Zach Nichols and Ryan Knight first met when they embarked on "The Challenge: Battle of the Seasons" back in 2012. Following that initial introduction at John F. Kennedy airport, the two "Real World" alums grew incredibly close inside and outside of the cutthroat game and would speak on a regular basis. MTV News interviewed Zach before the one-year anniversary of his friend's death. Here is a look at the candid conversation:
What was your first impression of Ryan?
He was just your all-American kid. He's from Wisconsin -- he had the same accent as me; I'm from northern Michigan. We had a lot of similar interests, and as soon as we met, he said some disgusting joke, and from there we clicked. So my first impression of Ryan was a very positive one, and I just remember thinking, I want this kid in my corner at the end of the day. From there, our beds were next to each other, and it was just easy. He was the kind of kid you felt like you knew your whole life, your best friend. We were from similar parts of the country, our dads raised us in similar ways -- you know, very stern. And we were rebels in our own right.
What is the fondest memory you shared with Ryan?
My fondest memory that I had with Ryan is, I was in a pretty rough spot in my life, and Ryan was helping me come out of it. I was having some problems, just decisions that I was making and people I was surrounding myself with. I was making some poor decisions, and Ryan actually was one of the main people that was like, "Hey, you need to straighten this stuff out. You need to get out of this situation." And he helped me get out of that situation, and as I was leaving -- and for about a month -- he called and would talk to me for three hours. To check up on me and make sure I was doing okay. He told me he would fly to wherever I was, whatever I needed. That kind of really resonated with me because most people that you meet through that show are very self-motivated, and many of the decisions I feel that people make are to benefit themselves. I don't actually think that Ryan ever thought about that when it came to his friends, and he always wanted to do whatever he could to help his friends -- even if it meant screwing himself over. So I think just think his selflessness in this moment in my life and making sure that he was there for me [is my fondest memory]. I was like, "This kid won't stop calling," and he would force me to talk about what was going on. He could read me as a friend and knew exactly where I was coming from.
They [the viewers] never got to see how much he cared about the people in his life. He really had the biggest heart. And I think a lot of the time, he was hurting inside. And he was too selfless to let anyone know if he was upset or depressed. So it always kind of came out as jokes because he always wanted to make other people laugh, but this whole time, he was the one who was really suffering.
What would people be most surprised to know about your friendship with Ryan?
I think people would be really surprised to know that Knight and I would talk daily -- four to five times a week on the phone. And it was never about anything to do with MTV or "The Challenge." Ryan was one of those few people from MTV who I never talked about MTV. He talked about what was going on in his life, what he was doing. He was pretty special when it came to that kind of stuff. To me, he wasn't like a friend I had met on the show. I have my regular friends and then, "Oh yeah, they're my buddy because we're on the show" -- my MTV crew, my MTV family. But Ryan was able to criss-cross over that line for me. I kept my MTV situation as far as I could from my regular life situation because it's two different worlds. And Ryan was able to permeate that boundary that I had set up, and that says a lot -- because...there's not a lot of solid guy friend relationships that I have from that show. When we're on the show, we're buddies and we have each other's back. But Johnny Reilly and Ryan are the two people that have kind of crossed that boundary. He was a special person.
The last time I saw him was when he left in that elimination round [during "Battle of the Exes 2," seen above]. The night before, we couldn't sleep, so Ryan and I were outside in Panama, and there was a huge, nasty storm. We were overlooking the yard, and it was like pouring rain, a monsoon. I just remember sitting there -- I don't even remember what we were talking about, but I just remember thinking, This is a nice escape from what's going on in this house. We did talk very often outside of the show, and two days before he passed, he called me. I could tell he was upset, and we were talking about Diem. Ryan had a very special relationship with Diem as well, and it was bothering him that certain people were kind of using Diem's passing as a way to draw attention to themselves. Besides that, it wasn't a normal conversation. He was very upset. And then he called me -- the night he passed, I woke up to a voicemail. Normally, I would get these long, drawn-out, hilarious, for lack of a better term "drunk dials." And it was one of the weirdest things because I woke up and I smiled because I knew that normally, I would have a long voicemail where he would almost even forget that it was a voicemail and it was like he was having a conversation with me. And then I remember that night, the voicemail was just a little bit of mumbling and then nothing -- and I didn't even think about it. I thought, That was weird. It was Thanksgiving morning, and I had a lot of stuff to get done, and then I found out a little bit later.
He was just in a lot of pain that day, and I could just tell that he was not in a good state of mind. But you don't think the worst in those situations. Especially with Ryan. That was the first time I really thought maybe he's actually upset, whereas normally he was just always in a good mood. Always laughing -- even when things were really bad and something unfortunate was going on, Ryan would just tell this joke that most people, if normally they would tell that joke, it would be offensive. But because it was him, him saying it, it made you laugh and smile because you knew that it was Ryan. He had this weird ability to say something completely horrible, like terrible, and have no one be mad at him. He would just say these things -- these outrageous comments -- jokes, one-liners. And we would just look at him and be like, "Dude, you're gonna get yourself in trouble," but everyone in the room laughed.
What has the past year been like for you without Ryan?
After his funeral, it took me a couple of months to finally to get back to myself -- not like I was laying in bed crying my eyes to sleep every night, because he wouldn't have wanted that. Still, when I think about it, it's almost like a crippling feeling. Like I said, I would talk to him four to five times a week, and if you didn't hear from him, you would call him. But it's been tough. It's definitely made me put things into perspective.
I've made some life changes -- I've opened up my own business. I have a niece and nephew, and my sister is having a third child -- and I know Ryan really loved his nephew. I feel like Ryan left with a lot of things unsaid, and there were people that he loved and he cared about that didn't necessarily know exactly how he felt. So I've taken that into account -- whatever I'm feeling, I'll let people know because I think that's important. I don't think anything should be left unsaid. There were a lot of chapters unwritten in Ryan's life and I think, to me, you don't know when your last day is going to be. He knew I loved him -- I told him every time I hung up the phone. I would say, "I love you." Life is way too short to hold grudges, and Ryan wouldn't hold grudges. You would see him almost get into a fight with someone, and then the next day he was grabbing them a beer and they were cracking jokes together. Ryan knew he did a lot of things on impulse, so it was never an issue when people would act on impulse. He was forgiving -- if I had to define him in one word, it would be forgiving because he was just a great guy.
I challenge anyone who looks at the way he died because at the end of the day, you have to look at their heart. Ryan's heart was gold -- he loved and cared about people who didn't necessarily do the same for him, and I think that speaks for volumes. It's not easy to love someone unconditionally and they don't do the same for you. And he loved every single person who was on the show -- no matter what they said or did. If someone needed Ryan Knight for a favor, he'd be there. Everyone thought Ryan was their best friend. He loved everyone, and I think that is something that is hard to find is someone who will ultimately accept and love everyone else. Look at him and Preston. Deep down, he was very close with Preston -- Ryan had Preston's back.
Some days, I'll be just sitting there thinking and I'll start laughing, and I'll almost forget that he passed. I'll have to remind myself that it really happened. Even at his funeral, even seeing him in his casket, it was hard to really put into words. I didn't really, fully comprehend the fact that he had left us -- still, sometimes I forget -- and then I realize he's not around to share these memories.
Please share your favorite Knight memories in the comments. And if you would like to honor his memory, visit his Memorial Fund here.