HEARTS OF GOLD: Tyler Nielson, Justin Gardner represented their families, community and school with great skill and grace | TheUnion.com

HEARTS OF GOLD: Tyler Nielson, Justin Gardner represented their families, community and school with great skill and grace

As one defender after another latched on to the scrum — each one trying with all their might to pull down the ball carrier — Tyler Nielson kept churning his legs. The determined running back kept fighting for extra yards and for his team.

There was no quit in No. 5. His drive and talent were evident for all those who watched him play the game he loved.

With similar passion and determination, Justin Gardner competed in front of a packed gym during the Nevada Union Invitational Basketball Tournament opener. The skilled sophomore played with maturity and tenacity as he led the Miners to victory in front of a raucous crowd.

The gifted multi-sport athlete was just beginning what most, including this writer, believed would be a decorated athletic career.

Their playing days are tragically over, though, as Nielson, 17, and Gardner, 16, lost their lives Sunday when the automobile they were in was struck by an alleged drunk driver.

The two engaging and talented Miners were more than just athletes. They were sons, grandsons, brothers, friends, teammates, students and so much more to so many.

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What I know about these two young men comes from a handful of interviews and interactions while watching them compete on the sports stage.

A stage that beckons one's competitive self. A stage that puts one into difficult situations and forces split second decisions all while throngs of one's peers and fellow community members watch with expectation. A stage that truly bares one's true nature.

And while on that stage — these two young men were brilliant.

"Tyler was a talented football player with natural running back skills," said Dennis Houlihan, who coached Nielson in high school and as far back as youth football. "He was a very big hearted, caring young man. His loss is devastating. Taken way too young. Before his prime. But, he touched so many. I was very close to him, loved him as if he were my own. He will be missed."

Nielson was a standout athlete in multiple sports at an early age and his name was one that has been landing in The Union's sports pages for years.

Once in high school, football was his sport. He was a three-year varsity starter at running back and a fiercely loyal teammate. I interviewed Nielson many times, watching him mature from a sophomore who answered questions with one word sentences to a senior who responded with thoughtful answers in which he shared his belief in his team and his love for the game.

I also watched and marveled at his determination on the field as he went to work every Friday night against some of the best defenses in the state. He scrapped and fought for every one of his 1,824 career rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. His on the field efforts weren't lost on the coaches he faced in league play as Nielson was a two-time All-Sierra Foothill League selection. He was planning to play college ball at Sierra in the fall.

"Tyler has been a mainstay at Nevada Union for four years. His smile lights up a room," Nevada Union Athletic Director Jeff Dellis said. "His future was incredibly bright."

It certainly was.

Nevada Union boys basketball coach Mark Casey said what made Gardner special was his heart.

"His biggest gift was his big heart and it translated into energy. It translated into tenacity. It translated into toughness. And, it translated into a caring kid that cared about his teammates and his friends," Casey said.

Gardner's future was also incredibly bright. A 6-foot, 4-inch athlete who could do it all on the basketball court and showed flashes of stardom on the football field.

"Justin Gardner was a talented athlete who had a definite future in sports," said Houlihan, who coached Gardner during the 2017 football season. "So young, just finding his way in football and such a tragic loss to our community. Both boys were great players, great students and loved by many."

His skill was matched only by his work ethic and effort. He was a player that made all his teammates better.

"Without question, he was the heart and soul of our team," Casey said. "He made us tougher, he made us more competitive and we had fun doing it. And, personally he made me a better coach.

"We trusted each other and we loved each other. He helped me adapt a little bit and I helped him grow a little bit."

Nielson and Gardner were true Miners — hard working and skilled. The loss is an unimaginable one for their families and friends as well as to the community and Nevada Union family.

"This is beyond tragic," Dellis said. "Two beautiful young men that leave behind family, friends, teammates and classmates, all of whom are reeling right now."

They are gone far too soon, but during their time here they represented the Miners, the community and their families well. May Tyler and Justin rest in peace.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email wford@theunion.com.

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