The article hangs on a wall in my office. I am actually staring at it as I write this—it is taped, slightly crooked, to the white paint above my desk, positioned between a Chicago Blitz bumper sticker, a picture of my mother’s late Uncle John, and a photograph from the 1987 Mahopac High School freshman class trip to Washington, D.C.
At first glance, it is a curious addition to my collection of misfit items, the others of which have obvious personal resonance. The headline, INEXPERIENCE FACES GREEN WAVE SOCCER, suggests nothing beyond some sort of small-town newspaper sports preview story, and the byline (Nick DeLeonibus) is that of a name that rings unfamiliar to most. Upon closer inspection, you can ascertain that the piece appeared in the Gallatin (Tenn.) News Examiner in the winter of 1997.
“With March 11th quickly approaching,” it begins, “Gallatin soccer head coach Rufus Lassiter wants to take things day-by-day.”
The ensuing 10 paragraphs add little to explain why anyone would want to read. Even now, two decades after publication, much of the article reads as flatly as it surely did on the Friday it hit newsstands. Like many of its ilk, this is an article written primarily for the 20 or so members of the Gallatin High boys soccer team and their families. It exists so that, when they ultimately have children and grandchildren of their own, Daniel Sanders and Randall Carter and Michael McRae and the other Green Wave players can blow dust off the ol’ scrapbook and say, “See, I was once something...”
The information provided is standard local fare. Coming off a mediocre 7-7-2 season, the Green Wave of 1997 will likely struggle even more with the loss of seven seniors. Sanders and Carter will split time in goal, but at least Lassiter will have five veterans to turn to. There’s McRee, there’s Farrell, there’s Sparkman and Watson and, of course, there’s Bubba Dixon.
Writes DeLeonibus in the tenth paragraph: “Sparkman started last year and will be back on defense. He plays a very physical, tough-nosed brand of soccer.”
Writes DeLeonibus in the eleventh paragraph: “Watson started last year as a defensive player. He works very hard and has good speed.”
Writes DeLeonibus in the twelfth paragraph: “Dixon sucks donkey dicks and doesn’t wipe the shit off before practice. We like to keep him at the sweeper position so his sperm breath will stop people from penetrating to the goal. Speaking of penetrating, he prefers tall, red-headed guys. Told me to tell Kris he said ‘hello.’”
The story of the most flagrant mistake in the modern history of sports journalism begins with a 21-year-old editor. His name is Kris Freeman. He has red hair and a soft southern drawl and an earnest belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Back in the early 1990s, he was the kid at Portland (Tenn.) High who dreamed of one day becoming a reporter, and devoted his weekends to stringing prep football games for the News Examiner, the local thrice-weekly 12,000-circulation paper. A workmanlike scribe with a love for the craft, Freeman was smart and dogged and precise and as reliable as running water. He submitted clean, on-time copy, and local coaches came to enjoy his work.
That’s why, after graduating from nearby Volunteer State in 1996 with an associate degree in journalism and communication, Freeman was hired by the News Examiner to serve as sports editor of its staff of one other full-timer. Was it strange to hand the reins to a 21-year-old? In a sense, perhaps. But the Gannett-owned Gallatin paper was hardly America’s only small-town outlet with an eternal youth movement. While The Tennessean, located 30 miles to the south in Nashville and one of the crown jewels of the Gannett empire, could pay its top editors six figures, the News Examiner was a bargain-basement paper in a town of 30,000. Freeman’s salary, $7.30 per hour, was about right. He lived at home with his mother and stepfather, in a basement apartment.
“No other choice,” he says.
Covering sports for the newspaper was a dream come true, but no picnic. The four-to-eight-page section was responsible for six high schools, nine middle schools, Vol State’s men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and softball teams, as well as a large number of Little League and Dixie Youth athletic leagues. The nights were long, the deadlines grueling. It was equally electric and nightmarish. Steve Rogers, the paper’s amiable, chain-smoking 39-year-old editor, even helped out, covering Gallatin High football games. Freeman lived for the buzz, but abhorred the tardy filings, the last-second game updates. “As the sports editor, you had to be a beat writer, a designer, a layout guy and an editor,” Freeman says. “You’re not getting much help.”
The only other full-time News Examiner sports writer was Nick DeLeonibus, a 27-year-old who came to the newspaper after having dropped out of Middle Tennessee State. Though Freeman’s title suggested authority, he held no say in personnel, and DeLeonibus was brought in by a higher-up and appointed to the sports department. “They hired him because we needed help and he was available,” Freeman says. “Nick was brand new to newspapers.”
DeLeonibus’s inexperience was, from the beginning, a problem. Oh, people liked him well enough, but in the world of small-town newspapers, where staffs are often divided between content local lifers and aspiring Red Smiths here for a cup of coffee before hitting the big leagues, Nick was neither. Born in 1970 in Gallatin, he seemed all but preordained toward a career in music. His father, Al DeLeonibus, was a music teacher at Knox Doss Middle School who spent weekends playing nearby country clubs with his three-piece band, Al DeLeon. His mother, Dottie, sang with the group.
“Nick started playing drums in his father’s band in seventh grade,” Dottie remembers. “Al was his first teacher. Nick was a very good drummer.”
The 1988 Gallatin High yearbook serves as a musical ode to Domenic DeLeonibus, with his mane of brown hair and a sly grin that trickles toward mischievous. There he stands on page 23, voted most talented along with a pianist named Glenda Hart. There he stands on page 150, decked out in his spiffy white uniform as the leader of the Pride of the Green Wave Marching and Concert Band. He’s all over the place, starring as the handsome show business savant with a limitless future. “Before he started losing his hair and gaining weight, he was very good looking,” says Dottie. Then—“Really, he was always good looking.”
Yet behind the cocksure glare that often accompanies youth was a damaged spirit. In January of his senior year Nick was devastated when his father died of a heart attack. Suddenly much of life’s certainty vanished.
Though a low-B, high-C student, Nick received a partial music scholarship to Middle Tennessee. He lasted a year. With his father gone, the rigors of academia were simply too much for a young man who struggled to sit still. “I was upset,” Dottie recalls. “But I knew he had enough music and artistry in him. I knew what it was to be a free bird.”
Cameron Collins, the News Examiner’s news editor, was also Nick’s step half-brother. (His father, Fred Collins, married Dottie in the mid-1990s. Fred died in 2009.) In the spring of 1996, when the newspaper found itself with some openings, Collins informed DeLeonibus, who liked to mess around with a pen in his spare time. “I didn’t know what he wanted to do, but I knew he enjoyed writing,” says Collins. It was, all involved now admit, a peculiar fit. Nick had never been much of an athlete, and boasted zero newspaper clippings. He had no experience interviewing a coach, covering a game, or attending a practice. There were freshmen at the local high school who were probably more qualified to hold the position. But the News Examiner was in need.
So one day Freeman reported to the office on Summer Hall Road and was introduced to Nick, his new $6.60-an-hour writer. And it was...well, it was sorta okay. Dottie says her son’s English teachers used to rave of his “outstanding writing,” but colleagues don’t remember it that way. In his 10 months at the newspaper, Nick wrote boilerplate, dime-a-dozen game stories—“adequate material,” says Collins—that rarely ventured outside the standard pattern of local prep reporting.
“The majority of the time that I spent with him was teaching him the basics of simple writing techniques,” says Freeman. “How to get better at doing those stories.” As he was trained to do, DeLeonibus would watch the game, speak to the winning coach, speak to the kid who kicked the winning goal or threw the winning pass, then write 500 words that would be forgotten before the ink dried. He wasn’t bad and he wasn’t terrific. He just...was. “Reasonably good—that was Nick,” says Jamie Clary, an editor at the paper who now serves as the mayor of Hendersonville, Tenn. “Which is better than being reasonably bad, right?”
If DeLeonibus possessed a glaring weakness, it was his immaturity. The News Examiner editorial staff was but eight strong, and the majority were locally bred men and women in their early-to-mid 20s. After work the male employees often gathered for beers. In that universe, DeLeonibus—who liked the rhythms of dirty jokes and light ridicule—fit in perfectly. Yet Freeman was an outlier. His grandfather, Cloyd D. Biggs, was a deacon at Halltown General Baptist Church in Cottontown (“The reasons I didn’t use foul language or get an earring was the fear my grandfather would beat the tarnation out of me,” Freeman says), and he was raised to be serious and respectful. Some News Examiner staffers smelled the weakness, and made a game of mocking him. Nick didn’t hesitate to join in.
DeLeonibus, Freeman insists, was not a bad guy. But he was childish and reckless, and his lack of journalism training showed. On multiple occasions Freeman says he had to speak with DeLeonibus about inserting jokes into his stories; about sloppy copy and lazy wording. “It was his personality,” Freeman says. “He liked to cut up, to goof around, to push and test the envelope. We discussed parameters a few times.”
In hindsight, Freeman says, perhaps the newspaper should have been more concerned. But, again, they were basically kids supervising kids.
Thursday, Feb. 20, 1997, was shaping up as another ordinarily hectic day in the world of the Gallatin News Examiner sports department.
The drive from Freeman’s parents’ home to the newspaper office took no more than 30 minutes, and his white Nissan Sentra rolled into the parking lot around noon. The game plan was simple: By early afternoon DeLeonibus needed to file a relatively short preview story on the Gallatin High boys soccer team, and that night he would cover the Class Double A boys basketball game 18 miles away in Westmoreland. Freeman, meanwhile, would cover the boys Triple A basketball game at Gallatin High.
At a time when technology was just starting to reach smaller newspapers, both writers still had to come back to the office to file for a hard 11 p.m. deadline. Yet for reasons Freeman fails to recall (Overtime? Traffic? A quick stop for soda and chips?), he and DeLeonibus returned later than usual. For sports writers, few sounds manufacture more gallons of armpit sweat than the panicked bliss-hell of deadline keyboard tapping. It’s a combination of giddiness and nausea; a hybrid that those unaccustomed to the pursuit might struggle to comprehend. Freeman and DeLeonibus sat at their Macs and pounded out short no-frills game stories, then split up. “I had to edit and design, and I went to the back room to lay out the section on QuarkXPress,” Freeman recalls. “So I’m writing headlines, plugging in stories, rushing because it’s late.”
There was one problem, and it was a doozy: The soccer preview had yet to be filed, and now—having completed the basketball story—DeLeonibus rushed to finish it. He added the final paragraphs to the ones already penned, then fired off the article to Freeman, who looked at a nearby digital clock that read 10:55. At the moment, the two men were divided by a wall and adjacent to one another—DeLeonibus before a small monitor, Freeman in front of a larger computer with the section layout. As soon as the soccer story came through, Freeman dropped it into the lone remaining open space on Page B1, just below the fold.
“Hey!” Freeman says he yelled. “I’m putting this in last minute! Is it clean?” By “clean,” he meant, the copy. Is it spell-checked? Is it free of grammatical errors?
“It’s good to go!” DeLeonibus hollered back.
Freeman says he scanned the first three or four paragraphs—the first column. Nothing jumped out, so he completed layout and forwarded the section to the newsroom.
“That was Thursday night,” he says. “The paper came out Friday morning.”
The phone rang at 5:30 a.m.
Dottie answered, then stirred her son from his sleep.
“Nick,” she said. “Someone named Bob Atkins is calling!”
At age 56, the News Examiner publisher was a divisive figure in the newsroom. He was a longtime advertising executive whose business-first approach to media rubbed many reporters wrongly. One writer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, bemoaned the way Atkins always seemed to praise a sale, yet rarely if ever complimented a finely crafted lede or impressive scoop. “He was kind of a jerk,” the writer says. “That’s how we saw him.”
DeLeonibus picked up the receiver, and was ordered to the office ASAP. “They said something bad has happened,” he later recalled to Corey Bradley of Vanderbilt’s First Amendment Center. “I thought maybe the office was burglarized and something had been stolen.”
He put on his clothes, started his car, then began the 10-minute drive. “A mile and a half from the office,” he said, “it finally hit me.”
It had been a joke; a funny little aside that DeLeonibus assumed Freeman would see and remove from the piece. Yes, DeLeonibus had done this a couple of times before. But the dirty work was always caught, right? Besides, the other guys at the office would laugh their asses off. Freeman—the uptight Christian—as the lust object of a 17-year-old donkey dick-sucking soccer player! It was too hilarious not to write.
Only, well, the Green Wave story was submitted late. And the basketball games ran long. And the deadline was approaching.
The phone rang at 6 a.m.
Glinda Pinson, Kris’s mother, answered, then called down to her son. “Kris,” she said. “Bob Atkins is on the line!”
As soon as his mother’s words escaped her lips, Freeman presumed someone at the office had died.
“Kris,” Atkins replied. “Get in here immediately.”
It was black outside. The roads were empty. As he drove, Freeman’s still-groggy mind raced. Did I do something terrible? Did we have the wrong team winning? Is someone in trouble? He pulled up, parked his Sentra, and entered the newsroom. It was empty, save for two people: Atkins and Nick DeLeonibus.
The only light came from the publisher’s office. Without speaking, Atkins handed Freeman a copy of that day’s newspaper. It was folded open to the bottom of page B1. He pointed to the soccer article—INEXPERIENCE FACES GREEN WAVE SOCCER.
“Read it,” Atkins said.
Everything seemed fine—until Freeman reached the 12th paragraph. He stared blankly at DeLeonibus, who had already fessed up and issued a tearful apology to Atkins. This was no small blunder; even the novice reporter knew as much. Located in the heart of the Bible Belt, Gallatin is a hardcore conservative town. A butchered score? Not such a big deal. An underage soccer player alleged to have performed fellatio on the fecal-covered penis of a burro? Problem.
Freeman focused his eyes on the final two sentences of the paragraph. Speaking of penetrating, he prefers tall, red-headed guys. Told me to tell Kris he said “hello.” The tall red-headed guy? That was him.
“The main thing I wanted Bob to know was, I had nothing to do with it,” Freeman says. “But then when I read it and saw my name in it—I was angry. Really angry.”
Nick DeLeonibus’s journalism career was over. Dottie says her son resigned. The newspaper said he was fired. Either way, following a brief legal review, he was ordered to leave the office and never return. He drove home, eyes filled with tears. He broke down as soon as he saw Dottie. “He was devastated, sobbing,” she recalls. “‘Devastated’ really is the best word for it. I held myself together for him. But it was hard.”
When contacted later that day by Rochelle Carter of the Tennessean, DeLeonibus didn’t hold back. “I couldn’t feel any worse,” he said. “I’ve polluted the newspaper of the county I’ve lived in for virtually all of my life.”
Freeman, who would be suspended for three days, remained inside the building for the next 12 hours. The paragraph had been discovered by an overnight editor at 5:20 am, as copies of the paper were being trucked to 115 vending machines and convenience shops throughout Sumner County. Now, as other members of the News Examiner staff were sent out to comb Gallatin and retrieve as many issues as possible, Freeman hunkered down by a phone and fielded one phone call after another after another. Coaches called. Players called. The parents of players called. Ordinary citizens called. (Some also called the high school, wondering how a coach could say such things.)
“I can’t even tell you how many calls I took,” Freeman says. “I just apologized and said we were handling it.”
He vividly recalls an attorney reaching out, asking if he would like to take legal action against the newspaper. “I shut him down and hung up,” Freeman says. “I felt like I had a job to do, and part of that job was to represent the company.”
Other attorneys would find their plaintiffs.
The alliterative beauty of “Dixon sucks donkey dicks” is undeniable. Once one says it, he can’t help but say it twice. Three times. Dottie recalls that shortly after publication, she bumped into a police officer who asked to meet her son. “I wanna shake your hand,” he said to Nick. “That was the best writing to ever appear in that paper.”
Only a few observed a puckish literary touch. Most saw a damaging, cruel assault on an underage high school student.
Garrett Dixon, known to friends and teammates as “Bubba,” did not, in fact, suck donkey dicks nor wipe the shit off before practice. Truth be told, he was a poster child for decency. Dixon compiled a 3.8 GPA, was active in his Baptist church, and was voted “Gentleman of the Year,” by the Girls Club at Gallatin High. The senior class named him “Mr. Personality,” and come that fall he would be heading off for his freshman year at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
“I remember the day the family came into my office the very first time,” says Clint Kelly, the attorney who represented Dixon. “The mother was crying. The son looked like he’d seen a ghost. He attended a high school of 1,000 kids, and every time he heard someone snicker behind his back he was thinking someone was joking about the sperm on his hands.
“This was a young man who stayed out of the limelight, and here he was, being humiliated like this.”
Kelly says the case would have been strong even if it were held in New York or Philadelphia or Los Angeles. But this was Gallatin. “I can’t overstate the impact of the insinuation of homosexuality,” Kelly says. “I am not making a judgment on homosexuality at all. At all. But this was 20 years ago, in a conservative town and a conservative family. That was devastating.” Dixon later said the stress from the article caused him to seek therapy. When the Green Wave played on the road, he said opponents would ask, “Which one is donkey?”
DeLeonibus knew Garrett Dixon well. He worked briefly with the boy as a percussion instructor, and dated Dixon’s older sister for a quick spell. “I hope [DeLeonibus] gets his job back,” Garrett’s father told the Nashville Scene at the time. “Besides, it’s a lot better to laugh about this than cry about it.”
Bob Atkins and his cohorts knew lawsuits were inevitable. So the newspaper contacted its attorney Dick Batson, as well as William Willis, Gannett’s regional lawyer. There was no way to sugarcoat the awfulness of the situation, but they could at least try and apply a band-aid to a decapitation. The newspaper published a front-page apology written by Atkins and Rogers, the editor. Headlined OUR DEEPEST APOLOGIES, it read, in part: “The writer never intended for the words to appear in print. The words were the result of a sad, misguided joke by the writer gone seriously awry.”
DeLeonibus also wrote an apology that ran as a letter to the editor. None of it mattered.
Two lawsuits, each against the News Examiner and Gannett, were filed in Sumner County Circuit Court. One, on behalf of Garrett Dixon, demanded $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. The other, on behalf of Gallatin head coach Rufus Lassiter (who was identified in the article as the “source” of the donkey dicks quote), sought an undisclosed amount.
Anyone who knew anything about libel and the law could see where this one was headed. At issue wasn’t, specifically, some fabricated words, or a monumental-yet-momentary lapse in judgment. No, this was about the preposterously amok world of small-town newspaper, where a 21-year-old with two years of college was editing a 27-year-old college dropout with no journalism experience and a history of amateur-hour antics. It was about oversight or accountability, of which there was little to none. It was about nonexistent supervision. It was about kicks and giggles filling in for thoroughness and rigor.
The Gallatin News Examiner was toast.
“It’s probably the worst case of libel I’ve ever seen,” says Kelly. “I’ve seen mistakes made, I’ve seen people allegedly placed in places where they never were. But I’d never seen a case involving extreme profanity and sexual coarseness that was actually published, about a young man unknown to everyone until it went to print.”
Kelly, as well as William Moore, Lassiter’s attorney, presumed Gannett would settle. The company had no case whatsoever, and the specter of a drawn-out trial would potentially damage the reputation of the entire 91-newspaper chain. And yet...
“The sheer stupidity still shocks me,” Kelly says. “They decided to fight.”
It was ugly. DeLeonibus and Freeman were called to testify before a 12-member jury, as were other writers and editors from the newspaper. “I remember [Nick] on the stand, and the jury kept looking away from him,” says Kelly. “He was so goofy, he turned them off.”
The stories the journalists told detailed what was perceived to be a largely rudderless ship often overwhelmed by immaturity and grade-level jocularity. DeLeonibus admitted on the stand that “donkey dicks” was the third laugh line he had inserted into a sports story. Another scribe testified that in his time as a News Examiner correspondent, he wrote jokes as slugs “six or seven times” and once used a story headline about a team receiving an “ass-kicking” from an opponent. Reporting on the trial, The Tennessean summarized testimony of staffers by writing that vulgar and obscene language was “often” deliberately added to articles. Freeman, who during the eight-day ordeal attended only when called to testify, told the court he once reprimanded DeLeonibus for using the office telephone to place NFL bets for his weekly pool. “I’d never been through anything like the trial experience,” he says.
The key, Kelly says, was Garrett Dixon Jr., who came off as a broken, defenseless child attacked for doing absolutely nothing. Dixon testified that he begged people to stop calling him “Bubba” because he wished to shed any identity tied to the story. “Imagine walking around school,” he said, “and every pair of eyes...” He stopped speaking and began to cry.
“You could see the outrage,” Kelly says. “They felt for him.”
In his closing argument, Kelly looked at the jury and spoke of an article filled with “the most outrageous, violent, filthy language ever printed in American mainstream news media.”
On the afternoon of April 7, after only two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict. Dixon would receive $500,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages. Lassiter would receive $150,000 in compensatory damages.
“It was a bombshell just because of the magnitude of the case, and Gallatin being a small town,” says Clary, the former editor. “But it wasn’t surprising and it wasn’t wrong. Look, we all make mistakes. We all do dumb things. I once put ‘SHIT’ as the headline holder. Dumb. Did I do the same thing Nick did? Sort of. You’re immature and lacking judgment.
“I have much less sympathy for the administration. I worked there. They had small staffs and almost no supervision for young writers and editors. You’re talking about more than 10,000 people reading stories that were looked at by two pairs of eyes. That’s inexcusable, and it’s on management. So was I sad for the two guys directly involved? Yes. Of course. But did I feel bad for the newspaper? Not really.
“This type of mess was inevitable.”
Twenty years have passed, and “Dixon Sucks Donkey Dicks” remains a cautionary tale preached by editors and journalism professors. It has been the subject of academic papers, of lectures, of PowerPoint presentations. “We used that as a teaching moment in the newsroom for a long time,” says Frank Sutherland, the former Tennessean editor-in-chief. “Here’s why you never write anything down that you or your mother would be ashamed to see on the front of the newspaper.”
In 1997 I was working at Sports Illustrated, and a former Tennessean colleague (I was a reporter there earlier in the decade) faxed me a copy of the piece. INEXPERIENCE FACES GREEN WAVE SOCCER immediately worked its way through the SI hallways, and while the accompanying giggles and guffaws were understandable, I kept thinking back to my own early journalism days. Like DeLeonibus, I had been young and dumb and occasionally willing to insert curse words into copy to mess with an editor. The News Examiner story haunted me then, as it haunts me now. I could easily have been Nick. Many scribes I know could have been Nick. That’s why, in every class I teach as an adjunct journalism professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., one of the first things I have students read is DeLeonibus’s work. “Here,” I tell them, “is what not to do.”
While the topic lives on in industry folklore, those directly involved have largely forged ahead. Garrett Dixon (who didn’t return messages for this piece) is now 37 years old. He graduated from college, married, started a career in real estate. Lassiter (who also did not comment) was promoted to Gallatin High’s assistant principal shortly after the piece ran. He recently retired, and still lives in Tennessee. Atkins left Gannett in 1998, and shifted careers to insurance. Steve Rogers, who resigned as the newspaper’s editor in 2000 after his arrest on felony charges of lying about two fires in his home and faking threatening letters from readers to fool investigators, (he would plead guilty to making a false report and fabricating evidence) is the director of a television station in Tupelo, Miss.
Freeman was a reluctant contributor to this article, in large part because the explicit nature of the material does not jibe with his present work: He’s the pastor for the Revolution Church in White House, Tenn. Now 41, Freeman has served as clergy for 20 years, and also works as the public-address announcer for Vanderbilt University’s basketball teams. He is married with two children.
On the night after the story ran, Freeman dutifully (if somewhat sheepishly) entered the Gallatin High gymnasium to cover a prep basketball tournament. As he had done hundreds of times before, he strolled through the doorway to the media hospitality room. Upon spotting Freeman, a colleague stood and made a loud, vulgar comment. The room burst into laughter.
“That was the low point,” Freeman says. “I had always tried to be professional, to treat everyone with the proper class. If there was ever a moment when I felt my life was over, that was it. I can still feel that pain, but I was able to move on.”
For DeLeonibus, it was much harder. With his chance at a journalism career (and his reputation) in shambles, he took jobs at local stores peddling musical equipment and tiles. In 1998 he married Shannon Street, a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and their son Alexander was born four years later. Along with his sales jobs, Nick taught private percussion lessons, and positive online reviews suggest an energetic and involved instructor.
In 2006, Shannon filed for divorce, Nick returned to his childhood home to live with his mother. Alexander came for weekly visits. “I think the article haunted my son for a long time,” Dottie says. “But the divorce was much harder on him. He told me several times how he felt like a failure. He was living with his mom, his marriage didn’t work. It was really tough for him.”
The first heart attack took place on April 3, 2014. DeLeonibus had just wrapped a private lesson at Music & Arts, a shop in Hendersonville, and was walking through the parking lot to his car. Without warning, he fell backward and crashed into the pavement. “I moved his head to the side because he was choking and that’s when I noticed he had cracked the back of his head open,” Cailyn Walz, a local hair stylist, told the Hendersonville Star News. “I just got on top of him and started doing CPR for about five minutes.”
DeLeonibus was taken to Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, where he flat-lined and was saved, ahead of successful open-heart surgery. When Nick ultimately returned home, Dottie filled him in on the details of everything that had happened. The parking lot. The heart stoppage. He remembered little of it. “One day he came into the kitchen where I was standing,” she says. “And he said, ‘Mom, I promise you I’ll never die in front of you again.’” Dottie was struck by the wording—it wasn’t that he would not die during her lifetime. It was that he would not die in her presence.
One year and three weeks after the heart attack, against his doctor’s advice and Dottie’s judgment, Nick booked a solo trip to the Dominican Republic. It was his favorite vacation spot, and his mother was unable to talk him out of it. “So I drove him to the airport on a Friday,” she says. “He was determined to go.”
Three days later, on the afternoon of April 27, 2015, Dottie received a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. Nick had been found on the floor of his hotel room. He died of a heart attack, alone. He was 45.
“I think somewhere, on some level of his consciousness, he knew he wouldn’t pass in front of me,” she says. “I took that as the greatest gift he could have given me.
“He wanted to make it easy.”
Jeff Pearlman is a Bleacher Report contributor and the author of seven books. Gunslinger, his biography of Brett Favre, will be released on paperback in October. You can visit Jeff’s website, follow him on Twitter, and listen to his weekly podcast, Two Writers Slinging Yang.