By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
COLD SPRINGS —
It was all for Nicholas Fillinger.
Not even 48 hours after the sudden passing of their beloved teammate, a heavy-hearted Cullman High cross country team made the trip to Cold Springs on Saturday morning to compete in the ninth annual Kudzu Hills Invitational.
In doing so, the collective group declared in one voice that it wouldn’t just mourn Fillinger, but rather, celebrate the 16-year-old’s life and what the always-smiling junior liked to do more than anything in the world — run.
“I asked the varsity what they thought, and it was pretty much a consensus — with Nicholas, we'd be running, we'd be racing,” Bearcat coach Trent Dean said. “He's still with us, not in the physical, but he's with us.”
It certainly seemed that way following the Black and Gold’s respective races, as the girls ran united in a pack, while Seth Swalve turned in an inspired third-place finish on the boys’ side in remembrance of their fallen teammate.
Swalve’s performance was particularly impressive considering it was the sophomore’s first-ever cross country event in his prep career. Although the basketball star isn’t likely to run again this season, he simply wanted to come out and dedicate Saturday’s race in honor of Nicholas.
“I was just trying to make him proud,” Swalve said. “I’d like to think I did. I didn’t want to run cross country, but I wanted to run this one for him.”
Added Dean: “I've been trying to recruit him (Swalve) for awhile just because I knew he and Nicholas have that next level of talent. It's something Nicholas always wanted. He made me cry last night when he texted me and asked if he could run in Nicholas’ honor. The team said they would love to have him come and run with them. It's inspiring. He's obviously got a lot of talent, but to come out and do that, that's a little extra.”
While the Bearcat boys chose to remember Nicholas with their own special tribute, Cullman’s girls had another way of going about honoring him.
According to Savannah B. Smith, the Black and Gold decided to run side-by-side in a group for the duration of their event, staying together and working as a team because “that’s what he would have wanted from us.”
“It was very difficult to run without that significant leader on our team because he's always been there, always cheering for us, always encouraging,” Smith said. “It's really hard because our cross country team is rather unique to our school. It's a co-ed sport, and we all stick together. We all uplift each other, not only in this sport but in everything else we do in school.”
“And Nicholas was just the type of person that would always make you smile, always push us that extra few minutes in practice to help us all improve our times.”
While the Invitational itself may have been exceedingly difficult for many, so were the 36 hours leading up to it.
Most of the students found out the devastating news of Fillinger’s passing late Thursday evening/early Friday morning. From there, Cullman High principal Elton Bouldin set things in motion, allowing the kids to decide whether or not they needed to be at school or needed to be around people off-campus.
On Friday afternoon, Dean called a team meeting to address the situation and what the plan was moving forward.
“What we wanted to make sure we did was, of course, honor God and make sure that He's glorified in this and make sure good comes from anything sad like this,” Dean said. “I told them we've got to be together as a team right now. That's going to be something that helps us so that we can grieve together. We're all going through the same thing.
“So I proposed that we go to this meet together. I said I didn't care if we win. I didn't care what happens. But just us being there being with other like-minded athletes is going to be good for us. There's going to be a lot of people that are going to want to show us love and encouragement and to be around that atmosphere is going to be very helpful.”
Dean couldn’t have been more on the money.
It wasn’t just Cullman athletes who showed up on Saturday. Countless parents, fans, alumni and faculty made the drive out to the annual event to voice and show unyielding support to their community and, more importantly, to all the runners pouring their hearts and souls into the sport Fillinger loved and encouraged them in throughout his young life.
Whether it was hurrying from the starting line to the various viewing points during the race or simply shouting out phrases such as “Come on” or “You can do it” to passing runners, the Cullman contingent was loud and proud throughout each of their two varsity events.
It was also an emotional scene as each member of Cullman’s varsity boys squad crossed the finish line. Some collapsed in exhaustion having put a little bit of extra effort into the event, while others immediately sought out a shoulder of a teammate or a family member on which to cry as they mourned without shame the loss of one of their own.
“I think from my view, I didn't want to stand in the way of anybody's pure intentions of showing their love for Nicholas,” Dean said. “So I wanted to let them do what they needed to do today. It touched me when they came through together. It was very special to see.”
The Black and Gold boys’ nearly pulled out the victory, placing second in the large-school division (4A-6A), just eight points back on Lawrence County.
Swalve’s time of 16:39 led the way, while Samuel Murphree (ninth, 17:38), Kyle Norris (12th, 18:02), Tucker Adkison (15th, 18:11) and Joey Franklin (17th, 18:13) were all key components in the Bearcats’ solid finish on Saturday.
When the girls said they wanted to finish together, they weren’t blowing smoke, as Morgan Pendley, Marisa Franklin, Hillary Crider, Smith and Anna Bailey finished 19th through 23rd, respectively, posting sub-23-minute times en route to a fourth-place team result.
The effect of Fillinger’s death reaches far beyond the city of Cullman and the walls of its high school. For the last two years, the Bearcat speedster had become a huge staple of the cross country community. He won numerous races and placed highly in several others. Fillinger was known within the circles of the running contingent as a fierce competitor who gave his best in each and every race that he signed up for that particular day.
Logan Ayers, one of St. Bernard’s top runners, said she found herself thinking about her fellow athlete all during the race on Saturday. All of the Saints’ and Cold Springs' female runners sported Black and Gold “Run 4 Nic” ribbons in their hair to show support for Cullman.
“I thought about how he ran and how I've watched him run,” she said. “He was aggressive. His dad always told me, 'Don't run lazy, keep your eyes up.' And every time I caught myself with my eyes down, I'd look up and think of his son and run harder for him.”
Added Cold Springs’ coach Clay Campbell: “It’s just such a loss and such a tragedy. He was a good kid from a good family. He was a favorite to win this whole thing today. It was tough. We are going to remember him, I know that. We all will.”
Fillinger’s year so far had been nothing short of spectacular.
He placed first in the Pepsi XC Challenge before corralling respective second-place finishes at the Scottsboro and Fairview Invitationals, setting a school record in the process at the latter.
In an interview done with The Times just last week, Fillinger said he contributed his early success to some “good summer miles at some good camps.”
St. Bernard coach William Calvert was the man responsible for those miles and had gotten to know Fillinger quite well during the young man’s time spent training for cross country.
Calvert said the outpouring of support for the community has been overwhelming since Thursday evening.
“He was one of my favorites,” Calvert said. “A big hole has been left in the running community, not only in Cullman but all of north Alabama as well. I had calls from all over giving their support to their family. Dr. Fillinger has been a great supporter of cross country. It's just beyond belief. He’ll be missed.”
According to Calvert, one of Fillinger’s oft-used expressions came in the form of a quote by Steve Prefontaine, a legend in middle- and long-distance running who once held seven American records and competed in the 1972 Olympics.
The quote states, “To give less that your best is to sacrifice the gift.” Fillinger wasn’t one to give less than his best. In fact, that’s all he gave. Ask anyone who had the privilege of knowing the kind-spirited kid with big dreams, and that’s exactly what you’re likely to hear.
“Nicholas personified that quote,” Calvert said. “He was always upbeat. Always eager to put himself on the line to do his very best in everything. Whether it was running, academics or just been kind and encouraging to others.”
One memory in particular that sticks out to Calvert involves last year’s Oktoberfest Invitational at St. Bernard, which saw Fillinger race from behind and catch a Lawrence County runner at the last second to steal away a victory in what Calvert called a “spectacular finish.”
“It was one of the greatest races I’ve ever seen in all my years of cross country,” he said. “It was a sprint with a kid right up to the very end. It was great. I'm gonna have that image of Nicholas to always remember the class individual and great competitor he was. I’ll always cherish it.”
In a statement released Saturday by Fillinger's mother, Julie, she called Nicholas' death a "tragic accident" and asked the community to keep the family in her prayers.
Viewing for Nicholas Fillinger was Saturday night at Cullman Heritage Funeral Home. The funeral will be Sunday at 2 p.m. at Cullman First Baptist Church.
% The Times’ sports editor Rob Ketcham contributed to this report.