‘Under the Lights, One More Time’ gave community a chance to honor NU students who died in crash | TheUnion.com

‘Under the Lights, One More Time’ gave community a chance to honor NU students who died in crash

A cold, unrelenting drizzle didn't deter the community from coming together, clad in ponchos and huddled under umbrellas, to honor Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner Friday night.

"Under the Lights, One More Time" was organized as a memorial to the two Nevada Union High School athletes, who were killed when an allegedly drunken driver crashed head-on into their car at the start of spring break.

That driver, Sabrina Distura, is facing charges of gross vehicular manslaughter, DUI causing injury and DUI with 0.08 percent or more blood alcohol content, as well as possession of a controlled substance.

Nielson died instantly in the crash on March 25, as the friends traveled with their families to Pismo Beach. Gardner was flown to a Modesto hospital, but did not survive.

"Thank you for being here," Sierra Presbyterian Pastor Mike Griffin told the hundreds assembled at NU's Hooper Stadium. "Your presence here means more than you know."

Griffin acknowledged that words could not begin to express the grief being felt, but added, "It's not so much what you will say — it's that you showed up."

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The ceremony began in solemnity, with the football and basketball teams walking in unison onto the football field carrying lights as Emily Fitzpatrick sang "Hallelujah." When Fitzpatrick was done, Gardner's and Nielson's teammates filed off the field, leaving behind the initials "J" and "T" in lights, with images of the two boys scrolling past in a slideshow on the scoreboard..

Coaches, friends and family members took turns sharing memories.

As Scott Wheeler said, "The pain and heartache has really been unbearable. And the anger? That's been there too."

But, Wheeler said, he realized that the best way to cope with those emotions was to cherish every single one of the memories he had.

Both Griffin and Wheeler talked about Nielson's penchant for hugging, with Griffin pausing to urge everyone in attendance to turn to their neighbor and share a hug.

Mark Casey, who coached Gardner in basketball, called him gifted and a fierce competitor, adding, "I shaped him a little bit, but he shaped me even more."

Many of Gardner's family members spoke, including his father, Len, sister, Alyssa, and stepsister, Ashlynne Browning, as well as his girlfriend, Lily Naramore.

Alyssa Gardner thanked those in attendance for their support and urged them to bring awareness to the tragedy of DUI.

"There are not enough words to describe your life and how incredible you are," she said of her brother, before concluding, "You are still by our sides and on our hearts."

With the rain still coming down, the mourners stood silently as the memorial came to a close with a song by Jamal Walker, "Daddy's Arms." Many then came down to the field to take a light for remembrance before heading into Ali Gym, where areas of remembrance had been set up for messages or mementos.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.