Miami Hurricanes safety JoJo Nicolas carries his baby's blanket with him to every football game.
If only little Joseph Nicolas Jr. were here to be swaddled in it.
"I miss my son dearly,'' said Nicolas, a fifth-year senior whose only child was born four months early on July 17 - weighing 1 pound 4 ounces - and died Aug. 19 after a valiant fight. "I always feel like a piece of him is with me.
"It was really unexplainable how hard it was'' to deal with the loss, said Nicolas, a Homestead High alum who spent every night in the hospital with his baby and returned for practice every morning. "My family and teammates and coaches, they made it bearable for me to come back out here and dedicate this whole season to my son and this team.''
Nicolas, one of the quietest Hurricanes off the field, has emerged as one of the most intense leaders on it. As Miami (1-1) prepares to meet Kansas State (2-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Sun Life Stadium, Nicolas continues to serve as one of the most inspirational Canes.
Last Saturday, Nicolas got his first interception since his freshman season opener against Marshall in 2007. And this one was a beauty. After linebacker Sean Spence tipped an Ohio State play-action pass, Nicolas stretched his 6-1, 200-pound body as far as it could go and lunged for the carom before twisting and landing on his back at the Hurricanes' 14.
"It was a great catch,'' Spence said. "It's like it happened in slow motion.''
Nicolas was converted to a cornerback in the spring and then back to safety after Ray-Ray Armstrong was suspended by the NCAA. He ranks fourth on the team with 10 tackles and has done "an excellent job ... seeing the quarterback better and breaking on balls,'' UM coach Al Golden said. "But Jo's most considerable jump has been in his leadership.''
Golden, the father of three young children, said Nicolas "only missed one or two practices the whole training camp out of 29, and then he would go to the hospital all night. A lot of his teammates didn't even know what was going on. He was easily doing 20 hours a day for two, three weeks. That's an amazing human being. [He] provided leadership for all of us and inspiration for all of us.''
After the loss at Maryland, when the Canes allowed 499 yards of total offense, it was Nicolas who stood up at practice and rallied the secondary. "He said, 'We need to get things right. We can't get knocked down off one game,' '' fellow safety Vaughn Telemaque recalled.
"I feel like guys look up to me,'' Nicolas said. "And when there's something I see that I don't like and things are not going right, I'm going to let the team know, and we're going to get it fixed. I have parents who instilled in me to be a leader, and I bring it here because I'm around my family. These guys are my brothers, [and] coaches are like fathers. You've got to be a leader in your own house.''
Nicolas is proud of the way he has handling his grief. He said coaches and teammates have kept him strong.
"Being here for them and wanting to play for them just helps me to keep going," he said. "Knowing my son is always with me in spirit, I play for him every day. I feel like I would never be able to quit knowing he's with me.''
Show of support
Nicolas said his son's mother, Shakir Williams, has given him the most comfort, along with his family and her parents. Canes fans on Twitter also followed Nicolas' saga in July and August, offering him plenty of spiritual support.
"My lil man is a true fighter,'' Nicolas tweeted on July 21. "God is great.''
On Aug. 8, he tweeted, "Going to bed asking God for praying hands on my lil man. #LJ Grinding for him!!!''
By Aug. 18, the night before Joseph Jr. died, Nicolas told his followers, "[Good] Night world asking everyone to pray for my lil man #LJ.''
Linebacker Jordan Futch, whose brother was shot and killed in early 2010, said he and his teammates have shown "as much love as we can'' to Nicolas. "We let him know we we're always there.''
Said Spence: "JoJo is one of the strongest guys I've ever seen.''