Last fall Nick Tucker ’11J had an interview for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a $25,000 grant for one year of independent study abroad. If he is awarded the fellowship, Tucker will study the psychological and social effects of AIDS on children in Brazil, Mozambique, and South Africa.
AIDS and children—it’s a subject close to Tucker’s heart. In recent years the disease has taken both of his parents: his mother, Cynthia DeSimone, and father, Khassiem Abdullah. But Tucker, an economics major and cornerback on the Colby football team, was not left alone.
When Tucker was born—two months premature, addicted to methadone and cocaine—Tucker’s mother had realized she had to fight her addictions and couldn’t care for her newborn son. The baby was first placed in state custody, but then Tucker’s mother was able to have church friends Paul and Lisa Laurion of North Berwick, Maine, take him into their family.
“I’ve been lucky, because I’ve lived with my guardians for a while. I’ve always had a good support system at home,” Tucker said. “I had things a lot of kids don’t have in my situation, and that’s the nurturing.
“It really all comes down to love. I’ve had that second family … to be there and lend me that helping hand. I know the other direction things could’ve gone, and it’s not as bright.”
He was an energetic part of the family, a mischievous little boy. “He would teach my younger son [Dan] how to climb out of his crib at age one and a half,” Paul Laurion said. “Then he’d get a kick out of my reaction, so he’d do it again and again.”
Tucker stayed with the Laurions until he was two and a half years old, when he and his younger sister, Kianna, moved back in with his mother in Burlington, Mass. “When the state saw that my mother had kicked her addiction, moved into a place suitable for children, and was set up with all the government assistance programs, they granted her full custody of me,” Tucker wrote last year.
Tucker’s father, who was in prison when Tucker was born, was in and out of his life throughout Tucker’s childhood. When Tucker was 4, his mother was diagnosed with AIDS. As her health worsened, she relapsed into drug use and her children moved in and out of her care. Just before Tucker was to enter sixth grade, he and Kianna went back to live with the Laurions permanently.
Paul Laurion immediately noticed Tucker was different, more settled.
“His mom did a good job with him while he was with her,” Laurion said.
And Tucker, who had been through a lot and who had been given so much, returned the favor. “He’s given so much back, particularly to the Waterville community,” said Colby head football coach Ed Mestieri.
Tucker has mentored Waterville-area students since his first year on campus, first as part the football team’s partnership with Benton Elementary School and more recently with the Colby Cares About Kids program. When the father of a boy in Mestieri’s daughter’s class at Lawrence Junior High School died suddenly, Tucker offered to mentor him. Back home in North Berwick, Tucker has worked with kids with autism. “I worked with three different kids for three different summers, ranging from severe behavioral and learning disabilities to fairly functional autistic kids. I worked with one who played football at Noble [High School]. We’d hang out, we’d talk football. We’d even go to the gym. I showed him a few lifts,” Tucker said. “I try and keep in touch with the kids as much as I can. ... I try to impart wisdom for helping them succeed. It’s very important.”
As one of the older members of the Colby football team last fall, Tucker served as a mentor to his younger teammates, too. “This year his senior leadership is outstanding,” defensive coordinator Tom Dexter said. “His maturity, the example he sets with his hard work, his great attitude has just been a plus to our unit for sure.”
Tucker’s football career was nearly derailed by a knee injury in 2008. Early in the season, he suffered a season-ending cartilage tear at the base of his left femur. “It was just a routine play. I was engaged with the guy. I didn’t get hit or anything. One of the odder things that’s happened to me,” Tucker said.
Tucker came back to play in seven games in 2009 and made 26 tackles. Playing corner for the Mules’ defense, Tucker often covered the opponent’s best receiver on his own. “He has the intangible of a defensive back. He doesn’t get rattled. He’s calm. He’s very athletic, and he’s tough,” Dexter said. Tucker’s final football season ended Nov. 13, when the Mules lost to rival Bowdoin, 26-21. Tucker had 24 tackles and three pass break-ups in 2010.
He plans to return to campus in May to take part in graduation ceremonies. “They say you’ll regret it if you don’t do it,” Tucker said. By that time he’ll know whether he’s been awarded the Watson, sending him off around the world.
Back home in North Berwick, the Laurions continue to root for him.
“That love from everybody contributed to who he is today,” Paul Laurion said. “For sure.”