He was working at Lowe’s and living at home with his mom, stepdad, and brother, Jake, but was planning to take college classes in the fall of 2016. When Nick was short on money he would sometimes help his mom at the screen printing shop where she worked. He had worked with her some the week of July 25, 2016, and she had asked if he wanted to help that weekend. But he was scheduled to work at Lowe’s on Saturday and said he had plans on Sunday. Mandy says he had been a little secretive about the girl he had been seeing lately, so she didn’t ask any questions. Nick had been secretive, because, like any 21-year-old would be, he wasn’t comfortable confiding to his mom that, Jackie, the girl he had been dating, was 34-years-old.
On Sunday, July 31, 2016, he and Jackie joined one of Jackie’s friends and her husband, both in their forties, on their pontoon boat for a day on the water. They went out on the Tennessee River in Decatur County in the Perryville area. The friend’s husband, who was driving the boat, had bought beer and had been drinking throughout the day. They decided at some point to go back to the house they had on the river and change for dinner.
The driver was in the drivers’ seat with his wife right next to him. Nick was riding on the front of the boat facing the driver with Jackie lying on the seat with her feet in his lap. Jackie says she and Nick both had their eyes closed and were enjoying the sunshine and the wind on their faces. But a relaxing day on the water turned tragic in an instant. The driver drove head-on into a barge moored to the bank. Witnesses say he was going so fast that the front of the boat was out of the water and was traveling at a high rate of speed. His BAC registered .13 four hours after the crash.
Nick’s head had taken most of the impact. He was Life-flighted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville from the Decatur County Hospital. When Mandy got the call, she and Nick’s stepdad made the agonizing drive to Nashville, more than 2 hours away. When they arrived, they were escorted to a room where Nick’s dad and stepmom were waiting. The doctors came in and explained that Nick had a severe head trauma and he had already lost a lot of blood when he was brought in. They had given him five units of blood, but were unable to save him.
Mandy recalls seeing doctors give families news like that on ER TV shows, but says absolutely nothing prepares you for the moment when it’s actually being delivered to you! “The statement was like a nightmare,” she says. She asked to see Nick because she needed to see him. She was hoping it wasn’t him. But it was.
She sat with him and gave him a mother’s goodbye and then had to watch as Noah came in and fell to pieces at his brother’s side. She made the tough phone calls – to his other brothers and to her own dad. Then she messaged the girl she suspected Nick had been seeing. At that point, she really didn’t know what had happened, who he was with, or even why he was on a boat. Jackie got her message and immediately called Mandy wanting to know where Nick was. Jackie had actually been sent to the Vanderbilt trauma unit as well. Her back had been broken in the crash. Mandy had to tell her that Nick didn’t make it.
Mandy says Nick would have been a fantastic dad, but she will never know his children. His nieces, under two-years-old, will never know their uncle. The family was devastated by the loss of Nick and the whole community was impacted. His high school, West Carroll High School, started a baseball scholarship in Nick’s name. In May of 2017, they held the First Annual Nick Willhoit Alumni Scholarship Game. A local t-ball team wore his baseball number on their sleeves and had “A Night for Nick” – a fundraiser for the scholarship fund where they unveiled a jersey with his number on it.
The month before the crash, in June of 2016, Mandy had won a skydiving jump. After seeing the video, Nick had said he would like to go. Mandy had plans to take him for his birthday in 2017. But she never got the chance. The radio station where Mandy had won the skydive in 2016, called in 2017 asking to interview her for the giveway that year. When they heard about Nick, they decided to jump for Nick and created “Nick’s Jump,” to raise money for his scholarship fund and for MADD.
Mandy shares a poem she wrote that speaks the cry of every mother’s heart who has ever lost her child to impaired driving. And she begs, as she speaks for Nick, “Think before you get behind the wheel after drinking, on the road or on the water. Just don’t do it.”