AUSTIN (KXAN) — On what would have been UT Austin student Nicky Cumberland’s twenty-first birthday, friends and family joined together near campus to celebrate his life.
Nearly three months after his death, Cumberland’s family drove out from Houston to meet up with friends and visit all the spots he loved around campus. Many wore shirts bearing the phrase “Love Like Nicky.”
“It’s bittersweet, you know it’s painful to see these remembrances because we miss him so much, we miss him daily,” said Cumberland’s father, Shawn.
Before he died, Nicky Cumberland was a junior at UT and a triple major. He joined the UT men’s service group, Texas Cowboys, in the fall of 2018.
On Sept. 30, he was a passenger in a car with several other students on the way back from a Cowboy’s retreat when the Texas Department of Transportation said the driver fell asleep and rolled over into a ditch, ejecting Cumberland from the vehicle. The crash happened in Lampasas County on U.S. 183 just outside of Lometa, and Cumberland was transported to Temple where he remained in the hospital until he died of his injuries exactly a month later on Oct. 30.
Since the crash, the Cumberland family has come to believe hazing at the Cowboys retreat may have played a role in their son’s death.
“There’s a lot of unknowns and mystery regarding the circumstances of the accident and it is frustrating that there really hasn’t been too much information on that,” said Graham Smith, a UT Student who was Cumberland’s roommate during a study abroad program.
While the family plans to push for reforms around hazing on campus they said their focus was on remembering their son.
“If Nicky’s life can teach us anything its that as humans we have so much in common,” Smith said. “That’s a lesson that has changed my life and I’ll take with me the rest of my life,” he added.
Yusuf Hadidi said he knew Cumberland since grade school.
“UT just meant everything to Nicky, he loved the campus, he loved the history, he loved the tradition,” Hadidi said. “A part of Nicky I want to take with me is to never let people feel left out and to do what you can to make people feel wanted and welcome.”
Cumberland was a stellar student, according to his childhood friend Ben St. Martin, and valedictorian at Memorial High School in Houston. “He’s the hardest working kid I’ve ever met,” St. Martin said. “That makes this story particularly tragic because there was so much potential that was lost.”
Shawn Cumberland and his family say they’ve been surrounded by the people who their son impacted over the last few months. The hospital in Temple told the Cumberland family that they had set records for the number of people trying to fit into waiting rooms to visit.
During the hours he spent in the hospital waiting room, Shawn Cumberland said he wondered about what had happened during the Texas Cowboy’s retreat.
“It wasn’t until after the funeral that we then started talking to students to learn why, why did this happen? And when we started to learn why we uncovered some activities that we’ve reported to the university and they’re going to look into,” he said.
Shawn Cumberland didn’t talk about the allegations his family was making, but it was reported by a local newspaper that the hazing included paddling and animal abuse. He did say the family believed that Nicky Cumberland and the other new Cowboys members may have been hazed through sleep deprivation. The family believes that the new Cowboys had to stay up doing activities until around 3 a.m. and were then sent off to make a two-hour drive back to campus at 4 a.m.
“To me, that by itself, that’s unacceptable,” Shawn Cumberland said.
Over the past few months, he has researched hazing, talked to students and members of the Texas Cowboys and even other parents who believed hazing played a role in their child’s death.
Shawn Cumberland said he spoke with Ruth Harten, the mother of Gabe Higgins, a UT sophomore who drowned in the Colorado River after drinking during a Cowboy’s initiation ceremony in 1995.
After Higgin’s death, the Texas Cowboys group was banned for five years. At the time UT officials said there was no evidence the pledges were forced to swim in the river, but there was extensive hazing including paddling and eating hot dogs covered with tobacco.
The group is once again being investigated by the university and UT Austin police. University spokespeople confirm that both the criminal investigation and the student conduct investigation against the Texas Cowboys are still ongoing.
In the past few months, Shawn Cumberland says he’s spoken to many students who believe they have witnessed hazing within student organizations.
“The boys I’ve talked to universally have said, it’s there. They wish it wasn’t there, there’s nothing they can do,” he said. “It’s that last bit that bothers me.”
The Cumberland family plans to present UT with a specific set of recommendations to prevent hazing.
But as he pursues reforms, Shawn Cumberland says he intends to do so in the way that his son would have wanted. “We’re going to do it with love in our hearts, not with a sense of anger or vindictiveness,” he said.
A scholarship in Nicky Cumberland’s name has been created for UT’s McComb’s School of Business, you can donate here.