The two vehicles swerved to avoid a collision and wound up in the same lane where they hit head on. Nico's father was wearing his seatbelt but his truck caught fire and he was pronounced dead at the scene. The other driver survived and was later convicted of intoxication manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years.
"I guess if I were to say something that's important to me outside of sports it would be my family," said Ornelas, roughly a week before National Signing Day when he signs his NCAA Letter of Intent with Oklahoma State and becomes a Cowboy.
"I try to make my family proud every day, and since that day make my dad proud every day."
Joel Ornelas could be like lots of fathers. His dad grew up in Amarillo, Texas and his sport in high school was wrestling where he was a four-year letterman at Caprock High School. He had worked most of his adult life helping others as a civil servant, including the last 22 years with the United States Citizen and Immigration Services.
"My dad was always involved in sports and he was always at my games and supporting me," described Nico, who has the full first name of Nicholas. "In the summer before he passed away he coached our 7-on-7 team to the state championship and then we went and won a national tournament. That was a great time."
It was three days before Nico and his Richland Rebel teammates started football practice before Nico's junior season that his father's life was taken.
"I missed the first few days of practice with the funeral and everything," recalled Ornelas. "The first day back was really tough because my dad was one of those dads that was at every practice and he stood in the same place every day. He didn't know but I would look over there and when I came back I looked over and he wasn't there ... I would talk to him after practice and he wasn't there."
Ornelas made his official visit to Oklahoma State on a huge weekend in January where Mike Gundy and his staff hosted 16 other future members of the 2011 recruiting class. Already in school were early enrollees, quarterback J.W. Walsh of Denton Guyer and offensive lineman Travis Cross of Plano West, so most of the 2011 class was present on that weekend.
In our interviews with the prospects after the visit weekend we asked which of their new classmates made an impression on them, and more answered Ornelas than any other member of the class.
Ornelas likes to have fun, especially in situations like that.
"I've got something on a lot of those guys," he says. "I've been on my own, and I've had to grow up a lot earlier than most guys my age. If there was anything positive that came out of losing my dad it was I had to take on the role of the man in the house."
Nico's mother and his father were divorced before the accident. His mother, Nancy Nathan, works for a software company that specializes in software for airlines.
"I knew that she couldn't give up her job and she was traveling a lot, so I had to do a lot of the chores, wash and iron clothes, fix meals, take my younger brother (Andy) where he needed to go and to his practices.," said Ornelas. "We had friends helping, but I understood that I had to be there for my family."
Nico is a success story and not just because he has made 225 tackles in three years as a starting varsity linebacker at Richland, not because he was all-district and on the Texas Football Magazine Third Team Super Team. Nico Ornelas is also a success story because he is a good student and a good person.
Besides strong football schools like Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska recruiting him, he was also sought out by schools like Northwestern, Purdue, Rice and Virginia, some schools that take a harder look at academics.
"Sometimes I think that maybe this (college scholarship) at Oklahoma State wouldn't have happened if I hadn't had to deal with growing up because of losing my dad," said Ornelas. "Things happen for a reason. I really wish he could be here for all of this."
Nico's mother, Nancy, is preparing for a new chapter in Nico's life. She will no doubt be that enthusiastic mom wearing a jersey with her son's number on it in the stands at Boone Pickens Stadium.
NCAA rules don't allow fans to shower players with much. However, there are a lot of dads in the stands at Oklahoma State games. I think they can all agree that Nico Ornelas has honored that promise to his family and to his father. And when he looks up in the stands every Cowboy father can certainly give him that look of approval he deserves, and there is no NCAA rule that would discourage that.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story and profiles on all of Oklahoma State's signees in the recruiting class will appear in the next issue of Go Pokes Magazine. To subscribe,
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