Nicolas Elizalde had begged his mother to let him play soccer for years, but she always said no, too worried about the injuries that can come with the sport.
This year, Nick started high school in a new area and needed a way to make friends. So Meredith Elizalde relented. And in August, they went to the athletic store to buy him a new pair of shoes.
Those were the cleats she saw from afar Tuesday as she ran toward the sound of gunfire outside Roxborough High School.
But even before she saw them, she knew.
“I just knew it was going to be him,” she said.
She ran up the hill as crowds of others playing and watching the football game fled the area. At the bottom of the school stairs, she found her only child on the ground with a gunshot wound to the chest. She grabbed her son and held him to the ground. Help was on the way, but with the traffic it didn’t come fast enough.
“I touched his face and I said, ‘I love you and I’m here,'” she said. “And I kept calling his name, saying, ‘I’m here, I’m here’.”
A police officer took them both, and Meredith held her son as long as she could in the back seat of the cruiser.
“I felt him go,” she said.
On his behalf, she recited the shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith, as he took his last breath.
Doctors at Einstein Medical Center were unable to revive him.
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Police said five gunmen fired more than 60 shots at a small group of Roxborough soccer players as they headed toward their locker room. Investigators believe the shooters, who they have said are also juveniles, were potentially targeting a 17-year-old who was near the group but not on the team.
Four other boys aged 14 to 17 were shot. They remain in a stable state. The shooters arrived and fled in a stolen SUV and have not been caught.
The violence galvanized the local community and drew outrage from politicians, professional athletes and city leaders who questioned where, if not in school and recreational activities, the city’s children could be safe.
And Nick’s family is devastated, his mother forced to mourn the loss of her only child, supported only by the notion that perhaps her son was too good for this world.
“God took him to protect him from what this world would do to him,” said Elizalde, a teacher at the School of the Future in West Philly. “But I will speak for him. I will work for the rest of my life so that he is not forgotten. He is not a number.”
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Nicolas Gabriel Elizalde was born at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland and grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, spending most of his formative years in Havertown, Delaware County. After attending Havertown Middle School, he was interested in diversifying his friends and studies for high school, his mother said. He was accepted at Walter B. Saul High in Roxborough, and they planned to move into the neighborhood Dec. 1.
Because Saul does not have his own athletic teams, he played for Roxborough. He loved basketball – especially the 76ers – and planned to play for the school team this winter. On the football team he played corner. His favorite athletes — like Jalen Hurts, Furkan Korkmaz, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Jenkins — inspired him on and off the field, his mother said.
“He was happier than he’s ever been,” Elizalde said.
He loved all things science, such as sci-fi movies Star wars and the Marvel movies and animals, especially his Aunt Margie’s pug, Tag. He had recently become interested in botany and herbal medicine, his mother said. For his 15th birthday, which he would have celebrated on October 8, she bought him a guide to indigenous community healing rituals. It was delivered on Thursday, two days after he died.
Nick got involved in politics from a young age, his mother said, but the 2016 election fueled his desire to stand up against injustice. He participated in protests and marches around the region with his mother for Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, climate change and stopping gun violence.
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His father, Manuel, is from Almoloya de Alquisiras, Mexico, and Nick was proud of his Chicano roots.
He never disobeyed his parents, and he was so gentle, Elizalde said, that even when she told him to stand up to a bully, he would refuse: “I could just make him my friend instead,” she recalled , that he said.
“He wouldn’t even kill bugs,” said his grandmother, Marge LaRue. “We used to catch them and let them outside.”
He made his bed every morning and kept his room tidy. On Tuesday, before going to school, he left a note on top of his stuffed animals reminding himself which Invisalign braces he needed throughout the week.
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It was still there Friday, his room a snapshot of innocence and youth: his Guardians of the Galaxy linens; personal paintings of wolves and elephants on the walls; a plush cheetah animal draped across his headboard. His dresser was lined with figures of Star wars grades and his favorite Sixer, Joel Embiid, and a ticket to the 76ers game he attended with his mom over the summer lay carefully in the corner.
Nick could be shy, but to those who knew him, he was cheerful and funny. He invented nicknames for his friends and gave good advice, they said.
“Nick was a sweet, kind, shy and funny person,” a ninth-grade classmate wrote in a new school assignment. “Nick didn’t deserve [to die]. … He never did anything wrong. He was a very humble person.”
He was one of the first people Rafael Arias met at Saul. They shared a homeroom and walk through their picturesque campus.
“He loved to talk about football, he was excited about his games,” said Arias, 14. “He was a very outgoing person and he had a lot of friends.”
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Nick, for fun, even read the paper. He and his grandmother loved sharing articles from The Inquirer’s sports section and discussing current events, she said.
His reading translated into school assignments where he was thoughtful and witty. A recent assignment showed how he reflected on the people in his life: His mother, who made sure he was loved, nurtured and supported. His father, with whom he enjoyed movies The matrix. His grandmother, who “would cook for me as if I were her own son.” His aunt who made him feel safe and uncle who played football with him.
“These are the people who run my world,” he said.
Just six days before his death, he wrote an English paper about why people break rules, nodding to people he admired, such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, who he said broke laws for higher purposes.
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He was rarely disciplined at home, he said, but acknowledged that it was partly a privilege to write, in what would become a sad irony, that some people break rules not because they are inherently bad, but perhaps ” they sometimes do it out of their bad situations.”
Nick’s corneas were donated and used to save the sight of two people, his mother said. His family has found some comfort in this in the aftermath, holding on to a hope that these recipients will see the world as Nick did: with gentleness and unwavering love.