But last year, Gross was prepared to part with that rare jersey to help his mom. Holly was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a nervous system illness that weakens muscle and physical function. To raise money for her medical expenses, Gross auctioned off his Ovechkin jersey for about $2,000 in February.
“I just kind of figured things are things,” said Gross, a 17-year-old senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. “People are more important. If I can help support my mom, it’s worth it. It wasn’t really a problem for me.”
However, the families that bought the jersey returned it to Gross. And when the Capitals received word of his gesture — not knowing the jersey had been returned — they ensured he would never go without a prized team sweater. In December, the team sent Gross a new game-worn Capitals jersey that Ovechkin signed.
Gross became a Capitals fan a few months before he turned 11 in 2014, when friends started bringing him to games. His mom won the jersey at an auction involving her co-workers at West End Plastic Surgery in Northwest Washington, where she was an office manager. When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, Gross attended the championship parade. He never wore his Ovechkin-signed jersey, wanting to keep it in top condition.
“It was one of the biggest presents I’ve ever gotten,” Gross said.
But since Holly, 55, was diagnosed with ALS in July 2019, Gross’s priorities have shifted. When his mom delivered the news of her diagnosis, Gross, Holly and Jake, Nicholas’s 21-year-old brother, cried for the rest of the evening. Nicholas Gross said his father, James, couldn’t offer much help, given the 72-year-old has Parkinson’s disease.
With his brother leaving for school at Boston University the following month, Gross became his mom’s main caretaker. He gave her 10 pills each day, in addition to a few liquid medications. He brushed her teeth, put her to bed and woke up in the middle of the night to help her use the bathroom and take medication. He did all of this while attending school at B-CC, where he is a member of the crew team and leader of an environmental club.
As Holly’s condition worsened, Gross added responsibilities. He feeds her through a feeding tube and helps her suction saliva, because she can’t swallow it. She can only move via a wheelchair and can’t speak, so he developed hand gestures with Holly to communicate. Gross cooks dinner for his family five days a week. He massages his mom’s cramps.
“Whatever Nicholas told you he does, he does 10 times more,” Holly Gross wrote in an email with help from her sister, Angela Woods. “Nicholas is such a pure soul.”
When healthy, Holly was known for putting smiles on others’ faces. She found any excuse to throw parties with her friends and family, whether for Halloween or happy hour. She attended all of her sons’ games and school events and drove them everywhere. She pushed Nicholas Gross to set steep goals, but she also encouraged him to prioritize others before himself.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced B-CC into online instruction. While most high school students balked at staying home all day, Gross was thankful to spend more time around his mother. However, few visitors are allowed in his house, so he and his brother, who is home from school because of the pandemic and to assist his mom, are Holly’s primary caretakers.
Nicholas Gross told few friends about Holly’s condition, but at the beginning of 2020, he realized his mom needed more help. So along with Holly’s family, he created a GoFundMe to raise money for his mother’s medical expenses. Near the end of February, they held an auction at a Bethesda restaurant. Some people auctioned beach-house stays and trips to Venice. Gross was sad to sell his Ovechkin jersey but surprised when the families gave it back.
A few months later, after a local reporter informed the Capitals of Gross’s story, the organization sent him another Ovechkin jersey with a note that read: “The Washington Capitals heard about how you donated your personal Alex Ovechkin jersey to a fundraiser benefiting your mom, Holly. The organization was touched by the gesture and wanted to send you a jersey.”
“I opened the package and saw the Caps jersey, and I was confused,” Gross said. “I thought they sent it to the wrong person. Then I read the message, and I was jumping up and down. I told all my friends about it. It was a complete surprise.”
Gross plans to study environmental science and biology at college in the fall, with Dartmouth being one of his top choices. But his priority is caring for his mother, so he plans to stay home with her as long as required. When he graduates, Gross and his brother intend to start a scholarship fund in Holly’s name, awarding grants to students with sick parents.
If he leaves for college, Gross may bring one of his Capitals jerseys, so he is reminded of his mom each time he opens his closet in his dorm room.
“She definitely made me who I am today,” Gross said. “She means everything.”