Upon approaching UCLA’s Spaulding Field on Wednesday, the glaring image that stood out was the Bruin flag at half-staff. At that moment I was unsure of myself. I almost turned around and left, but the curiosity of this mighty Bruin was stronger than my hesitation to cross the line from athlete to reporter.
I was attending my first UCLA football practice since 1999. As much as I was excited to be back to see my alma mater with all the great things coach Jim Mora is doing, the circumstances that brought me here were solemn.
As practice broke and the team walked off the field, I had the opportunity to speak with Colby Cyburt, Carl Hulick and Taylor Lagace — roommates of redshirt freshman Nick Pasquale, who passed away Sept. 8 after being struck by a car.
The conversation began with a somber tone, but quickly turned to smiles and laughter as the guys gave me a glimpse into the life of what made Nick so special.
How could there be so much energy and positivity days after losing a teammate?
“Nick wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Cyburt, a redshirt freshman offensive tackle.
“Any time you are on the football field in a UCLA helmet is a day living the dream in Nick’s world. Every chance we get we are going to come on the field and pay him homage by leaving it all out there.”
Our conversation drifted to Saturday, in Lincoln, Neb. UCLA was down 21-3 in the second quarter to Nebraska. This game was for Nick. What was going through the players’ minds?
“There was no doubt in my mind — not even for one second — that we were not going to win that football game,” said a fired-up Lagace, a redshirt freshman linebacker. “I started running up and down the sidelines trying to pump guys up.
“I could feel Nick was there with us, and the guys responded.”
The Bruins ran off 38 consecutive points in a 41-21 victory.
How does a team, a school move on and continue to heal?
“We still can’t believe he is gone,” said Hulick, a redshirt freshman center. “It isn’t our goal to forget about Nick. We have Nick inside us, and he is going to be everywhere with us.
“I went and got this tattoo in remembrance of Nick — the roman numerals for his number, XXXVI, and his nickname, ‘PAC,’ inside of it.”
As we sat there and smiled while talking and thinking about Nick, the guys opened up.
They told me about how they never knew he had a rare bone disorder that affected his hips. Around the time he began to play Pop Warner football, he found out about the disease that relegated him to a body cast.
He had never mentioned it to the guys or complained because it was in the past. Hulick had found the old picture of Nick in the lower-body cast, and Nick had to fess up about the ordeal.
He never wanted sympathy; he just wanted a shot to be a mighty Bruin.
I asked coach Mora about Nick, and his eyes widened. How can someone walk on to a Division I program and get noticed the way Nick did?
“You gotta be tough,” the coach said. “Nick was tough. So tough that his nickname was ‘Pacquiao,’ and not because his last name was Pasquale; it’s because he was tough like Manny Pacquiao.
“From Pacquiao, we started calling him ‘Pacman,’ and as nature would have it, Pacman turned into ‘Pac.’ So don’t get confused as to why we called him Pac. It’s not because of his last name. It’s because he was a fighter.”
Mora said Nick brought a tremendous attitude to the Bruins’ locker room.
“Along with being tough, Pac was a selfless teammate. Anytime we need to start up a drill and we needed a scout Nick was the first person in line. He was always early to practice and meetings and he played with a passion and a fire for the game.”
Mora shared a conversation he had with Nick’s father.
“He told me that Nick felt like the coaching staff was just starting to notice him,” the second-year Bruins coach said. “We noticed Nick from Day One.
“Nick loved facing specials teams/linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. They would banter back and forth in a competitive spirit. Nick would taunt coach Ulbrich that none of his guys could block him. And Nick was right because he would oftentimes beat blockers and mess up coach Ulbrich’s special teams schemes.”
As UCLA attempts to return to greatness, you can’t help but think of the impact of a walk-on player who continues to leave his mark after he is gone.
Coach Mora, in his 30th year of coaching, came to an epiphany through the passing of Nick Pasquale:
“Teammates play for each other, and they are there to protect one another,” he said.
“As Anthony Barr (the Bruins’ star linebacker, a projected top-five draft pick) helped hold Nevada to 20 points while (quarterback) Brett Hundley led the offense to 58 points, the entire team equally allowed Nick to step on the field and live his dream.
“In turn, when Barr is on the field sacking quarterbacks, it takes 10 other guys to help make that dream come true. Same for when Brett is running and throwing touchdowns; it takes his 10 other teammates on the field to make that happen.
“We are here to help make each other’s dreams come true, and I have never seen the game like that before until now. It makes the rewards so much higher; there is so much more to play for now.”
By talking with coach Mora and the Bruins, I walked away feeling I knew who Nick Pasquale was.
Pac’s persona in essence is the backbone, the heart, the soul of this Bruin football team. He is what every coach hopes to have in every player from an intangibles perspective.
Even though Nick was small — 5-foot-7, 172 pounds — he had no fear and no concept of his own size. He was not afraid to mix it up with anyone on the field, and he believed he was always going to win.
Nick played one play for UCLA. Mora said it was Nick’s dream to play football for UCLA since he was young.
On Sept. 7 against Nevada, Nick’s dream came true. Nick played one snap against the Wolf Pack, and for that single moment his heart was content. Nick’s parents can always go to the film and see their boy living his dream and knowing in their heart that not only now, but during that play, their son was in heaven.
On Saturday, UCLA will continue to honor the memory of Nick Pasquale. The Bruins will hand out 20,000 Pasquale towels to fans attending the New Mexico State game. T-shirts will be sold, with proceeds going to the Nick Pasquale Foundation. UCLA will present a framed jersey to Nick’s parents and brother during the first quarter.