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Nicolas' death evokes memories of other young Canes gone too soon

The death of a young person is always difficult to swallow.

And yet, when it comes to the University of Miami football team, it feels like these tough to swallow moments hit home far too often. 

Former UM defensive back JoJo Nicolas passed away Wednesday evening, a day after being involved in a horrific car accident. Nicolas slammed his car into the rear of a refrigerated 18-wheeler heading west on the MacArthur Causeway at about 5 a.m. Tuesday morning.

It happened hours after he posted pictures and comments on Instagram saying he was out having fun in anticipation of his 25th birthday. Detectives are still trying to determine whether speed, alcohol, texting or any other factors played a role.

Be it a car accident, violence or even a plane crash, the list of tragic deaths involving Hurricanes goes on and on and on.

The first one that comes to mind for most UM fans: Jerome Brown back in 1992. He and a 12-year-old nephew were killed when the Corvette he was speeding in skidded off a slippery road and onto a utility pole in his hometown of Brooksville, Fla. Brown was 27 and in the prime of his NFL career.

In 1992, Shane Curry, a former Canes defensive lineman with the Colts, was shot in the head and killed during an argument in a Cincinnati lounge parking lot.

In 1996, linebacker Marlin Barnes was bludgeoned to death in his campus apartment. He was 22.

A month after Barnes' death, former Canes offensive lineman Robert Woodus was among the 110 who died in the ValuJet crash in the Everglades.

Linebacker Chris Campbell, a senior starter on the 2001 national championship team, died when he lost control of his car and ran into a tree at 4 a.m. in Coral Gables. It happened a month after Miami celebrated its fifth national title in the Rose Bowl. Campbell was 21.

A year later, it was Al Blades. The former standout safety and younger brother of Bennie and Brian Blades was killed in a car crash following the celebration of his 26th birthday. His friend was at the wheel, racing someone else when he lost control of the car before it slammed into a bridge and plunged into a canal in Opa Locka.

Three years later it was Bryan Pata. The former defensive lineman was shot and killed in his apartment complex shortly after leaving a UM practice. He was 22.

A year later, Sean Taylor was shot and killed by robbers inside his home. He was 24 and in the prime of his NFL career.

Not long after Taylor's death in 2007, Time magazine writer wondered if the Hurricanes were cursed because the program "seemed a magnet for guns and trouble."

Former Hurricane safety Earl Little, who was Barnes' best friend and found him dead in his apartment, said he doesn't believe in any curse.

"It's the world we live in," Little, 40, said by phone late Wednesday night. "I had a lot of friends who I grew up with that aren't here anymore. They didn't all play football for the Hurricanes. I think it's just a situation where a lot of young cats just leave us too soon."

Little, who has coached high school football locally and was recently hired to be the head coach at Miami Jackson, said he spent the night Wednesday on the phone talking to former Canes teammate Chad Wilson. When tragedy hits the program, Little said, that's what Hurricanes current and former do. They grieve together and remember all the UM brothers they've lost.

"Not a day goes by I don't think about Marlin. That's the honest truth," Little said. "With the deaths of Sean Taylor and Bryan Pata and now JoJo all of them took me back to Marlin, to April 12, 1996.  Immediately. It's something that hits home for all of us when one of our Hurricane brothers dies. Time heals. But what JoJo's family is going through is going to be tough. It will heal. But it still hurts."

Little met Nicolas once -- at a football camp he coached at UM. But Little said he admired Nicolas' attitude and the way he played safety and cornerback for the Hurricanes from 2007 to 2011. 

Nicolas, a Homestead High graduate, was a relatively quiet player for most of his career when I covered him at UM and in high school.

But in his final season with the Canes -- shortly after the death of his prematurely born son -- Nicolas became a vocal leader for Al Golden's first team at UM. He was pulling the team together after losses and delivering pep-talks.

"He used to have the mute button on, never really talked that much," defensive end Olivier Vernon told me at the time. "Not anymore."

In a 24-7 win over Georgia Tech, Nicolas had an interception that led to a touchdown and recovered a muffed punt in the end zone for another score.

"I'm happy for him, happy to see him doing well," Sean Spence said of Nicolas after that victory. "Back in the past, JoJo said a couple things here and there, but he was always a guy who led by example. Now, he's leading by example, speaking up, making sure we're doing the right things. It's helped us out a lot."

The Hurricanes finished 6-6 that season. Nicolas didn't get to play in a bowl game as the Hurricanes decided to sit one out because of the Nevin Shapiro scandal. Nicolas didn't get drafted. He spent a preseason with the Giants in 2012 as an undrafted rookie free agent.

Now, he's gone at the age of 24. It's another sad, tragic loss for the Hurricanes family to swallow.

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