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How a friend’s tragic death still inspires Sam Darnold

The pain never goes away when a parent loses a son much too young, when a big brother loses his little brother. But every time he watches Sam Darnold play quarterback, Mel Pasquale’s heart is able to manage a smile, let in a ray of sunshine following a tragic storm that rained on his family’s life.

Nick Pasquale had realized his dream of playing college football, a walk-on redshirt freshman wide receiver at UCLA, against all odds. And in the blink of a cruel eye, it was gone. Walking home at 1:27 a.m. five Septembers ago on Camino De Los Mares, west of Calle Nuevo in San Clemente, Calif., he was struck and killed by the driver of a Mercedes sedan. The driver was not cited or arrested.

Days after he buried his 20-year-old son, Mel Pasquale remembers the words spoken to him by Sam Darnold.

“He walked up to me and basically said, ‘I’ll never forget your son and what he taught me,’ ” Pasquale told The Post by phone.

Pasquale has coached on and off at San Clemente High, where Nick preceded Darnold, and is comforted even now every time he watches Darnold quarterback the Jets. Because the red wristband on Darnold’s left wrist honors Nick Pasquale and carries on his friend’s legacy.

“Obviously my son had a huge impact on him,” Mel Pasquale said. “My son was an undersized two-way player at San Clemente. He was a hard worker in the weight room, he always was an overachiever there. And I think that was something that Sam never forgot. It’s very obvious that’s the case, because this day, it’s something I think that helps drive him. My son’s work ethic that he had, it helps push him.”

The wristband reads: NICK PASQUALE PAC 10. They used to call Nick “Pac Man.” He wore No. 10.

Darnold immediately posted this heartfelt message on his Instagram page below a smiling photo of his handsome friend when the devastating news hit in 2013:

“God gives all of us time to show the world what we r made of and what we can do. Some of us get a shorter amount of time than others and my great friend Nick Pasquale was cut short this morning … But he sure as hell made the most of his time and showed us all what it truly means to love and care for people and to not waste any time. #angel

Asked what Nick Pasquale meant to him, Darnold said: “So Nick, growing up, we weren’t the best of friends. He was a few years older than me, he was in my sister’s grade actually. And then as I grew up playing football in San Clemente, he was a high school legend. [He] just always went to the games, towards my junior and senior year when we had a pretty good team, we were going to the championship games and winning the league and all of that, he was always at the games and I became pretty close with him.

“And then, tragically, when he passed away, that’s when the whole community really came together and it was a sad moment, but at the same time, looking back, it was really cool to see a whole community come together and understand to not take this life for granted because you never know when our time is going to come. So it was cool to see a whole community gather around one person because he really was such an incredible person and such a gift to the world.”

Nick Pasquale was a slot receiver and defensive back and played special teams.

“On the field I’d call him a warrior,” Mel Pasquale said. “He was. He never stopped. He just kept on going. He just competed his ass off.”

Asked why he thought his son was that way, he said: “I don’t know. He had this drive in him. … He always was like in our garage working out, lifting, lifting, lifting, lifting. And off the field I found out a lot of things about him after he passed away. He was really into helping special need kids, which we have thousands of letters, which I was blown away. Blown away. And people’s parents and kids coming up to me that I never met in my life — they loved Nick so much because he would always protect them. He never told me that, he never told his mother that. He never told his brother that. But that’s who he was. And that as a father makes me so, so proud that he was doing that.”

AJ Pasquale is three years older than Nick. “That bond between an older brother and younger brother is something that’s really special and unique, and ours was even more than that,” he said. “He wasn’t just a little brother to me, he was one of my best friends, and I take great pride in being that role model and leader for him. But man, just constantly competing and pushing each other to be better. We certainly had our tiffs or arguments, but all in all, it was one of the most loving brotherhoods you could possibly find.”

AJ, San Clemente Class of 2008, played football and baseball. Mel Pasquale started the first Pop Warner team — the South Coast Seahawks — and coached his sons. They were called the Tritons when Nick played.

There was tackle football in the backyard and always surfing and beach volleyball and basketball. The brothers liked Reggie Bush and LaDainian Tomlinson.

“Maybe he’s a little bit more humble and reserved, whereas I’m kind of a little bit more boisterous and like being the life of the party,” AJ said.

Nick, San Clemente Class of 2012, never played with Darnold. But Nick got to know Darnold because his cousin Jameson Klatt was in Darnold’s linebacker unit before Darnold moved to quarterback. In one way, Nick and Sam were two peas in the San Clemente pod.

“Both kind of quiet, humble reserved guys that let their actions speak louder than their words,” AJ said.

“Hey make sure if you see Sam you tell him that his old coach Pasquale said hi,” Mel Pasquale said. “I love that kid, man. Man, these Jet fans are gonna lose their mind when he gets going. Brett Favre, baby, he’s a gunslinger! I think he’s a combination of Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger, that’s who I think he is.”

The Nick Pasquale Foundation gave birth to the wristbands — Vikings outside linebacker and former UCLA star Anthony Barr wears a blue-and-gold version — and Darnold has worn his since high school, through his career at USC, to now.

“I couldn’t thank him enough, it’s not anything that he’s obligated to do, so there must be some sentimental value for him personally,” AJ said. “It’s just another fantastic tribute to his legacy, and we couldn’t be more honored that he’s going that extra mile to wear that special band on a daily basis, and I hope that it provides that extra motivation for him.”

You bet it does.

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