Updated: May 10
Nick Pasquale didn't pass the eyeball test. When it came to football, he wasn't tall enough, he wasn't big enough, he wasn't fast enough. But on the field, he was more than enough.
So said those who coached him and were among those who remembered the 20-year-old from San Clemente who died early Sunday after being struck by a vehicle while walking home.
"At the combines, they measure your height and weight, your 40-yard dash, your vertical jump, how much you can bench press," said Jaime Ortiz, the head coach at San Clemente. "The one thing they can't measure is your heart."
And that's where Pasquale was an All-American, a selfless player who did everything he could for the good of the team. His goal was to play football for as long as he could, to play college football, and as a walk-on at UCLA, he was finally getting that chance. The Bruins were exercising caution with him because of a recent concussion, but he was on the sideline in uniform for their 58-20 victory over Nevada on Aug. 31.
After playing at San Clemente as a receiver and cornerback and helping the Tritons reach the 2011 Southern Section Pac-5 Championship game, he went through a redshirt season at UCLA; this season, he was suited up and was likely to finally get that opportunity to play in a major college game.
"He was going to get on the field at UCLA, there was no doubt in my mind," said Jeff Veeder, who coached at San Clemente until 2011 and now runs the defense at Santa Margarita. "The kid had a positive attitude and smile every day. He was one of those kids who would light up a room. As a football player, he sacrificed a lot of his own personal glory for his team. He was an offensive player who came over and played cornerback because we needed it. He uplifted everybody. He was an awesome kid."
Santa Margarita head coach Harry Welch also thought highly of Pasquale the football player. On their way to beating San Clemente for the title in 2011, Welch had to prepare for the Tritons and said Pasquale was a pain in the backside.
"He did so many things with so much spirit, you could not discount him from making plays," Welch said, noting that Pasquale always had to be accounted for. "He might be there when someone else might not be there because of his spirit or heart. He would rise above with the extra effort. It's a nice legacy he left us all."
Although listed by UCLA as a receiver who stands 5 feet 7 inches and 172 pounds, Pasquale played bigger, and showed his enthusiasm and fearlessness in a playoff game against Lakewood during his junior year. In one of the contest's first plays, Lakewood's California-bound tight end, Todd Barr (6-3, 265) was knocked out of the game for the half after Pasquale hit him.
"Decleated him," Ortiz said, recalling it as the signature memory he has of Pasquale on the field. "It was a clean hit and knocked him off his feet. He didn't care how big or fast you were, and most of the time he got the best of it." The memory Veeder retains is also from Pasquale's junior season. It was Veeder's first game with San Clemente and he was watching from coach's box above the field. Pasquale had sprained his ankle in camp, but played anyway at about 75 percent of good health.
"He made a cut on his bad ankle that I didn't think anybody could do," Veeder recalled. "He gained 25, 30 yards. I was up in the booth and I thought, 'Man, that guy's going to be something special.' That was my first awareness of the kid. He was pretty darn good." At UCLA, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero called the death "an unthinkable tragedy." Head coach Jim Mora learned what Pasquale's hometown already knew.
"This is a tragic loss," Mora said. "Nick was an outstanding young man who had a positive impact on everyone who knew him. He was a great teammate who was loved and respected by the entire team." His time at UCLA was short, but Pasquale will long be remembered at San Clemente. "He was Triton football personified," said former coach Eric Patton. "He was a real treasure to coach."
Ortiz said Pasquale "would have made a great coach, without a doubt." "He worked our youth camps and by far he was one of our better coaches," he said. "He was a coach on the field and off the field." Ortiz called him a natural leader, and it was evident early on. "Watching him in Pop Warner, being a ball boy at San Clemente and telling the other ball boys what to do," Ortiz said. "His football I.Q. was off the chart."
The 2011 team was the best in school history. Though it had great players such as quarterback Travis Wilson and lineman Kyle Murphy—prospects who did pass the eyeball chart—it was Pasquale who stood out for other reasons.
"Nick was the heart and soul of that team," Ortiz said. "He had a great opportunity to be a leader and he took on that role. Wilson and Murphy were great players, but you have a 5-9, 165-pound cornerback going both ways, playing special teams, doing everything you asked him to do."
And that extended into the playoffs, when head coach Jon Hamro included the sophomore players on the playoff roster. Those sophomores are today's senior class.
"This does have an impact, especially on our current senior class," Ortiz said of the tragedy. "When we made the championship run, we brought up the the entire sophomore team to see how those guys like Kyle Murphy, Travis Wilson and Christian Tober acted. Nick was one of those seniors who took the sophomores under his wing on that team."
The Tritons are two games into their season. This tragedy will become a teachable moment. If the seniors didn't learn it then, they are learning today about how much impact one player can have.