyla.
On Thursday, May 6, he was scheduled to play in a student-teacher floor hockey game. In the morning, he mentioned he was feeling dizzy and might not be up to it, but when his turn came, Dave took to the court. Within seconds, he collapsed. While a staff member administered CPR, Kyla rushed to the gym. “I was ready for the second chance he’d given to everyone else,” she says. But nothing could be done to save his heart, which, as a result of an undetected condition, had failed. He was 40.