Payton McElhiney, left, accepted the first Tony Award from Phil Pagliaro, whose son, Nick, died last year in a car accident.

Photo by Ben Ingersoll

Payton McElhiney, left, accepted the first Tony Award from Phil Pagliaro, whose son, Nick, died last year in a car accident.

Steamboat teen who died in car crash memorialized through Tony Award

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— Payton McElhiney received the first Tony Award on Thursday night for his contributions on and off the Steamboat Springs Middle School football field.

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After accepting the inaugural Tony Award, Payton McElhiney, center, gave it to Phil Pagliaro, left, the father of Nick Pagliaro, who died in a car crash late last year. The award is named after Nick, whose nickname was Tony.

Before Payton could revel in the glory of being named the most outstanding and committed leader of his squad with the award plaque, he gave it away.

Not to his parents, a coach, or even another player on his eighth-grade team.

No, he gave it to Phil Pagliaro, the father of Nick Pagliaro, who died last year in a car crash and for whom the inaugural award is named. Very few words were exchanged between Payton and Phil Pagliaro, just some tears, hugs and a special moment at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

“I can’t believe what these guys have done, and then for Payton to turn around and give it to me, that was heartbreaking,” Pagliaro said.

Eighth-grade coach Matt Gantick came up with the idea around the time of Nick's funeral, for which Gantick was a pallbearer. Gantick said he wanted the first player, and every one thereafter whose name will be etched on the plaque, to embody the same traits that Nick did: attitude, commitment and leadership.

Gantick described Nick as a goofball but also an early student of the game. A “Yes, coach. No, coach,” kind of kid. Sure, Nick was an undersized, goofy lineman a lot of the time, Gantick said, but he was one who stood out for all the right reasons, as well.

“You don’t want people to forget somebody like that,” Gantick said. “He made that much of an impact, I thought. And a lot of other people did, too.”

The Tony Award — Nick’s nickname on his eighth-grade team was Tony — was just a small segment in the nearly two-hour ceremony honoring players on the middle school’s seventh- and eighth-grade teams, but it caught the crowded room’s attention more than anything else.

In the back of the room was Pagliaro, enjoying some food and the company of parents of some of the kids his son grew up with. He said every day is hard, and sometimes it’s an emotional roller coaster, but he’s happy to see Nick’s legacy live on through things like the Tony Award and the No. 20 decals on the back of the Steamboat high school football helmets.

Nick's name also will grace the Steamboat middle school trophy case, where the Tony Award plaque will be placed very soon.

And in the front of the room was Payton, the 7-1 team’s quarterback and emotional leader, enjoying the final moments with his teammates before they strap on high school uniforms in a year. Nick won’t be there, but Payton said his friend was still there with them all season long and always will be.

“I just love him to death,” Payton said. “I miss him a lot.”

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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