When friends of Nicholas Grass ’05 heard the opening words of Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start The Fire” at last year’s Delta Kappa Epsilon formal, they knew what was going to happen.
As his DKE brothers expected, Grass, 19, jumped on stage and began singing and dancing. When Joel sang the name “Joe DiMaggio,” Grass — a right-handed pitcher on the Yale baseball team — made a swinging motion. Toad’s Place went wild with laughter.
Grass had a larger audience than usual, but he earned his typical reaction. For his friends and teammates, Grass was always the center of the party — a fun-loving kid who almost never stopped smiling.
“He was hysterical,” baseball captain and DKE brother Steven Duke ’03 said. “He was the kid you wanted to have in your group.”
Grass was with some of his closest friends in his group — the Yale baseball team and DKE — when he was injured in a Jan. 17 automobile accident on Interstate 95. Grass died the following day.
Duke knew he wanted Grass in this close-knit group even before Grass was a Yale student. When Grass visited Yale as a recruit, Duke and shortstop Mike Hirschfield ’03, Grass’ host, immediately took a liking to the young pitcher from Holyoke, Mass., who wouldn’t stop cracking jokes.
“He was funny, outgoing and caring,” Duke said. “He wouldn’t be mean to anybody. He was just a great-hearted kid.”
But while Grass formed close friendships with his older teammates and classmates, he also looked out for the freshmen on the baseball team.
“He took a lot of them under his wing,” Hirschfield said. “During Hell Week, he was one of the only kids who would stay up with the pledges all night.”
The last time Josh Zabar, a freshman baseball player, spoke to Grass — only an hour before the accident — Grass told his teammate to get some rest, even if the other DKE brothers got mad.
“He always looked out for me and checked on me to see that I was OK, that I wasn’t uncomfortable,” Zabar said.
It wasn’t the first time Grass served as a model and a mentor for his younger teammates. At Holyoke High School in western Massachusetts, Grass — an American studies major at Yale — succeeded in the classroom while excelling in athletics. A four-year varsity letter-winner, he was named all-Western Massachusetts in both baseball and football, and was Western Massachusetts Player of the Year in baseball his senior year.
“He was a real well-liked kid in high school,” Holyoke High School baseball coach Tom Brassil said. “He was always a leader, even when he wasn’t a captain.”
Brassil said Grass’ success as a student-athlete served as a model for younger players, even after the pitcher graduated. Yet Brassil said Grass excelled not so much because of natural talent, but because of his willingness to work and practice hard.
“He just worked himself to the point where he got good at academics and got good at sports,” Brassil said.
Catina Grass said her son cared deeply about baseball, the Yankees and harness racing, but she said friends and family were his greatest passion.
“He was humble and modest and the joy of my life,” Catina Grass said. “Until he died, I knew he had many, many friends, but I never knew how many people he had touched in his life.”
Catina Grass said Grass wanted to go to law school after college and also dreamed of someday owning a racetrack.
Pierson College Dean Christa Dove — who was told that Grass was the first Holyoke native to attend Yale since 1942 — said the pitcher was a diligent student, taking a full courseload while earning 13 appearances on the mound for the Bulldogs.
“He never had a single dean’s excuse, which is pretty impressive given his heavy baseball schedule,” Dove said.
And Grass’ ability as a pitcher was particularly evident last summer, when he was named an All-Star in the prestigious Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, which has sent over 70 players to professional baseball. Competing against other college players, Grass was dominant. As a starter for the Long Island Collegians, he finished 6-1 with 43 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.57.
Grass’ teammates at Yale described him as a fierce competitor on the field. His willingness to face a challenge showed last April when he entered a game against Sacred Heart with Yale losing 4-0 in the third inning. Coming into the game with the bases loaded, Grass struck out a Sacred Heart batter to end the inning. After pitching five strong innings, Grass earned his first victory as a Bulldog in a 9-7 win.
“He was a tough kid on the baseball field,” Duke said. “He wasn’t afraid of anybody.”
Grass sacrificed himself for his teammates and friends off the field, too. When Grass was a pledge for DKE last year, a couple of the older brothers challenged the freshmen to dig into a tub of lard, Hirschfield said.
Only Grass volunteered. While he was only able to eat four spoonfuls, his willingness to give himself up for the good of his fellow pledges made an impression on the fraternity.
“If his teammates were in trouble, he’d step right in,” Hirschfield said.
Nick Campbell ’05, Grass’ suitemate and fellow DKE brother, said Grass’ toughness was matched by an overwhelming sense of joy.
“He was a really great guy. He had a lot of stuff going for him,” Campbell said. “He always had a smile on his face. I never saw him downbeat at all.”
Campbell also remembered Grass as a generous roommate — one always willing to give out laundry detergent or sodas.
“He’d do anything for a friend,” Campbell said. “He’d always help out with the little things.”
After his recruiting trip, Hirschfield said, Grass knew he wanted to go to Yale. For a kid who wouldn’t stop smiling, Yale not only provided a great education and an opportunity to play baseball, but also a close group of friends.
“He loved baseball and he loved his friendships,” Hirschfield said. “He felt people were most important.”
And of course, he loved “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
“Anytime I hear that song for the rest of my life, I’m going to think of Nick Grass, on stage, entertaining hundreds of people,” Hirschfield said.
Grass is survived by his father, William; his mother, Catina; and two younger sisters. A funeral mass will be held today at 11 a.m. at Holy Cross Church in Holyoke, Mass.