Nov 21, 2018

A son, brother, best friend and fisherman. Nick’s family tells his life story and who he dreamt to be one day.

Words by Shelbie Goulding | Photos by Sophia Adornetto

Pale blue waves dance in a glass box stretching along a bare wall. Flashes of vibrant blue, orange, purple and yellow flitter back and forth in the water while seagrass and other aquatic plants sway. The setup is a homemade fixture made to perfection by someone who loved to be out on the water. It was his dream to have a piece of the ocean he could call home.

The fish tank sits in the living room where it could be shown off with pride by its creator. “I had a saltwater tank as a kid, and it was a lot of work,” Joe Massa says, “but Nick talked me into doing it.” His son, Nick Massa, was 17 years old at the time. “I helped, but Nick did most of the job by himself,” Joe says.

“Look, just let me do it, leave me alone, let me get it done,” Nick had told his father when building the tank.

Behind the tank there are pipes that slip through drilled holes in the wall. Following its path, the pipes lead to a large, homemade filter system based in its own area of a finished basement. On the ground, tubs filled with water are interspersed with tubes twisting every direction, leading to more tubs filled with more water. It is a complicated, high-maintenance system with a lot of responsibility, but Nick knew what he was doing.

“When he went off to college, he had to show me how to do everything,” Joe says. “This is a daily thing I got to do every morning.”

Nick’s handwriting is stretched across the homemade device explaining what each tub is. He even wrote a to-do list on how to take care of the tank for when the family went on vacation. “This was Nick in a nutshell,” Joe says as he points to his son’s creation. “This was his fish tank.”

February 7, 2016. Most remember this day as Super Bowl 50, where the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24 – 10. However, it wasn’t the same for the Massa family. Instead, they received a phone call that changed everything.

Nick Massa – a freshman in college studying business and entrepreneurship, starting his life as an independent, and following a lifelong dream – was shot and killed during an attempted robbery.

Although Nick wasn’t a student long at Kent State, he still made an impact on the lives of many, especially his family and friends.

“We called him the fish whisperer,” Nick’s mother, Jackie Massa, says. “He always said he had a way with fish.” A large fish is mounted on the wall in Nick’s bedroom. It was his first big fish: a pike. He caught it in Ravenna when he was 13 or 14 years old.

“I watched him [reel it in],” Joe says, “but he said, ‘No, dad, I got this.’ I never thought he was gonna be able to bring it in. It took about 20 minutes but he got it.” Nick’s fishing hat hung draped over the side of its fin. Joe says his son loved being out on the water, and he thought if Nick was out on the water every day he’d grow to hate it, but that wasn’t the case.

Nick fell in love with fishing at a very young age.

Joe says the family went to Florida every summer, and it was a vacation dedicated to fishing for him and Nick. The girls would go to the beach while the boys rented a boat and spent the day off coast.

“He was all about family,” Jackie says. “We were super close and did everything together, and the vacations were always awesome.” Both say the best memories with the family were in Florida, and Nick had always planned to move down there someday.

“He wanted to go down to Florida and open his own fishing charter business,” Jackie says. “He’d say ‘just let me get down there, let me get things started, I’m gonna make a lot of money and then I’m gonna buy a big house and move you guys down there with me.’”

Her face became distressed, and she wipes a tear from her eye. “I’m sorry. It’s still so hard. Every day.”

The Massa family hasn’t been to Florida together since Nick’s death. The vacation there was always about fishing and getting out on the deep blue water, but it’s not the same. Nowadays the family vacations are more low key, and the destination is anywhere but Florida.

“We’ve wanted to go to Disney, but it would be really hard,” Jackie says. Joe begins joking about how his wife is a Disney addict, and Jackie laughs in denial of her love for Disney. They say the family went to Disney in Orlando at least five times. It was one of Jackie’s favorite memories to look back on with the family, but she doesn’t know if she could do it without Nick.

Most vacations are now spent around Christmas. “We decided we didn’t want to spend Christmas [at home] anymore,” Jackie says. The family now travels to a destination far from their home every holiday. The Massa family used to spend the holiday taking the same family picture in front of the fireplace each year.

But after Nick died, the tradition died with him. Now a photo of the last family Christmas, in 2015, hangs above the fireplace with Nick smiling ear-to-ear. Jackie says his smile and presence could always light up a room.

Nick was the comedian of the family. He was always cracking jokes and breaking the tension. Both Jackie and Joe agreed Nick was the reason the family had fun, lively vacations and road trips.

“He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met,” Joe says, “and it’s weird saying that about your son.” Jackie breaks in, “Yeah cause we’re not that funny,” as she chuckles looking at Joe.

Although his way of sharing laughter is greatly missed, no one misses his humor more than Nick’s sister Kelly, 27.

“The one thing I miss the most is how funny he was,” Kelly Massa says. “He could do the best impressions of almost anybody. Like, I’ve seen a lot of the things he could do impressions of that make me laugh.”

Jackie describes the two siblings as inseparable; they even shared the same birthday, Aug. 17.

“He was my best friend,” Kelly says as she looks over to her mother. “I don’t even know where to start.” Kelly continues saying how Nick had the best taste in music – classic rock, Green Day, Blink-182 and rap.

“Lately I’ve had all these free concert tickets, and the first person I would have asked to go would have been him.”

“I’ve never heard Nick rap,” Joe breaks in with a look of confusion on his face. Both Kelly and Jackie begin saying how he would listen to rap during a workout, at a party or in a car. “He never sings it though,” they both say. Joe’s face fills with shock as though he learned something new about his son.

February 7, 2016. While Nick was visiting a friend’s apartment, Damantae Graham – who was 17 years old at the time – broke into the apartment with a group demanding money. According to another friend of Nick’s – Alex Mangels – the apartment’s resident (and friend of Nick) Justin Lewandowski said Graham threatened them, and Nick responded saying Graham wasn’t going to shoot him. Aimed at Nick’s chest, the gun was then fired by Graham. Nick was gone in a matter of minutes.

Not only was a caring, honest and compassionate friend lost that day, but also a loving son, brother, comedian and fisherman.

“The girls aren’t the same as they used to be,” Joes says about Nick’s three sisters. “It’s hard to describe.”

Nick was the third born of his four siblings. Both Jackie and Joe say how Nick’s sisters don’t talk about it a whole lot and that the family as a whole has changed. “We talk all the time and are still close, but we’ll never be as happy as we once were,” Jackie says.

Nick would have been 21 years old this past August, and it was hard for his sisters, especially his youngest sister Sarah, 19. “It’s hard on her because she realizes she’s getting older than Nick was,” Jackie says.

Sarah’s in her sophomore year of college at Baldwin Wallace University. Jackie says every time she and Joe take their daughter to college it’s difficult.

“She originally wanted to go to Kent, but everything changed after,” Jackie says as she processes her thoughts with a blank stare facing down at the wooden floor. “The choice was up to her on whether she wanted to go or not, and I hoped she wouldn’t.” She says her daughter, Jess, 24, had a wonderful four years there, but going back isn’t the same anymore.

“We went out to the campus again and everywhere Sarah looked she said she could see Nick,” Jackie says. “It would have been too much of a struggle for her.”

“They’re still going to be themselves,” Joe says about his three daughters, “but if Jess was out and Jackie texted her at 11 p.m. and she doesn’t answer, Jackie’s going to think ‘what’s wrong?’”

“Until you lose a child you don’t know what that feels like,” Jackie says. “You don’t know if it’ll happen again.”

Jackie says how the girls know and understand how she feels when it comes to staying in touch. She says they do their best to not put her through that kind worry and panic.

Kelly says she used to fish with Nick and still tries to go, but it’s not the same for her father. “We had a boat here up in Cleveland,” Joe says. “We loved it, but it wasn’t the same as being out on the ocean.”

He sold the boat six months after Nick died.

“I just couldn’t do it.” He says he doesn’t fish anymore unless it’s with Kelly. “It’s hard for me to just be by the water.”

The day before Nick died, he surprised his parents at home. He and a group of friends – including Alex Mangels and Justin Lewandowski – were roaming around Cleveland taking pictures and adventuring to different places.

“They would always go to obscure places in Cleveland and take pictures,” Jackie says. “In fact, I was looking at Nick’s Facebook the other day and the last message I sent him was this article on these underground tunnels in Cleveland, and I said ‘Next adventure?’” She looks down in her lap. “I don’t think he got to read that.”

While visiting, Nick showed off his fish tank to his friends and shot airsoft guns in the backyard. They had to head back to Kent soon after. “At least I got to hug him and he told me he loved me,” Jackie says. “It was like he knew.”

“There are some nights where I can’t sleep because I think of Nick,” Joe says. He says how his siblings and members of his band have sons, and it’s hard to cope with it sometimes.

“The guys [band members] would complain about their sons,” he says. “And I never had anything to complain about Nick. But when I hear them complain, they don’t realize how lucky they are.”

Jackie mentions how people forget the things they say makes it harder for them sometimes, but they don’t know or realize it half the time.

“You don’t want people to understand because that means they go through it,” she says. “You just have no clue how bad it hurts or how lost you feel. There’s a piece of me missing and I’ll never be the same person again.”

Jackie says she would run into people at the high school she works at, and they would ask the basic “how are you?” question. The other day she asked that question to a mother she knew that had a daughter the same age as Nick. The mother said, “Oh I’m good. My daughter is graduating from college this year.” Jackie is polite in these situations, but she’s like “yeah that’s great, but I know she is because Nick would have graduated this year.”

People don’t necessarily forget what happened, but they forget out of context. Both Joe and Jackie agree this makes it hard to talk to people sometimes. And even though Nick never got to finish his college experience, his parents saw him change significantly in his first semester of college.

“He had grown a lot lately,” Jackie says. “He started going to the gym to start losing weight, and he dated a girl for a short time – they had just broken up a month before it happened.” Jackie says she saw Nick blossom in just a short amount of time. “He was in love and really happy, and I’m glad he got to experience that.”

Nick was starting to finally feel comfortable with himself by being himself. Jackie saw him start to embrace his personality and flourish.

“He struggled to find his niche,” Jackie says, “and when he went to Kent, I saw him start to blossom. I knew he was going to do a lot of great things there. It would have been nice to see him and where he was at his senior year. God only knows what he would have went on to do after that.”

Joe begins to mention how they have a family song: “More Than a Feeling,” by Boston.

“The weirdest things would happen with our family and for some reason that song would come on,” Joe says as he tears up. “It became our family song.”

He says now when they hear the song they think of Nick and how he would be there listening to it with the family. “The pet store where Nick worked at, I still go there, and I came walking in six months ago out of the blue and at 11 in the morning I walk in and the song came on. I looked at Greg [Nick’s boss] and I said ‘Come on!’ And Greg said ‘It’s one of those days, Joe. He’s here.’”

Since Nick died, his picture hangs on the wall behind the counter of the pet store.

“If I could have five more minutes with Nick, I’d ask, ‘Is there any way I could turn back time to keep you here?’” Joe says. “He was my best friend, and it hurts to know he’s gone.” He knows nothing is going to bring his son back, but he says he’s as proud of him today as the last day he saw him.

“I’d ask if he realized how many lives he touched,” Jackie says. “I don’t think he realized that.” She said she wears his finger print around her neck every day. The family made necklaces of his finger print to always keep him close to their hearts.

When it comes to the water, Nick’s parents both have different perspectives on how to look at it since they’ve lost their son. Where Joe finds it hard, Jackie finds peace. “I feel close to Nick when I’m by the water,” she says. “Just sitting by the ocean I can feel Nick’s with me. I know that’s where he’d be.”