Steamboat Springs Room 118 fell silent Monday when Steamboat Springs High School football coach Dave Berry showed the small portrait of a smiling Nicholas Pagliaro to a group of the boy's grieving classmates.
Berry told the students if they could learn to copy the 14-year-old boy's signature smirk, they could use it to accomplish anything.
“You guys need to get that good smile down,” Berry said to laughter. “His smile is contagious.”
The photo served as a source of comfort to Nick's coach and classmates on the day they learned he died in a car crash Sunday. The laughter the photo induced was a welcome part of the grieving process.
All day, students at the high school swapped stories about Nick, a freshman who was known as “Pags” on the football field.
As they wiped away tears and consoled one another, many of the students already were thinking of ways to honor him.
Friends described Nick as a boy who acted much larger than his height of 5 feet 2 inches.
In football practice, Nick would make sure he went up against the largest boys on the team. And when the scoreboard wasn't going the Sailors' way, it was Nick who would offer encouragement to teammates.
“He was just so playful and upbeat,” Berry said. “He's moved people in directions I didn't know were possible at this young age.”
Of all the stories the coach heard about Nick on Monday, he said it was the one about the small boy standing up to a group of big bullies that stuck with him most.
“One of his classmates told me today that when Nick was in middle school, he would always stand up to the bullies,” Berry said. “There was way more to him than football.”
Nick also played baseball, and his 13- to 15-year-old Little League team finished third in the state tournament this summer.
Students agreed the good stories about Nick will help keep his spirit alive at the school.
Nick was one of the smallest kids on the football team, but he had a heart the size of a freight train, junior Cole Sittig said, fighting back tears.
Nick was the only boy to volunteer for all of the Rachel's Challenge activites in middle school, a group of cheerleaders said before they started to plan a special cheer to honor him.
“We'll miss him,” another friend said as he held a photo of this season's Sailors football team.
The students ended the school day with a prayer.
Nick was sleeping in the back seat of a 2005 Jeep Wrangler being driven by his mother, Peggy Pagliaro, when the vehicle drifted off the right side of Colorado Highway 127 north of Walden at about 4:10 p.m. Sunday, according to the Colorado State Patrol. The Jeep was then steered back onto the roadway, where it began rotating counterclockwise. It then went off the opposite side of the highway and down an embankment.
Nick was ejected from the backseat when the Jeep landed on its front end and vaulted over onto its roof, according to the State Patrol. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Peggy Pagliaro suffered only minor injures and was treated on scene, Cpl. Brian Bagley said.
The crash remains under investigation, and no charges have been filed. Neither Peggy nor Nicholas Pagliaro are thought to have been wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash. Excessive speed does not appear to have been a factor, and the road was dry at the time of the accident.
The Pagliaro family could not be reached Monday afternoon.
In August, Nick was enjoying his transition to high school.
“Wow high schools cooler than I thought it's really smooth going and easy hope to have a fun year,” he posted on his Facebook account.
In an email to parents Monday, head high school football coach Lonn Clementson wrote “the staff and players are heartbroken and send out their condolences to the family and each other.”
He added “all players have been touched and supportive of each other throughout all of the grades.”
The Steamboat Springs School District sent counselors to the high school Monday to help students deal with the tragedy.
“Sometimes this is the first time students have dealt with loss and grief in their lives,” Principal Kevin Taulman said. “On these kinds of days you drop everything else and this is your focus.”
Berry told his classroom of students there will be painful reminders of Nick's death to overcome.
When football gets back into gear, Pags won't suit up. They'll attend class and notice Nick isn't there anymore.
But Berry encouraged them to continue telling Nick's stories.
He told them to honor him by standing up for other students and to mimic his smile.
“Share these stories. Don't keep them in,” Berry said. “We've just got to keep his spirit alive through us."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com