By Christina Zdanowicz and Jaide Timm-Garcia, CNN
Tyre Nichols was a father, a man who loved his mama and a free-spirited soul who was looking for a new life in Memphis, Tennessee.
That life was tragically cut short earlier this month after a violent arrest by five officers with the Memphis Police.
Now, as attention turns to the five former officers being charged with second-degree murder in Nichols’ death, according to court documents, Nichols’ family wants the world to know the man Nichols was.
The 29-year-old was the baby of his family, the youngest of four children. He was a “good boy” who spent his Sundays doing laundry and getting ready for the week, his mother, RowVaughn Wells, said.
“Does that sound like somebody that the police said did all these bad things?” Wells said. “Nobody’s perfect OK, but he was damn near.”
“I know everybody says that they had a good son, and everybody’s son is good, but my son, he actually was a good boy,” she said.
He was a family man
Above all else, Nichols loved being a father and loved his son, his family said.
“Everything he was trying to do was to better himself as a father for his 4-year-old son,” attorney Benjamin Crump said at the family’s news conference.
Nichols was someone who brought everyone joy. “When he comes through the door, he wants to give you a hug,” Crump said, speaking on behalf of Nichols’ family.
Nichols moved to Memphis right before the Covid-19 pandemic and got stuck there when things shut down, his mother said. “But he was OK with it because he loved his mother,” she added.
His mom said he loved her “to death” — so much so that he inked it permanently.
“He had my name tattooed on his arm, and that made me proud because most kids don’t put their mom’s name, but he did,” Wells said with a laugh.
“My son was a beautiful soul and he touched everyone,” she said.
He met with friends at Starbucks many mornings
Nichols became friends with an unlikely group of people because they kept showing up to the same Starbucks around the same time in the morning, his friend Nate Spates Jr. said.
A couple times a week, these five or six friends would sit together, put their phones away so they could be present and enjoy each other’s company, said Spates, who met Nichols about a year ago at a Starbucks in Germantown, Tennessee.
The group didn’t talk much about their personal lives, and they never touched politics. But sports, particularly football, and Nichols’ favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers, were regular topics.
Nichols was a “free spirited person, a gentleman who marched to the beat of his own drum,” Spates told CNN. “He liked what he liked. If you liked what he liked — fine. If you didn’t — fine.”
Spates said he saw himself in Nichols and recognized a young man who was trying to find his own way and learning to believe in himself.
He saw Nichols grow and start to believe he could do whatever “he set out to do in this world,” Spates said.
Spates’ favorite memory of Ty, as he called Nichols, was last year on Spates’ birthday, when Nichols met Spates’ wife and 3-year-old at their usual Starbucks. He watched Nichols play with his toddler and talk to his wife with kindness.
“When we left, my wife said, ‘I just really like his soul. He’s got such a good spirit,'” Spates said.
“To speak about someone’s soul is very deep,” he said. “I’ll never forget when she said that. I’ll always remember that about him.”
Spates joins the rest of Nichols’ family and wider Memphis community in being frustrated at the lack of information that has come out about the traffic stop that resulted in Nichols’ death. He said he’s had to do a lot of compartmentalizing to be able to even speak about his friend.
“I just hope that this truly does open up honest dialogue, and not dialogue until the next one happens, but a dialogue for change,” he said.
He worked, but he lived for his passions
Nichols’ daily life was ordinary at times, as he worked and spent time with family, but he also made time for his passions, his mom, Wells, said.
After his Starbucks sessions, he would come home and take a nap before heading to work, said Wells, with whom he was living. Nichols worked the second shift at FedEx, where he had been employed for about nine months, she said.
He came home during his break to eat with his mom, who would have dinner cooked.
Nichols loved his mom’s homemade chicken, made with sesame seeds, just the way he liked it, Wells said.
When he wasn’t working, Nichols headed to Shelby Farms Park to skateboard, something he had been doing since he was 6 years old. He would wake up on Saturdays to go skate or sometimes, he’d go to the park to enjoy the sunset and snap photos of it, his mom said.
“My son every night wanted to go and look at the sunset, that was his passion.”
Photography was a form of self-expression that writing could never capture for Nichols, who wrote that it helped him look “at the world in a more creative way,” on his photography website.
While he snapped everything from action shots of sports to bodies of water, landscape photography was his favorite, he wrote.
“I hope to one day let people see what i see and to hopefully admire my work based on the quality and ideals of my work,” he wrote. He signed the post: “Your friend, — Tyre D. Nichols.”
Skating was another way Nichols showed the world his personality. A video montage of Nichols on YouTube shows his face up close with the sun shining behind him before he coasts up and down a ramp on his skateboard. He grinds the rail and does tricks on his board in the video, which was shown at a news conference by his family’s attorney Crump.
Sunsets, skateboarding and his positive nature were all things that Nichols was known for, longtime friend Angelina Paxton told The Commercial Appeal, a local paper.
Skating was a big part of his life in Sacramento, California, where he lived before he moved to Memphis, Paxton said.
“He was his own person and didn’t care if he didn’t fit into what a traditional Black man was supposed to be in California. He had such a free spirit and skating gave him his wings,” Paxton said.
Paxton and Nichols met when they were 11 years old and attending a youth group, she told the Appeal.
“Tyre was someone who knew everyone, and everyone had a positive image of him because that’s who he was,” Paxton said. “Every church knew him; every youth group knew him.”
When Paxton found out about Nichols’ death, she crumbled, she told CNN affiliate WMC.
“My knees gave out,” she told WMC. “I just fell because I could not believe that someone with such light was taken out in such a dark way.”
Paxton attended Nichols’ memorial service earlier this month in Memphis. She said she represented the people in California who knew him and wanted to support his family.
“There would be a couple thousand people in this room,” Paxton told WMC, if the memorial had been in Sacramento. “He was such an innocent person. He was such a light. This could have been any of us.”
For his family, seeing the turnout and feeling the outpouring of support meant a lot.
Nichols’ stepfather Rodney Wells told WMC: “My son is a community person, so this (memorial) was good to see.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled RowVaughn Wells’ first name.
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