ATLANTA -- Nick Malloy discovered his passion in life when he was 12 years old.
It was music. He knew it the moment he gripped his fingers around a pair of drumsticks.
Facing the noisy prospects of afternoon drum rolls and late-night cymbals, Frank and Marilyn Malloy did a wise thing. They requested Santa Claus bring Nick a guitar.
That Christmas morning changed his life.
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He wrote his first love song when he was 15. It was called “Together Again.’’ He admits a 15-year-old doesn’t know much about the sling of Cupid’s arrows.
“It was kind of cheesy,’’ he said. “But I still think it was a pretty good song.’’
He has since written a dozen other country songs. They have been performed on stages and in recording studios. He has an inventory of another hundred he considers works in progress. He must fine-tune the melodies and revise the lyrics. Yes, there are unfinished masterpieces tucked away in drawers and under the bed.
For the past few weeks, he has had a song stuck in his head and heart. He has been typing his thoughts into the memory chip on his cell phone.
There has been plenty of time to reflect on the words. Nick is in a wheelchair on the fifth floor of the Shepherd Center. He has no feeling in his body below his sternum, the result of injuries he sustained in a single-car accident on March 28 -- his 23rd birthday.
Right now he is writing a sad song searching for a happy refrain.
Of course, that is the part that is up to him. For the past five weeks, he has been keeping the faith at Shepherd, with its excellent reputation in the area of rehabilitation of spinal cord injuries.
Nick is not expecting any miracles, but he is certainly willing to work for one. He realizes he has had more prayers lifted on his behalf than there are songs on every jukebox in the universe.
He appreciates all of them -- from as nearby as next door and as far away as Australia.
Tonight, there will be a gathering of musicians at the Capitol Theatre for a benefit concert for Nick. They are all friends, and many of them might even qualify as family. A couple of items in the silent auction have been donated by two Nick Malloy fans -- country music stars Dierks Bentley and Jason Aldean, a Macon native.
Nick has become friends with Bentley in recent years. He was going around the house singing Bentley’s “5-1-5-0” the afternoon before his accident.
Nick said he is humbled by the outpouring of love and support. He is anxious to earn his way to the exit. He attended a Braves game last week and a movie on Wednesday night, his first outings since he arrived at Shepherd in late April.
The nurses can check his vital signs all they want, but his biggest symptom is a case of cabin fever. “I’ve seen nothing but these four walls,’’ he said.
Although he grows weary of his physical and speech therapy, he considers the trip to the Capitol the best kind of therapy.
“There is nothing more therapeutic than live music,’’ he said.
He has been craving the fried okra at Jeneane’s, so he might have to get his fix there, too.
Nick is the third of Frank and Marilyn’s four children. He has an older brother, Brad, and sister, Meredith. Brother Matt is the youngest in this fine family.
Frank is one of Macon’s best-known media personalities. The longtime anchorman (and one-time sports director) at WMAZ-TV celebrated his 30th year with the station last week.
Always a tad shy, it was music that popped Nick out of his shell.
“I always thought I was boring,’’ he said. “Music made me feel good. It was a way I could communicate. The guitar became my comfort zone.’’
Stage fright? Hardly. With his fingers on the frets, he never fretted.
“The only time I remember being nervous was when I was asked to sing at Highland Hills Baptist Church,’’ he said.
Then he laughed. “It was a sober crowd.’’
He began getting gigs at places like The Shamrock and C.J.’s Bar & Grill. He joined the band of Shane Bridges, who will headline tonight’s concert. Nick later put together his own band, and made a dash to Nashville to record a CD.
Nick had day jobs, of course. After graduating from the Hutchings Career Center in 2007, where he was named “Student of the Year,’’ he was a “Nick-of-all-trades” at Indigo Publishing. He worked at Jeneane’s and recently had a job at Sid’s Sandwich Shop on weekdays during lunch.
March 27 was a Tuesday. It was open-mike night at The Hummingbird Stage & Taproom on Cherry Street. Nick was hanging out downtown when the clock edged past midnight. It was officially his birthday.
A friend, Phil Spence, asked if he wanted to stop by Steak & Shake on Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard. Nick said he was very tired and headed home. Phil called Nick’s cell at 1:36 a.m. and left a message, wanting to know if he was OK.
Nick never heard the phone ring. By then, he was at the bottom of a ditch near the I-75 northbound exit ramp at Bass Road.
He didn’t know it yet, but he was lucky to be alive.
Nick still has Phil’s voice mail on his phone. He sometimes plays it back.
According to the Bibb County Sheriff’s accident report, Nick apparently fell asleep at the wheel of his 1997 Acura, swerved onto the grass and attempted to overcorrect his steering. The vehicle traveled 336 feet down an embankment, hit the culvert, flipped over and struck a tree.
He was trapped inside his vehicle for almost six hours. After the sun came up, a man and his son -- a pair of guardian angels -- noticed the wrecked car and called 911.
Nick suffered spinal cord injuries and required more than 100 stitches in his left arm. He spent three weeks at the Medical Center, most of it in intensive care. He expects to leave Shepherd on June 14 and enter the day rehabilitation program for an additional two weeks. If all goes well, he will return home at the end of the month.
He hasn’t held a guitar in his hand in eight weeks. He is working to regain strength, mobility and flexibility in the fingers on his left hand, the one he uses to form the chords. He must continue to work on his diaphragm and breathing exercises, so he can generate enough wind to sail his songs.
He has a new outlook on life, he said. He is confident the difficult words to his new song will come. It will take time.
“What will I do if I can’t do my music?’’ he asked his dad.
Nick had a good cry. Frank told him everything was going to be OK.
God has a plan for him. One day, he’ll be back for an encore.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.