SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Rickey Nichols said he and Richard Nelson never called each other cousins, although they were.
They were best friends and brothers. They shared a bunk bed and wore the same shoes, even when the sizes didn’t fit quite right. They had matching gold necklaces and made a pact not to oversleep so much this semester.
“We were going to hit the books hard this year,” Nichols said Tuesday, the start of the spring semester at Missouri State University, where both men were redshirt freshmen on the football team.
But instead of sitting through syllabus day together in the 9:30 a.m. political science class they signed up for, Nichols removed the nameplate from Nelson’s football locker. He said he plans to give it to Nelson’s younger brother.
Nelson, 18, was gunned down Saturday night in front of his Las Vegas home while trying to protect his older sister from a fight. Nelson was a standout football player at Chaparral High School, where he graduated last year, and was home for winter break.
Nichols, also 18, walked through a gray, chilly Missouri State campus Tuesday wearing one of Nelson’s athletic sweatshirts with the hood cinched around his face. Speaking softly, he recalled the motto he and Nelson lived by: “TSWSU,” which stands for “the struggle won’t stop us.”
“No matter how hard it got, we wouldn’t stop,” he said. “It actually worked. It got us here.”
Nichols, a wide receiver, said he told the coaching staff to consider his cousin for the team when another running back declined a spot.
Nelson, an occupational therapy major, vowed on Twitter just days before his death to excel as a football player, graduate from college and improve his relationship with God, Nichols said.
The pair had always been close growing up. Nelson even lived with Nichols for about a year when he was in fourth grade. When they got to college, they jumped at the chance to become roommates. Nelson’s bed remains untouched in their dorm room.
Nichols said he heard about the shooting when one of Nelson’s friends sent him a message on Snapchat. He then went to Lake Lotawana — near Kansas City, Missouri — to pray.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was just sitting there.”
He later visited the football field in his hometown, Blue Springs, where the two used to work out. He was there when he learned that Nelson had died from his injuries.
“I didn’t eat or sleep for like two days,” he said.
Nelson’s other roommates, freshman defensive tackle Walter Watson and freshman defensive end Tristan Crowder, consoled each other Tuesday around a table in the food court of Missouri State’s student union.
“It feels like he’s going to walk in our dorm room at any time,” Watson said, fighting back tears. “It doesn’t feel like he’s gone to me.”
Crowder said the roommates are always checking in on each other to make sure nobody is spending too much time alone.
The coaching staff on Monday conducted a team meeting to talk about the incident, share memories of Nelson and offer counseling resources, Watson said. The coaches have checked in every day to see if players need counseling, he said.
A memorial service is planned Jan. 29 in the school’s student union theater.
Missouri State football head coach Dave Steckel said he was devastated by news of Nelson’s death.
“It’s like losing a son, losing a brother,” he said.
Steckel equated the football team to a family.
“He was a very, very valuable part of our family,” he said.
Watson and Crowder said Nelson’s confidence radiated throughout the locker room, and he always kept trying to improve.
“No matter what we were doing he always kept a smile on his face, and I wanted to be just like him and carry myself like that,” Watson said.
Crowder said Nelson’s death only highlighted his protective, courageous nature.
Rickey Nichols later echoed that sentiment in a text message to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“If Richard knew he was going to die protecting his sister, he would have done the same exact thing,” Nichols wrote. “He was just that type of guy.”