Fargo parents cherish memories of son who loved the game
FARGO - Nick Bailey would have been a senior at Fargo Shanley High School this year.
He would have been an offensive lineman for the Shanley football team - which today in the Fargodome will be chasing its third-consecutive North Dakota Class 2A football championship.
He would have been cherishing every moment of his final season wearing No. 59.
However, those moments exist only in the dreams of Nick's parents, Paul and Kara Bailey. Nick died of an enlarged heart in 2009, just hours after competing in a junior varsity football game. He was a 16-year-old sophomore with the world at his fingertips.
"You really can't put it into words when a parent loses a child," Paul said. "There are no words for it."
Paul and Kara think a lot about what Nick could have been. The emotions run especially high during football season.
Nick, a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan like his father, always loved the game. He loved to hit. He loved to tackle. He loved it all.
Paul said Nick played a great game that September day in 2009 when he died. Nick was happy, proud of his performance during a home game against Grand Forks Central.
Nick showed up later that day at his younger brother's youth football game. He was laughing and joking.
That night, before going to bed, Nick stopped by his parents' bedroom to say good night. He was a procrastinator who would often be awake late into the night, Kara said.
He gave Kara a final "Good night, I love you, Mom," before moving off to his room for the night. Kara always thinks about those sweet words. Over and over.
Nick's older sister found him unresponsive in his bed around 2 a.m. His heart stopped sometime during the night.
"Part of us died that day," Kara said.
Nick's death sent shockwaves through the Shanley community. The family was stunned, Nick's friends were in disbelief, and the entire Shanley football team was reeling from the news.
The whole team and coaching staff showed up to Nick's funeral wearing their red game jerseys. That same Friday night, the Deacons lost a heartbreaking game to No. 1-ranked Wahpeton 14-7 at Sid Cichy Stadium.
But Shanley's heart was broken long before the game started.
The loss of a family member, friend, teammate and classmate was almost too much to overcome. The community rallied around the Bailey family.
The Deacons pressed on for Nick, No. 59.
After each game that season, Shanley collectively screamed Nick's jersey number at the top of their lungs. Win or lose, they honored Nick.
The Deacons have continued the tradition each season since.
Nick became the 12th man on the field for the Deacons, who have won the last two Class 2A state championships. Several Shanley players dubbed a lone bright star that hovers above Sid Cichy Stadium during games "Nick's Star."
"He was an all-round fun guy," Shanley senior Tyler Kilen said. "We used to screw around and have fun during drills, make the best of it when sometimes it wasn't fun. We would always talk about hunting or what we were going to do after football season. He was a great guy."
He isn't on the field, but Nick remains a big part of the Shanley football team's success.
Kara and Paul feel Nick's presence at every game. The Deacons, especially his closest friends on the team, know he is there with them.
"He gives us little signs every day," said Shanley junior lineman Josh Berg, one of Nick's closest friends.
The No. 59 was set to be retired by Shanley. However, Kyle Bailey, a Shanley freshman offensive and defensive lineman, decided to wear the number to honor his older brother.
Sometimes, when he puts his hands on his hips on the sideline, Kyle looks just like Nick. That moment always stirs up emotions and tears for Paul and Kara.
They have learned to embrace those moments when they can reflect on Nick's life. They love to talk about him.
They want people to ask questions. They don't want people to forget about Nick's smile, his love of the outdoors, his ability to fix just about any broken piece of machinery or his love of football.
"It's the hardest when people won't say his name, or people won't talk to you," Kara said. "The biggest fear is that people will forget about him."
Today's game at the Fargodome will be bittersweet for the Bailey family. This would have been Nick's final varsity game. He likely would have been a starter on the offensive line.
It will be the last time all of Nick's friends and senior classmates will be on the field together. Time will tick off the clock slowly for Kara and Paul. Both admit that part of them doesn't want this season to end.
It could be the last time the team collectively yells, "59!"
"Those seniors, those are our boys," Kara said. "We know this is it. We are not going to get this next year. In every one of those boys, part of them is Nick. Nick is with them in different ways. I have told their moms that I don't want to let them go."
Nick's memory will live on. He'll always be in Kara and Paul's dreams, hands on hips, waiting to get back into the game.
He'll be forever young, forever No. 59.