They gathered at midfield, where she played 37 matches in her No. 22 jersey, where she was honored on senior day a year ago, where she touched the hearts of many through her tenacious, dominant play.
And right there, on Rudd Field Nov. 6, Nicole Dennion’s former teammates, friends and fellow Elon University athletes lit up the cold November night with candles that formed the number “22” and her initials, “N.K.D.” They shared countless memories and stories of the high-energy, always honest woman taken too soon.
The game-day selfies she and best friend Mel Insley ’16 used to take. The blunt, truthful feedback she’d give her teammates as she exited the field. And, most of all, the courageous fight she put up over the last 2.5 years as Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare childhood bone cancer, debilitated the strength all her friends now remember her for.
Dennion, 22, the 2013 Southern Conference (SoCon) Player of the Year and one of the finest players in Elon soccer history, died Nov. 5. On the field, she was the confident forward who led the SoCon in goals during her sophomore year while leading the Phoenix to the SoCon Championship. Off the field, according to her friends, she possessed the same traits.
She was fearless. She was courageous. She persevered.
So when it came time to remember her for all she’d done, there was only one place to go.
“We figured, why not do it on the field where she was herself, and she was the best she could be,” said Katie Boyle ’16, who lived with Dennion at Elon and organized the memorial.
Dennion, of Ewing, New Jersey, was an exercise science major with dreams of going to physical therapy school. When she arrived at Elon before soccer camp her freshman year, after the awkwardness of her class’ official visit, she provided the energy that helped break the ice.
One February day, after a stellar sophomore season — for which she was honored as the Basnight Outstanding Female Athlete, Elon’s highest athletics award — Dennion felt some chest pain and went to see Elon’s team physician.
Dennion underwent a CT scan later that day, and that night, she received a phone call during which the doctor told her she had a baseball-sized mass in the right side of her chest.
She had been lifting, running, working out. It made no sense.
Dennion withdrew from Elon and went home to receive treatment.
Meanwhile, at Elon, her teammates took action.
They started the “Kickin’ It With Colie” campaign that spread nationwide, with dozens donating money to help with medical payments and collegiate soccer teams wearing her No. 22 on their wrists during games.
Dennion went through rounds and rounds of chemotherapy and had a surgery to implant two titanium ribs. By December 2014, she was cancer-free. Through it all, she continued with her classes online and at a community college back home.
The cancer returned soon after.
Dennion was back at Elon in February 2015, eager to be with her friends and prepare for soccer season. But she soon learned there was a mass in her lung, and she began undergoing outpatient chemotherapy treatments at Alamance Cancer Center while still taking classes at Elon.
That summer, she underwent a stem-cell transplant. The tumor first began to shrink, but it eventually grew again and spread to her lymph nodes.
She graduated from Elon in May, then went through a clinical trial at a hospital in Boston. The tumors spread to her chest, and eventually she had a device implanted to help ease the pain.
In recent weeks, her former teammates again took to social media to ask for support from the rest of the soccer community. They wanted to show her how much of a difference she made in everyone’s lives, so they created a video re-enacting the goals she scored while at Elon.
They were inspired by Dennion, and the way she confronted an incurable disease with the same aggression she’d use to attack an opponent’s defense.
“I’m willing to bet she’s the strongest person I’ll ever meet,” said Julie Hibberd ’16, who lived with Dennion at Elon. “It’s something that people are saying a lot, and I don’t want it to become cliche like, ‘Yes, she was so strong.’ To her core, it was hard to rock her.”
Last spring, Dennion was honored by the Colonial Athletic Association with the John H. Randolph Inspiration Award, given to individuals who, through strength of character and human spirit, serve as an inspiration to all to maximize their potential and ability for success.
“She approached each new day with a fearlessness and hunger that is hard to emulate,” said women’s soccer coach Chris Neal. “She lived out her dreams at Elon, both on and off the field, and she inspired all of us to push our limits.
“That spirit and mentality is forever rooted in our team culture because of Colie.”
Dennion saw first-hand the support she received, not only via social media posts. In May, Elon’s baseball team donated more than $42,000 raised for its annual Vs. Cancer head-shaving event to help pay for Dennion’s clinical trial.
She was there to see it and cut Tyler McVicar’s ’16 hair to start the event.
Dennion “hacked me up a little bit,” according to McVicar, which became a source of humor for the friends throughout this past summer, the same humor found in countless stories of Dennion’s time at Elon.
There was the time she and Insley, devout lovers of ice cream, army-crawled out of an ice cream store during a road trip, fearing that the coaching staff was going to spot them with massive waffle cones.
Then, when the duo was told to quiet down at a Carolina Hurricanes vs. Philadelphia Flyers hockey game, as they became a little too rambunctious while cheering on their hometown Flyers.
And those gameday selfies? They started as a joke of sorts, but morphed into a full-blown ritual that sometimes included stepping on stuffed animals at toy stores or hiding in bushes.
Dennion would use the same pose before her chemotherapy treatments. Last year, while she was home in the hospital, Insley would FaceTime her before games and take the selfie as a screenshot.
“She had that attitude all through her fight,” Insley said. “You see it in a different light when battling an opponent on the soccer field versus battling a disease. It was neat to see the progression of how she was able to stay so true to herself and embody everything that she was up until her diagnosis. … That’s the type of person she was.
“I’ve been with her a few times when she’s in so much pain. You know she’s in pain and hurting so badly, and she wouldn’t shed a tear. It was almost like she didn’t want to hurt the people around her by knowing how much pain she was in.
“It’d be doing her a disservice now if we couldn’t do the same to her and bring light to this and find the silver lining.”
And that’s what the candlelight memorial, which Insley viewed via FaceTime, served to do.
As the gatherers began to leave the field, some lingered, standing near the candles and signing posters that will head to her Nov. 11 funeral service in New Jersey.
All of a sudden, a few candles fell over, sparking a tiny, harmless fire.
“When the grass started catching on fire, I secretly wanted 22 to be torched into the field forever,” said Olivia O’Brien ’16, a former teammate. “I know Colie would have wanted that. She was definitely humble, but she definitely would have loved to have made her mark.”
O’Brien paused, then added, “Which, she obviously did.”
Dennion's family will hold a visitation from 6-9 p.m. Nov. 10 at Bordentown Home for Funerals, 40 Crosswicks St., Bordentown, NJ 08505. Dennion's funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday morning, Nov. 11, at St. Mary's Church, 45 Crosswicks St., Bordentown, NJ 08505.