Crowds of loved ones and strangers alike gathered at Loren Roberts Park in Florida City Monday night to mark what would have been the 25th birthday of JoJo Nicolas.
"I had to come and celebrate the life of someone I considered a little brother to me," said Shannan Thomas, who first met the Hurricanes football star before she enrolled at the University of Miami.
At the vigil, she showed off a tattoo of Nicolas' jersey number 29. Though he never realized his dreams of winning a Super Bowl, his former football coach Al Golden regarded him as a born champion.
"JoJo did what many of us can't do in a lifetime. He took the gifts that God bestowed him, and honored them, and played to his fullest," Golden said.
Nicolas was fatally injured in a violent crash on the MacArthur Causeway last Tuesday, Feb. 25. He died of his injuries the next day.
Years ago, Nicolas first showed his football prowess on the same Florida City field where his vigil was held.
Many in the crowd Monday night shared memories of Nicolas on a different field at UM, where they played together as 'Canes. Several of Nicolas' former teammates told his family they are prepared to step in for their missing man, who leaves behind a newborn son.
"We want to make sure we have his back and do anything we can do for you guys, and for everybody else. We got your back JoJo," Brandon Harris told Nicolas' family.
"The people continually ask us what we need, and we just tell them, 'We're full. We're just so richly blessed.' Everybody has our back, and we appreciate that," said Nicolas' mother, Barbara Grant.
Former 'Cane Graig Cooper trembled as he spoke of his last exchange with Nicolas, which he believes was only moments before Nicolas crashed his Lexus into a tractor trailer on the MacArthur Causeway last week. One day later, Nicolas died from his injuries.
"His lady text me and said, 'Jo was looking at your text message," Cooper explained. "He died happy, and I got the last text messages in my phone. I'll never delete them."
From his death, Nicolas' loved ones hope everyone who hears his story will realize the very real dangers of distracted driving.
"[Graig Cooper] said it best when he said he was texting," said one loved one. "[Nicolas] took his eyes off the road for a second – for a second – and ran into that truck."
The official cause of the crash will be determined by Miami Beach Police.
Nicolas' viewing is scheduled for Friday, March 7 at the Covenant Baptist Church. His funeral is planned for Saturday, March 8 at the Glendale Missionary.
Funds are being raised to help cover the costs of those services, and help care for Nicolas' newborn son. For more information, visit www.jojonicolasmemorialfund.wordpress.com.