They Used To Skate With Tyre Nichols In Middle School. They Gathered Together To Grieve Him.

“Nobody wants to leave. What are you supposed to do after this?”

SACRAMENTO — It had been years since the old crew gathered at the skate park where they used to spend every day together. They trickled in as the suburban horizon glowed orange, converging with eager hugs and hesitant smiles, eyes lighting up in delayed recognition each time a new face clicked into a familiarity that had faded with time. 

“Yo, remember me?” said Cody Davidek, who had been the first to arrive at Regency Community Skatepark on Monday evening for the memorial for Tyre Nichols. 

“Ay, wassup!” replied Luke Danforth, strolling up with a skateboard in hand. 

Many of them were teenagers the last time they’d seen one another, more than a decade ago. Now in their late 20s and unsure of where to begin catching up, they cut straight to the headlines. 

“I made a family,” said Anderson Williams, who wore a red T-shirt bearing screen-printed photos of Nichols and the words “Skate in Peace.” “Three, all boys.”

“Damn!” Danforth said. 

After they graduated high school, the crew had gradually gone their separate ways. Some went off to college. Some moved out of state, to Arizona or Oregon or Utah. Some found new friend circles in adulthood. Some focused their time on stabilizing their careers and raising children. Williams worked for a soil company. Davidek got a job setting up Dyson displays at Best Buy. Danforth was in sustainable construction. Curtis Currier cofounded a branding agency. John Dumalig went into graphic design. Ryan Wilson became a trucker; Alex Wilson (no relation), a bike technician. 

“It’s like, now we’re all busy with responsibilities and families,” Alex Wilson said. 

The group of childhood friends grew larger as the evening darkened to night, until more than a dozen of them stood at the corner of the skate park, hands tucked into pockets, hoods drawn over their beanies to block the windchill. Good to see you, they all kept saying. But this was a reunion none of them could have anticipated, their divergent lives drawn together once more by their shared love for an old friend they’d lost in a tragedy they were still trying to process.

Speaking the thought that crossed all of their minds, Danforth said, “I wish we were together under better circumstances.”

Unzipping his backpack, Dumalig pulled out candles that he handed out to everyone in the crew. He was a few years older than the others and widely admired for having been the best skater of the group. He considered Nichols a “younger brother.”

“Get in here, get your candles,” he said to the others. “We got plenty of flame, dude.”

Around them, the skate park was quickly filling with people. Eventually, more than 100 would show up to the memorial for Nichols, the 29-year-old killed by police officers in Memphis, where he had moved in 2020. Five officers face murder charges. A sixth has been suspended. The unit they were a part of has been disbanded. Video of the brutal beating has spread far and wide, but most of Nichols’s old crew said they’ve tried to avoid it. Nichols joins a long list of hashtagged names that police violence has made famous, but to the friends who’d known him a long time, his death is not a rallying cry but an acute and intimate pain. 

“Some days, when I think about him, it hurts so much that I try to just sleep it off,” Williams said.   

“I wish I could’ve seen him more,” Danforth said.

“When you get older, it’s hard to stay in touch sometimes,” said Alex Wilson, lighting his candle below a cupped hand to shield the breeze.  

Away from the news cameras and the crowd clustering in the center of the park, the crew gathered behind a big ramp at the far edge, placing their candles in a tight circle along its base. Arms draped around one another, they huddled together over the flickering warmth, memories rushing back with a flood of nostalgia.  

“This place was the best, man,” said Ryan Wilson, gazing around at the ramps where he first learned to skate. 

“Anybody who showed up here was part of the family,” Danforth said.

Danforth and Alex Wilson had been the first in the crew to move into this subdivision in Natomas, a vast and flat Sacramento suburb spanning from the airport to the city center. When their families arrived in the early 2000s, most of the neighborhood, including Regency Park, was still under construction, part of a housing boom sweeping across the vacant grasslands north of the city. 

Conveniently located at the intersection of Interstates 5 and 80 — Northern California’s two main arteries — Natomas offered easy access to downtown at an affordable price that lured first-time homebuyers from around the region and across a diverse range of class backgrounds and ethnicities.   

As more houses went up, more young families moved in to fill them. Tyre Nichols and his father arrived around five months after Danforth and Alex Wilson. The three preteens explored their unfinished neighborhood together. Some days, they traversed the wood frames of soon-to-be houses, trying to shoot each other with airsoft guns. Most days, they met up at Regency Park, which, at the time, was just fields of dirt surrounding a construction zone that workers covered with tarp when they clocked out every evening. Beneath the tarp, a skate park was taking shape. Danforth, Alex Wilson, and Nichols were all novice skateboarders, and after the construction workers would leave, they’d pull off the tarps and test their moves on the freshly installed ramps and rails. 

Soon, grass covered the dirt, walls filled in the wood frames, and Regency Park bustled with kids who all lived within blocks of one another. The school bus dropped the neighborhood kids off at the corner, and every day around 20 of them would head straight for the skate park. 

The after-school routine persisted through rain and freezing temperatures, all through middle school and high school. On nights when the moon was full or blood red, the crew met at the park to skate under its light. After their sessions, a few of them would head to Ryan Wilson’s place to play Grand Theft Auto V on Xbox. They’d stay up late talking about their dreams. Ryan Wilson remembers Nichols remarking that he just hoped “to find his place in this world.”

“He always wanted to just make everyone around him smile.”

“It started out as just skating, but when the sun goes down and you’re real tired and stuff, that’s when the real bond forms and the real friendship starts blossoming,” Ryan Wilson said. 

On weekends and in the summer, Nichols would be back out at the park in the morning. Some kids skated more than others, but nobody skated more than Nichols. Whenever he could, he’d stay out there eight hours, a fixture on the ramps, the iPod in his ears bumping music so loudly that others at the park could hear the hip-hop or metal pouring out.  

“He was there every single day,” Danforth said. “He brought so much joy to it.”

“He always wanted to just make everyone around him smile,” Ryan Wilson said. 

“Everybody who met him wanted to be his friend,” Dumalig said. 

"Every time I'd see him, it's like, 'This kid's always so psyched, I can't be bummed,'" said Currier, who was a few years older than Nichols and worked at a local skate shop that the crew frequented. "It was an infectious, beautiful energy."

In the parks of Natomas, where some kids maintained hard exteriors and kept a skeptical distance from peers outside their friend group, Nichols stood out for his easygoing nature: quick to welcome newcomers and adept at defusing the tensions of juvenile conflicts with jokes and a relentless warmth. 

Though Nichols quickly became one of the more talented skaters at the park, he was best known for his willingness to teach others. At least three members of his old crew credited him with guiding them through their first tricks.  

“Tyre was always hyping people up,” Dumalig said. 

“If you ever skated up here, you knew him,” said Davidek, who wore a white T-shirt that he’d written phrases on in red marker: “RIP Tyre,” “Justice for Tyre,” and “What did I do?” which Nichols had said to the police after they pulled him out of his car, recorded in bodycam footage. 

Nichols had been at the park the first time Davidek showed up to try to skate. Though Davidek was “the worst one out here,” he said, Nichols introduced himself and helped him learn how to keep his balance. 

Williams said he first encountered Nichols when they were 12. At the time, many kids were moving into the neighborhood quickly, creating an intimidating environment of unfamiliar faces. Williams was at the park by himself watching Nichols and a few other kids skate when Nichols paused to ask if he wanted to borrow his board. The two alternated rounds up and down the ramp. 

“He just looked like a good dude, so I gave it a go,” Williams said. 

During breaks in the action, Nichols would run to the CVS down the street and return with Cheetos and Arizona Mucho Mango Tea tall cans for all his friends. 

“All those years, I never saw Tyre pick a fight with a single person,” Danforth said. 

After a beat, Dumalig added, “Unless someone waxed the coping on the mini ramp.”

Everybody burst into laughter. 

“That mini ramp was his baby,” Ryan Wilson said. 

Waxing the coping on the mini ramp, which is a small half-pipe, meant making it more slippery, giving skaters a faster but riskier ride. Nichols didn’t like that. He was a “thoughtful skater,” Alex Wilson said. “He didn’t haul ass down the ramp. He had a really laid-back style.”

Those memories made it hard for his friends to reckon with the reality that Nichols had fallen victim to police violence. Some learned of his death on social media. Others heard about it from their parents. 

“I didn’t believe it at first,” said Williams, who had weekly phone calls with Nichols up until the end. “Of all of the kids we hung out with around here, that’s the last one you’d expect something like this to happen to.”

“He was just so peaceful,” Davidek said. 

The chatter came to a hush as the memorial service began. The Regency Park crew represented just one slice of an expansive life that crossed a range of social circles, leaving an impact at every stage. Aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins shared stories. One sang a song. Another, a poem. Prayers were recited, memories recounted, and tears shed. Laughter rippled across the night, and blunt smoke wafted into the starry sky. More than two dozen people stepped up to the microphone to tell the world how Nichols had brought them joy. After each reflection, the skate crew tapped their boards on the ground in applause, a rhythmic clatter echoing through the park.

The service lasted more than an hour, and after it wound down and the family representatives thanked the crowd for showing up, many stayed.

“Nobody wants to leave,” Danforth said. “What are you supposed to do after this?”

The old friends exchanged phone numbers, vowed to keep in touch more than they had, made vague plans to meet again soon. Dumalig told the others that a guy he knew was making a skateboard to honor Nichols. Everyone in the crew wanted one.

“I didn’t believe it at first. Of all of the kids we hung out with around here, that’s the last one you’d expect something like this to happen to.”

“A deluxe Tyre board,” Dumalig said. 

“That’s going on the wall,” Danforth said.

Some, like Danforth and Alex Wilson, still come out to skate at Regency Park every now and then, though they live in other parts of Sacramento, a city in the midst of a renaissance. New bars line midtown. The gleaming new Downtown Commons boasts a basketball arena and a collection of restaurants. Young people priced out of the Bay Area have poured in, fueling rising housing prices and a burgeoning cultural scene.   

Few in the old crew still live in Natomas, which has continued to develop over the years, blooming more subdivisions for young families to live in and more parks brimming with kids forging friendships that feel like they will last forever. 

The crowd at the memorial service slowly filtered out. Relatives put out the candles. Camera crews packed their gear. Old friends slapped hands, hugged, and began to part ways. 

“I know all of you guys,” Nichols’s uncle Johnie Honeycutt said to Danforth and Alex Wilson. “And y’all were such a big part of Tyre’s life. He really loved y’all.” 

“We all loved him,” Danforth said.

As Ryan Wilson exited the park, he found himself overcome with emotion. 

“Seeing all my friends and everything…” He trailed off. “I was getting so many hugs from so many old friends.”

He thought about how easily they had drifted apart as the years passed, how swiftly plans to stay in touch can dissolve, how social media can belie the urgency to schedule that catch-up call.

“I can’t even tell you how many people are reaching out to me, old friends I’ve missed so freaking dearly,” he said. “I think this unfortunate tragedy has kind of helped rekindle some friendships that I should have taken more care of in the past.”

Even in death, he reflected, Nichols was bringing people together, as he had in life. ●

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