Mother who lost son to distracted driving urges friends to put down phones

— -- PILOT MOUNTAIN, N.C. -- She was a private person for most of her 35 years, not the type who puts a giant sticker on her car so someone will pay attention. The letters are big and white and take up nearly half of the back window of Nikki Cline's black Volkswagen Beetle. When her husband, Mike, saw it, he thought it was too loud and suggested something smaller, like a bumper sticker. "I am loud," she told him. "That's how I want it."

She decided on the sticker this past summer, on her commute to work. Her four-cylinder engine was puttering along a half-hour drive to Winston-Salem when a man in the next lane almost hit her. He was all over the road, and on his cellphone. He was old enough to be her father.

Nikki prayed that morning that she'd wind up beside him at the next light. If she did, she'd tell him. She'd tell him about Gage Edwards.

The traffic aligned, and they found themselves side-by-side at the next stop. Nikki motioned for him to roll down his window, and he complied. She told him their story, and the man's face turned white. At that moment, she decided on the sticker.

I lost my son to texting while driving. W8 2 TXT

The sign gets all kinds of reactions. Some people stare, some honk and wave, others mouth, "I'm sorry." They don't know the boy behind it or that, some days, the message is the only thing that keeps her going.

Her life was broken into a thousand pieces, but the cellphone, remarkably, was still intact. The state troopers gave it back to Mike Cline after they had concluded their crash investigation. For about two weeks, Mike held on to the phone, waiting until Nikki was ready to look at it. She was scared to look at it.

She'd bought the iPhone 4s for him for Christmas, just after he turned 16, so that they could stay connected in between football practices, school, baseball, basketball and his restaurant job. Nikki laid down rules with the phone: If I call you, you'd better answer. If I text you, you'd better answer. And don't text and drive.

When Nikki finally took the phone from Mike, she wanted to be alone. On the back porch of their wooden-beam house that overlooks Pilot Mountain, she pushed the button on the bottom and confirmed what she had known in her heart for weeks: Her only son had been fatally injured while he was texting and driving, and she was the person he was texting.

"I helped cause my son's wreck," she says.

"It's a heavy burden to carry."

It has been 10 months, and the Clines continue to beat themselves up over what they could have done differently. Mike wishes he'd put the kid in a nicer, sturdier car, not that old 1993 Plymouth. But teenagers drive beaters. Nikki replays the day over and over in her head, as if she could alter one tiny step that led him down the winding path on Old Winston Road.

She saw him that morning, in the basement, when she was working out. It was Jan. 31, and Gage's East Surry basketball team had a makeup game that afternoon. He wasn't as passionate about basketball and mainly used the sport to stay in shape. Football was his future. He was going to get a scholarship somewhere, probably not at a Division I powerhouse, but Gage knew he'd find the perfect place to leave his mark. His defensive coordinator, Randy Marion, was preparing recruiting tapes to send out to the colleges. But on Jan. 31, there were other pressing matters. Gage had to work. And he had to get gas before he ran out. He was so worried about that, not making it to the store. Nikki told him he'd be fine.

She texted him later that morning to make sure he got there, then typed that she loved him. "Have a good day," she texted.

Gage got off work around 1 p.m. and was headed home to grab his gear. He was rushed for time. He was supposed to pick up his cheerleader girlfriend, Santana Hull, on the way to the game. He never made it to his house. He was texting both of them as he steered through the curves of Surry County, but eventually ended the conversation with Hull. He read a text from his mom at 1:43. Four minutes later, a bystander called 911 to report the accident.

The Highway Patrol report said Gage was speeding. He overcorrected a curve, crossed the centerline, ran off the left shoulder and crashed into two trees. One of East Surry's assistant coaches, Joe Reid Denny, saw the wreckage but didn't know it was Gage because the car was so mangled. Denny said the Plymouth looked like an accordion.

Gage had to be airlifted to Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem. The helicopter landed on the football field. Marion went down to the field to see if the emergency responders needed anything. He worried it could be a kid on the way to the basketball game, but then he heard it was a man in his 40s, and Marion was sad for the nameless person but relieved. Soon, Marion would find out it wasn't a man in his 40s.

Nikki was helping a friend put together some items to feed the homeless at a shelter when Hull's mom called and said Gage hadn't shown up. Nikki immediately panicked. "You know when something happens to your children," she says.

"Where are you?" she texted him. He didn't respond. She jumped in her car and frantically retraced his steps until she got to Old Winston Road, which was blocked. She saw firetrucks and rescue squads, and got out of her car and started running. Gage had already been taken away when she came upon the accident. Nikki started screaming.

Doctors at the hospital said her son had suffered a serious head injury, and though Mike was hopeful, Nikki knew the prognosis was grim. Teenagers and coaches and relatives huddled at the hospital in a room, waiting for Gage to wake up. The vigil grew to 100 people. Gage died two days later.

Nikki broke the news to the people who were still camped out at the hospital. There was a short ceremony in honor of his organ donation, for the gift of his heart, liver, kidneys and sight. Then Nikki and Mike picked up their daughter, Isabel, who was 6 at the time, and told her that Gage wasn't coming home.

Back when they were sophomores, and were bored for something to do on a snow day, Gage and his friend Eddie Scott tied a metal barrel lid to a 4x4 vehicle. The lid was about the size of the top of a school desk, just enough to fit two feet and a rear end. They were going to go sledding ... at 30 mph. The 4x4 spun through the sharp curves, and Gage held on for dear life, yelling, "Woo-hooo!" Then he wanted to do it again.

"We're teenagers," Scott says. "We didn't think anything could go seriously wrong."

Gage was widely admired as one of the most indestructible forces in Pilot Mountain. His smile could light up three counties; his daredevil feats left him unscathed and chuckling for more. Coaches knew he was special his freshman season, when he was summoned to the varsity team after East Surry's starting safety went down with a concussion. Gage was tiny, barely 140 pounds then, but he wasn't afraid to hit anybody.

By the time he was a junior, he had grown to 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds and was considered the toughest guy on the team, playing both sides of the ball, rarely leaving the field. When East Surry was down 20-0 against rival Mount Airy in 2014, it was Gage who caught a touchdown pass and sparked a furious rally in a 28-23 victory. He led East Surry in interceptions that year and was one of its best receivers.

But what his teammates loved most about him was his passion. They fed off of it. Gage was always the first one to sprint out onto the field before every game, waving the Cardinals flag, so full of energy it looked as if he might explode. More than 10 minutes of his highlight reels are still online with the recruiting site Hudl. It lists him as a senior prospect, even though he has been gone for nearly a year. He's shown slicing through whiffing arms on kickoff returns in the videos, leaping and grabbing interceptions.

The highlights don't capture what the people of Pilot Mountain will remember best, how he'd throw his hands in the air after a big play, imploring the crowd to go bonkers, how he was the heartbeat of the team.

Opponents hated playing him because he was flamboyant and good. But when Gage died, they showed up from Mount Airy to North Surry to West Stokes to mourn him.

When practice rolled around in the spring, Eddie Scott contemplated quitting. Scott had played football for 12 years, but he couldn't imagine running out on the field without Edwards.

"I'm sure [quitting] crossed a lot of peoples' minds," Scott said, "just because the atmosphere would be totally different without him. He just brought life to the team. Anytime something bad happened, he'd bring the team up.

"You wonder, 'Do you want to play without him, or do you want to play for him? Would he quit, or would he play for us?' He wouldn't quit. He'd play for us."

Nikki was 16 when she found out she was pregnant with a little boy. She couldn't see it then, that the baby would save her life. She was running with a bad crowd in high school, making poor decisions. Gage forced her to see that life wasn't about her anymore.

They grew up together, fought like siblings and bantered like friends. Both were so hard-headed, always needing to be right, always wanting the last word. Nikki used to get on him about chewing tobacco, how dangerous it was to his health, but then he'd laugh when she lit up a cigarette. That last morning she saw him, he stood near the pool table gathering his laundry while she worked out. He watched her for a second, and Nikki figures he was probably waiting for a moment to make fun of her. She saw so much of herself in Gage. She wanted so much for him.

"Gage and I had a bond that was very special," she says. "My son and my daughter and my husband are my world, and I love them more than anything. It's hard to say it, because I'd never want [Isabel] to read something and feel like I don't love her as much. But our bond was indescribable."

She loved watching him play football. It was exhilarating and overwhelming. When he was excited, she was excited. When he was nervous, she was antsy, too, although she'd never let him see it. Nikki was something of a tomboy, and she desperately wanted to play football as a little girl. She begged her dad, and he balked at the idea until the local Pop Warner team was short on players. She played safety and running back, the only girl on the team. He wouldn't let her play the next year because he knew the boys would be much bigger.

She loved taking pictures of Gage during his games. Family photos line the walls of the Clines' home, but Nikki is absent in most of them. She always used to tell Mike that if anything ever happened to her, make sure he told the kids she was there for most of the moments. She was the one holding the camera.

She went to East Surry's games this past fall and didn't have any pictures to take. She felt invested in the team. While some parents who've lost a child might stay far away from all of the reminders of where their child should be, Nikki clung to them. She needed the routine of football Friday nights. She needed those boys.

Several of Gage's closest friends group-texted Nikki and Mike before all of their games. They text to say good morning and good night. They've come by the house to play Xbox with Isabel. Izzy was named the football team's captain.

"The scary thing is when the school year's over and his friends are gone off to college and the 'In Memory Of's stop," Nikki says. "Right now I'm still able to live my life [through] him. It's the next event about Gage; it's the next football game. Because when I go to the football games, I know he's not there, but I feel like he's there."

Gage isn't the first member of the Class of 2016 that East Surry has lost. In 2013, Jacob Pettitt died after injuries suffered in a car accident. He was driving with his learner's permit, after a soccer game, and was speeding and hit a tree. Pettitt was born on the same day as Edwards -- Nov. 6, 1997.

Because East Surry has lost so much, the school's administrators decided to do something. Just before prom, they conducted a health fair focused on destructive decisions. A state trooper came to talk to the kids about speeding and distracted driving. East Surry principal Lorrie Sawyers contacted Nikki to tell her about the fair. Nikki said she wanted to speak to the students. It was kind of a surprise.

"I had a very good relationship with Gage," Sawyers says. "But Nikki, on the other hand, was a very quiet, private person from the time Gage enrolled in middle school until the accident. But it's not about doing what is comfortable or natural for Nikki. She feels very strongly about the message."

So in the spring, all the students from the high school piled into the gym, and Nikki got up to speak. She did not write out a speech; she wanted to talk from the heart. In the days since Gage's death, there were rumors around Pilot Mountain that he might have been texting when he crashed, but no one knew for sure.

When Nikki told them she was texting with him at the time he crashed, the gym went totally silent. Storm Livingston, who'd been friends with Gage since they were 4, was floored. "I was so worried about her," he says. "How was she coping with this? What does she need? I was just constantly asking myself, 'Does she blame herself for this?'"

Many of Gage's friends vowed never to text and drive again. Livingston puts his phone in his backpack when he gets into the car now, out of his reach. When he sees drivers on the road texting, he lays into them.

Gage is buried on the edge of Pilot Mountain Town Cemetery, a two-minute walk down Main Street to East Surry High, the closest he could be to the school he loved. Nikki goes to the grave almost daily and sits and talks to him. His friends leave various gifts -- flowers, a pumpkin, a can of Grizzly chewing tobacco.

But he rests there for another reason, too. When the kids drive down the street to school, they pass by his grave and the picture on the tombstone of him in his football uniform, his sweaty head tilted and smiling, reminding them that no one, not even Gage Edwards, is indestructible.

The East Surry Cardinals had a dominating fall and went undefeated in the regular season. They wanted desperately to win a state championship for Gage. They put decals on the back of their helmets, and touched the stickers whenever they felt tired or beat.

On Nov. 27, they faced Walkertown in the third round of the playoffs, and they fell behind 28-7. There was no miraculous rally this time, and the Cardinals' season ended. Nikki was there. She found Randy Marion after the game, and they hugged and cried. She spoke to the players in the locker room. She said Gage would've been proud of them.

She has visited several other schools in the community, talking about the dangers of distracted driving, telling her story. People say she's strong, but she doesn't feel that way most days. She wants to go to other towns and spread their message. She always felt her son was put on this earth to save her life, but now she wonders whether maybe the plan was bigger. Maybe Gage was meant to save a few others.

ESPN's Rayna Banks and Greg Garber contributed to this story.