Family, loss, lacrosse

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Nicky Galasso said his mother, who died when he was young, inspired him in his lacrosse. Galasso keeps a photo of his mother and father in his wallet.

At first glance, Nicky Galasso has it all.

The North Carolina sophomore attackman sits inside the lacrosse office coming off the best freshman season in program history. Gold trophies fill two long, clear cases that run along the side of the office, a reminder that he plays for one of the top programs in the nation.

With a penchant for practical jokes, his teammates are drawn to his loose, rarely serious nature off the field. On it, senior Thomas Wood calls him the team’s Kendall Marshall in the way he completely commands the field.

He even has the looks. He stands at 6 feet with broad shoulders and a natural frame that most athletes spend years trying to form. His amiable smile and slight Long Island accent are inviting to all. He has a sharp, man’s face topped with short, curly brown hair.

In high school, where he was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the nation in his sophomore season, that same face appeared on two national magazine covers.

A wizard with the woven pocket, he can do things on a lacrosse field that others simply can’t.

But Galasso doesn’t want all of that. He never has. At UNC, he has found the one thing he does want — family. And after all he has been through in his life, that’s all he needs.

Momma’s boy

Growing up the youngest of five boys in West Islip, N.Y., Galasso had to scrap for everything he wanted.

Galasso would jump in his siblings’ football or dodgeball games, sometimes even their fights. His oldest brother, Sal, who is now 28, said that made Nicky grow up quickly.

“I used to get beat up all the time when I was younger,” Nicky said. “I would always cry and stuff to my mom and dad because they were picking on me. I guess they just made me tougher and made me the player who I am.”

No matter what happened, his mother, Cindy, was always there for him.

Nicky was close with his family. His brothers were his best friends, and he was tight with his father. But he was especially close to his mother.

When Nicky was younger, he would cry when he was away at sleepovers. Only two doors down, he would call his mother at 5 a.m. to come pick him up. He couldn’t stand to be away from her.

“They called me the hemorrhoid,” he said. “I was always up my mom’s butt; I was like a momma’s boy.”

Then it all came crashing down. The summer between sixth and seventh grade, Cindy was diagnosed with cancer.

A couple months later, she died.

“Some people lose their parents and they cope with drugs or alcohol, or they go into depression,” Sal said. “He did the exact opposite. He grew up 10 times faster than he normally would have. Playing sports, he used that as a coping mechanism and just played with everything he had.”

In the aftermath, Nicky turned to the only thing that came as natural to him as his connection with his mother — lacrosse.

Prep phenom

Blessed with an athlete’s body and the toughness from his brothers, Nicky stood out as an athlete from a young age. He played many sports, but where he really stuck out was the lacrosse field.

“When he was in second or third grade he was playing with fifth graders and he was the best player out there,” Sal said. “As he got to sixth grade and started playing on the freshman and JV team, there was no question that he was going to be a Division I player.”

By the time Nicky was in eighth grade, he was already moved up to West Islip’s varsity team. Although he said it was one of the scariest things he’s ever done, that experience pushed him forward in a budding lacrosse career.

Thrice named an All-American, Nicky won two state championship game MVP awards. He accumulated 500 points in his career, a Long Island record. It wasn’t uncommon for him to put up 11-point games.

And the scouts noticed. While dominating as early as his sophomore season, it became obvious that Nicky would have to make a choice on where to go to college.

“I was getting recruited from almost all the Division I schools,” he said. “A lot came in the mail, and that was a tough thing to go through. It was overwhelming.”

During the recruiting process, he fell in love with UNC, from the weather to the Southern girls. But that would put him a 10-hour car ride away from his family that he loved — and needed — so much.

“It was tough because I have four older brothers and my dad who basically took care of me the rest of the way,” he said. “Just thinking about my mom and not having someone there all the time, because I get emotional sometimes. This had a little bit of an effect on it, but I just knew that this was the place to be.”

While it was tough for him to leave his family, they were the ones pushing him toward UNC. Sal said he just wanted what was best for his little brother, and UNC was that place.

“We were all like, ‘Nick, it’s going to be a little homesick at first,’” Sal said. “’But you’re going to adjust, you’re going to make friends, you’re going to play lacrosse and you’re going to be great.’”

When August 2010 came around, Nicky made the trek to Chapel Hill. But as he said goodbye to his dad, he didn’t get upset like he expected. Instead, he said he was the happiest kid in the world.

Nicky made the transition to UNC seamlessly. And what he found out was that he wasn’t losing a family at all.

A second family

Wood remembers the first time he saw Galasso play.

It was the season’s first practice and Wood was paired with him for an offensive drill. Wood fired a bad pass at his partner’s ankles. No problem. Galasso picked it up and in one motion put the ball past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

“I looked over at coach (Pat) Myers and we were just kind of like, ‘All right, he’s pretty good,’” Wood said.

Aside from the field, Nicky fit in with the rest of the Tar Heels right away. Wood said that the team naturally gravitates toward Galasso because, well, “he’s a real good kid.”

The family-away-from-home feel is something coach Joe Breschi wanted to make sure Galasso had at UNC. While the team provided the brotherhood, Breschi was there for emotional support.

On March 1, 2004, Breschi’s son was killed in a freak accident when he was struck by a car outside his nursery school. Because of that, he’s able to share the feeling of losing somebody so close.

The two talk about it openly, helping each other heal every time. On anniversaries of deaths and birthdays, Galasso will slide into Breschi’s office for a talk.

“We have that connection there that we have each other’s backs,” Breschi said. “Knowing how each other feels at those times — it’s tough. But having somebody to talk about those things with is comforting.”

Galasso said of all things he loves about UNC, his favorite is being part of the Carolina family. He calls his teammates his brothers, forming relationships he knows he will carry on for the rest of his life.

“Coming from so far away, Long Island, N.Y., it’s definitely tough just to leave there,” he said. “But once you’re back, you don’t even think about anything. It’s just, ‘Wow, I’m with my other family.’”

Delayed breakout

Galasso’s freshman campaign was stellar. He was named first-team All-Freshman by Inside Lacrosse and shattered school records for rookies.

But for the first time in his life, he wasn’t the star. Playing alongside Galasso on the attack was Billy Bitter, a first-team All-American.

He said it was tough to follow in Bitter’s footsteps. While Galasso put up the numbers, Breschi said the team still belonged to Bitter.

But when Bitter graduated and Galasso earned recognition as a preseason first-team All-American this season, he could return to his usual role as the team’s star.

He was poised to do so, until he mis-stepped during a one-on-one practice drill in November. He had a stress fracture in his foot, one that required surgery and for him to sit out the beginning of the season.

“It’s very frustrating,” Galasso said. “It’s not about the All-American stuff … it’s just being with the team.”

After all the team has done for him, Galasso couldn’t stand to not be there for his teammates when they needed him — for a national championship run.

Galasso returned to the starting lineup on March 10. He scored a goal in the opening quarter that led to a 9-8 victory against then-No. 14 Princeton.

Breschi said Galasso is just now scratching the surface of what he can become.

“He has a lot of intangibles that you can’t teach,” Breschi said. “I don’t know if I’ve coached a guy quite like him.”

Sure, some of that is raw talent and an instinctive IQ for the game.

But somewhere, deep inside of Galasso, there’s something that pushes him a little further. His memory of Cindy inspires him every single day.

“I’m here because of her, and I’m doing everything because of her, because I love her,” he said.

“When I go on the field, I try to let everything go and try to play and have fun and not think about everything that has been rough in my life.”

Contact the Sports Editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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