HERNANDO — When Stacey Lowe first met Nick Burns, he was pole-vaulting, soaring over a bar on a wobbly pole and landing shoulders-first on a mat.
It was a dangerous event, as he once learned when his pole snapped. But he persevered and won a state medal in his senior year at Lecanto High School.
His mother, Hazel Bunn, never missed one of his soccer games, huddled under blankets throughout the winter season.
The Panthers made it to the state title game, and she cheered from the Fort Lauderdale bleachers as each game got them closer to the title. She beamed when he blocked an opponent's shot, and Nick's team won the state championship.
His pole vaulting coach told the family that Nick feared failure.
"Nick loved to be competitive, to compete and succeed," said Lowe, 22, who was his best friend before she became his girlfriend. "He liked the idea of being challenged."
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Growing up in Homosassa, Nick frustrated his mother by always making faces when she took his picture. Sometimes he would pull his shirt over his knees and hop down the stairs, then lie at the bottom like a dead cockroach.
He and his younger brother, Brian, liked to get into mischief together. Brian remembers his brother clipping a metal pole on a dirt bike.
Nick coveted nice things. He once mowed lawns and did odd jobs so he could afford a $100 pair of blue sneakers.
In high school, Burns rode a blue motorcycle. He crashed it in a brush with the law.
From then on, he stuck to his green Dodge Dakota. He swore he would have that truck until the day he died. It reminded him of the good times he had with friends.
Burns drew people to him with his good nature and humor. He organized his senior class prank, buying 10,000 crickets that he let loose all over the halls of his high school.
The school somehow traced the purchase to his credit card.
But the crickets sang for days in the silence of final exams.
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Burns always wanted to be the best, so when he decided to follow his mother and sister into the military, he joined the Marines. His reserve unit was based in Tampa.
"He wanted to do something more with himself," Bunn said.
When he returned from boot camp, he was bigger and stronger. Lowe felt like he had changed. He steered his little brother away from the military and into the University of South Florida.
Nick looked for a job as a machinist, a trade he learned through the Marines. But he couldn't find work, so he started painting. It didn't take long for him to realize he could run a business himself, so he started Project Painting.
Driving around Citrus County, he networked and built up his customer base, making his company successful even when the economy tanked. He sold his favorite green truck and replaced it with a white work truck. He left potted plants for his customers as a thank-you for hiring him.
A student at Central Florida Community College in Lecanto, Nick was just a few courses away from an associate's degree in business administration.
About two months ago, he bought another motorcycle, this time a cruiser that he figured would save him gas money.
He rode it to Pasco County on Wednesday for a session on business networking. That afternoon, he headed north on U.S. 19. A gray Pontiac Grand Am ran a stop sign on Bougenville Avenue and slammed into him. The driver didn't stop.
A helicopter flew Burns to Bayfront Medical Center, where doctors told his family that he was brain dead. More than 50 people spilled into the hospital hallways and waiting rooms to say their goodbyes.
He died on Thursday at 22.
On Saturday, some friends from the Marines came by. He was scheduled to deploy to Iraq in December.
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]