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Friends, colleagues and former students of John Nichols, still reeling from the unexpected death of the Toisnot Middle athletic director and soccer coach Thursday, remembered him as a dedicated teacher and administrator, a passionate coach and, most of all, a good friend.
“He had a heart of gold and truly loved Toisnot with all that he had and those kids,” said Joanna Farriss, one of Nichols’ fellow physical education teachers and coaches at Toisnot. “I was not surprised that what he wanted, in lieu of flowers, were donations to be made toward Toisnot athletics. I thought that was really a testament to the kind of person that he was and where his heart was for that school. He loved Toisnot, and he loved those kids with all he had.”
Nichols, 49, died of complications from pancreatic cancer, a disease that he was unaware that he had until recently, Farriss said. News of his death spread quickly Thursday and Friday, leaving his friends, co-workers and current and former students and players stunned.
“It was pretty much a shock to everyone,” said Brent Pearson, the athletic director at Elm City Middle who worked with Nichols for 12 years.
Nichols, whose funeral was Sunday, left behind his mother, Jean Draughn Nichols of Wilson; father, Romer Clarence Nichols, and wife, Nancy, of Forest City; sister, Wendy Nichols Anderson, and husband, Todd, and niece, Caroline Thorne Anderson, all of Wilson.
“John was just a good guy, a nice person, and his students loved him to death,” said Wilson County Schools athletic director Jimmy Tillman. “A lot of parents of the student-athletes that he coached were at his funeral and that speaks his volumes about the kind of person he was.”
SUCCESS AT ELM CITY
Nichols, a Florida native and 1992 graduate of Appalachian State University, moved to Wilson in 2003 to become, at first, a science teacher and soccer coach at Elm City Middle.
“John was really awesome to work with,” Pearson said. “He was one of those guys who would always do anything for you. He would ask what he could do to help me set up on game days and took some of the work away from me. He was that kind of guy.”
Nichols coached football for one year at Elm City then found his calling coaching boys and girls soccer. Both his Vikings and Lady Vikings won numerous conference championships, and he won more than 300 career games, no small number when his teams usually played fewer than 15 matches per season.
“Obviously, he was an awesome coach for the soccer program,” Pearson said. “He won a lot of games, had a lot of talented players come through his program and flourished at Fike and even after.”
Kathy Proctor has two children, E.J. and Dawson, who played for Nichols at Elm City.
“He made soccer fun and not stressful, but he still somehow always managed to have winning teams,” Kathy Proctor said. “He continued to follow his players’ high school soccer careers and would even go to a few Fike games.
“When Emma Jane was on his team, he sent me an email about how well she had played in a game the day before. He said he just wanted me to know how much he appreciated how hard she had played in order to win that game! It was obvious to me that he really loved his players and wanted to see them succeed in life.”
E.J. Proctor, who went on to have a standout career as a goalkeeper at Duke University before playing briefly in the National Women’s Soccer League earlier this year, remembers Nichols as “about the most selfless coach that I ever had.
“He never wanted any recognition and he had a lot of good players that played under him and went on to play at much higher levels,” she said. “He never wanted any recognition for that, but he always kept up with my career.”
E.J. Proctor also recalled the lessons she learned from Nichols, including the consequences of getting in trouble in class with her fellow team managers in sixth grade.
“He made us go out after practice and push his truck around,” she said. “I think that was one of the first times a coach reprimanded me for anything, but it was good. I just learned then that what I do reflects the character of the team.”
Nichols also set a standard for his players, requiring them to run 2 miles in a certain time before practice each day.
“I remember one day I didn’t do it in the time and thinking, ‘Man, if I want to be a good soccer player I’ve got to get a lot better than this,’” Proctor recalled. “He was the first coach that really made (conditioning) a focus of mine.”
NEW CHALLENGE AT TOISNOT
When Nichols moved over to Toisnot in 2014, later adding athletic director to his duties, he found a new challenge awaiting him. Joe Lucas, the Hawks football coach and friend of Nichols, said: “He was an advocate for the student-athlete there and for the kids there. He was always trying to get better equipment for the kids.”
Lucas said that Nichols worked hard to get a new scoreboard for the football field at Toisnot.
“That was his dream — to get it up before football season,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not up now, but I would love to see it up because that was one of his dreams.”
Nichols brought something with him from Elm City.
“When he took over the coaching position at Toisnot, the drive and the passion that he had at Elm City, you could see it at Toisnot, too,” Lucas said. “That’s one thing that I think that being a coach and being successful as a coach, the kids can sense the drive in you and the motivation in you.”
Lucas chuckled at the memory of how happy Nichols was when his Toisnot team beat Pearson’s Elm City team for the first time.
“The first time he beat Coach Pearson over at Elm City Middle, who is a good friend of his, that was good to him!” Lucas said. “I remember he said, ‘Elm City’s probably going to take all my pictures and trophies down!’”
Both Farriss and Lucas noted Nichols’ rapport with the students.
“He was a gentle giant, and the kids knew how to work him,” Lucas said.
Toni Varacchi, the girls soccer coach at Fike who previously coached boys soccer there as well, coached many of Nichols’ former players at both schools.
“He was a great guy to work with when I worked with him. I know that all my kids raved about him, what a great guy and coach and teacher he is,” she said.
And Nichols seemed to find his place at Toisnot, despite 11 great years at Elm City.
“He told me there wasn’t any other middle school that he wanted to be at besides Toisnot,” Lucas said. “He said he felt like he could do more for Toisnot than any other middle school in the county. So he felt at home there.”
Lucas said that he and Nichols got to be very good friends, bonding while spending time on the athletic fields at Toisnot.
“He was a good friend, and he was the type of person that he could make your day,” Lucas said. “You could talk to him about stuff that was going on with you, and he would listen. That’s what I liked about him.”
Nichols loved to go fishing on his boat near Emerald Isle, and Lucas said he would always say that he would take him out on it one day.
One thing they discussed was Nichols’ mysterious illness that caused him to start losing weight last fall. At first, Lucas said, Nichols, who had a few pounds to lose, was excited.
“But then he started losing so much, a red flag went up,” Lucas said.
Farriss said that she didn’t think Nichols was aware that he had cancer until after school ended this spring. She maintained contact with him by text, learning that he had a tumor and then before and after his surgery to remove it. But, she said, Nichols didn’t return her texts earlier this week, and she later learned that his condition deteriorated rapidly. He died not long after being admitted to the hospital.
“It was big shock that this happened as fast as it did,” Farriss said. “But I’m going to strive every day to make him proud and to continue the way he started to teach there.”
With school starting back in just a few weeks, Nichols’ absence will be front and center at Toisnot Middle.
“Yeah, he’s going to be missed. He’s going to be missed a lot,” Farriss said. “He was a very positive person, always willing to help you out and find out information. He was just a good guy, a really good guy.”