He wasn’t the typical 21-year-old. He wasn’t a big partier, but family was important to him. He had three brothers and adored his two young nieces! He spent most of his free time hanging out with his brother, Noah. They loved to watch sports and play video games. In fact, Nick was an avid gamer! He might chill with a beer or two while playing online with friends, but he did it from home.
He was working at Lowes and living at home, but planning to start college classes in the Fall of 2016. In July of that year, he had to scrounge up some extra money to pay for tires on his truck. His mom, Mandy, worked as the only screen printer in a small shop and often had to work overtime including weekends. To earn some extra money, Nick had worked a few hours with her the week of July 25, 2016. She asked if he wanted to work that weekend as well, but he was already scheduled to work at Lowe’s on Saturday and said he may have “plans” for 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 they had been drinking. Nick and Jackie drank a few total because they didn’t buy it. Mandy says that’s just the way Nick was. He didn’t like to take advantage of people, and because of the tires, he had been short on money that week. So it made sense that he wouldn’t have had much. They had just left the marina and should have been going slow through the no-wake zone. However, the driver had the boat at maximum speed – about 45mph. Witnesses say he was going so fast that the front of the boat was out of the water.
That was where Nick was riding – in the front of the boat. Jackie was lying on the seat next to him with her feet in his lap. Jackie says they both had their eyes closed and were enjoying the sunshine and the wind on their faces. The driver’s wife was beside him in the passenger seat. But a relaxing day on the water turned tragic in an instant. The driver drove head-on into a barge moored to the bank. His BAC registered .23 over four hours after the crash.
Nick’s head had taken most of the impact. He was lifeflighted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. When Mandy got the call, she and Nick’s stepdad rushed to the hospital. 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 nothing prepares you for the moment when it’s actually being delivered to YOU! “The statement was out of 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, what exactly had happened on the water. But Jackie got her message and immediately called Mandy back 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 whole family was devastated by Nick’s loss 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 year before he died, Mandy had won a skydiving jump. After seeing the video, Nick had wanted to go. Mandy had plans to take him for his birthday in 2017. But she never got the chance. A local radio station heard about it and joined with the skydiving company for a fundraiser called “Nick’s Jump,” raising money for his scholarship and the MADD Tennessee office.
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.”