Police: Notre Dame recruit 'drunk' on fatal fall
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — A "drunk and belligerent" 17-year-old Notre Dame football recruit was killed in a fall from a fifth-floor hotel balcony during his senior-year spring break in Florida, authorities said today.
Matt James died Friday around 6:30 p.m. at the Days Inn Motel in Panama City Beach. He was dead when police arrived.
"It appears to be a tragic accident," Panama City Beach police Maj. David Humphreys said.
James' former teammates at St. Xavier High School gathered for a private prayer service in the school's chapel on Saturday. The All-State lineman had been the first top signing for new Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Police did not use James' name during a news conference. Instead, they referred to him as a 17-year-old from Ohio who had signed with Notre Dame.
"Witnesses and friends indicate he had become drunk and belligerent," Humphreys said. "He had leaned over the balcony rail, was shaking his finger at the people in the next room over. He fell over."
Humphreys said the railing at the hotel met the standards for proper height. He said police would be interested in pursuing charges if it was learned who provided the underage teen with alcohol.
The 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman was an all-city and all-state football player. He also was on St. Xavier's varsity basketball team.
Students at St. Xavier gathered on the football field Friday night to remember James following reports of his death, school Mark Motz said.
Motz said the impromptu vigil was organized as word of James' death spread through social-networking sites such as Facebook.
"When one of their own is in trouble, they band together," Motz said.
About 40 students from St. Xavier and a half-dozen parents were on the trip to Florida, police said.
James was the second St. Xavier athlete to die during the school year. Junior wrestler Kevin Le was struck by a car and killed in September. The football team — including James — wore his initials on their helmet for the next home football game.
Grief counselors will be available when classes resume on April 12 after spring break.
"The Notre Dame football program is in a state of disbelief and incredible sadness with the news of this tragic event," Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly and his staff recruited James to go to Cincinnati, where Kelly coached the past three years. James followed him to Notre Dame when Kelly was hired in December, choosing the Fighting Irish over Ohio State.
"Matt was an extremely talented person who was very bright and possessed a great dry sense of humor," Kelly said. "He could not wait to join the Notre Dame family."
James' family received the news of his death at a gathering to celebrate the 50th birthday of an uncle, according to Dan Rudolph, who attended the gathering and whose son, Kyle, is a Notre Dame tight end.
"His mom and dad were here when they got the call," Dan Rudolph told the Chicago Tribune. "The whole James family was here. I can't believe that happened."
Gary Massa said his son, Luke, was James' friend, teammate and a fellow Notre Dame recruit.
"One of the visions I have in my mind is after football games at St. X he was like the Pied Piper, all the little kids, everybody's little brothers and sisters would follow him around. He was just a gentle giant, that's the best way to describe him," he said.
James isn't the first spring breaker to die from a balcony fall this year. Brandon Kohler, a 19-year-old from Winder, Ga., died March 24 when he fell from a fifth-floor balcony at the Holiday Terrace Motel in Panama City Beach.
Funeral arrangements were pending. Motz said the school would take its cues from James' family, noting that St. Xavier is on spring break until April 12.
AP Sports Writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., contributed to this report.