One year later, losing ‘Bubba’ still stings

Today marks the anniversary of Estancia High football player Brian Kapko’s death in a car crash in Colorado.

By Amanda Pennington
Daily Pilot
August 28, 2006 

Life-changing, passionate, unforgettable, athletic, amazing, faithful, graceful, son, brother and friend: These are just some of the words friends use to describe Brian “Bubba” Kapko who died one year ago today.

I’ll never forget that morning. I received a phone call from a friend shortly after I arrived at work.

"Matt’s [Kapko] brother died."

She repeated herself and explained that Brian Kapko, the 19-year-old Estancia High School graduate, was killed in a car accident in Colorado early that morning.

I had the honor of meeting and knowing Brian “Bubba” Kapko through his oldest brother Matt, who has been a good friend of mine since I was a teenager. Although I was not particularly close with Bubba, it was impossible to ignore him because of his energy, his jokes, and, well, he was a big boy with a big grin.

"With Bubba, he was always the person to make everyone laugh," his friend Heather Morton said. "He would always be there for you, he was so positive with everyone."

Brian Kapko was killed when a Honda driven by Dennis White, then 16, hit his Toyota 4Runner and a Toyota pickup truck during a police pursuit, according to Jefferson County, Colorado, prosecutors. Matthew Wartena, 19, was in the passenger seat and had allegedly fired a gun out of the car, prosecutors said. Kapko and some friends were returning to school at Johnson & Wales University in Denver after attending a volleyball tournament in Boulder. Dennis White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder and was sentenced to 48 years in prison and five years parole, according to prosecutors. Wartena’s trial has been postponed, Matt Kapko said. He was charged with murder in the first degree and 10 other counts, prosecutors said.

After a year of grieving and grasping for some meaning, friends and family continue to reflect on how much Bubba Kapko affected them. For many, it was the first time experiencing the loss of someone close.

"The last year has been really weird," said Mike Cahill, one of Brian’s longtime friends. "I still want to flip open my phone and call him. It’s been tough … it forced everybody to grow up and you realize that life isn’t easy and things are thrown your way that are difficult to deal with."

Brian had charisma, whether it was as the life of the party or acting as one of his friend’s personal confidants. He brightened any room, he gave bear hugs and made friends easily.

"He had no problem with anyone," Morton said. "Hanging out with him was like a treat because he was like the happiest person ever. I hardly ever saw him upset or down on himself."

Brian Kapko and his family had a lot be proud of. He was an Eagle Scout, he excelled on the football field while at Estancia, he participated in many other school activities and was just about to start at Johnson & Wales the week he died.

After both his brothers moved north to attend Humboldt State University, Brian Kapko continued to make his own rules and carved a different path.

"It was cool to see how excited he was to move away to a new place," Matt Kapko said, adding that his youngest brother had "briefly flirted" with the idea of attending Humboldt, but Brian joked that since the school colors were the same as Costa Mesa High School’s, there was no way he could. "He was going places nobody had ever seen, it was just cool to see how he found a place he totally loved."

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year. The past year has been filled with so many emotions — grief, anger, love and everything in between.

"I realized growing up there are a few good people that affect your life and one of my people was him and 19 years wasn’t the outcome I was looking for," Cahill said. "I was looking for the old man — us 80 years old and drinking a beer, talking about old times …. It’s hard to find good people nowadays and to have someone great in all aspects of caring for people — he was just a great overall guy."

Watching the Kapko family endure this loss has been more than difficult. Everyone who knows them will tell you that the Kapkos are good people. They are a close family — now and before Brian’s death — and his absence is noticed at every family gathering, Matt Kapko said.

"The last year has been the worst year of my life," he said. "It comes up again and it feels so raw. It’s like it happened yesterday."

Matt Kapko said he was just beginning to experience a more mature relationship with his brother, taking him to concerts when Brian traveled up to the Bay Area, where Matt lived with his wife.

"We were doing more things on our own, without the parents," Matt Kapko said. "I was getting to see a little bit of a different side of him."

Brian Kapko had faith. He participated in a church youth group and he once told a friend, “I’m not afraid of death because the people that are, they just are not one with God,” a quote that has been placed on “Bubba shirts” that pay tribute to him.

Brian’s mother turns to that faith to deal with the grief.

"It has been a really tough year since Brian’s death, and yet God has been loving and faithful just like he promises," Nancy Kapko said. "We continue to trust in Him and His greater plan that, ‘All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, [Romans 8:28].’

We are blessed and thankful to be surrounded by such a wonderful community of family and friends who love, care and comfort us.”

Overall, it seems that, although it’s an extremely difficult task, everyone who knew Bubba is trying to be more like him now that he can’t be around.

There are ups and downs and if it is possible to find a silver lining, Matt Kapko said, it would be getting to know his brother’s friends better and spending more time with his family.

The Kapkos have set up a memorial foundation in Brian’s name and are trying to find a focus for the funds. They’ve committed to helping out with the Estancia football program and have talked about starting some kind of scholarship.

On this “one-year mark,” I encourage everyone to smile and give someone around you a big bear hug. Bubba would certainly approve. Brian Kapko is survived by his parents, Rick and Nancy Kapko of Costa Mesa, his two brothers Matt and Adam Kapko and his sister-in-law Ellie Thompson. For future updates about the Brian Kapko Foundation, visit