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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 4, 2010

CFB: Family and friends struggle to cope with Notre Dame recruit's death

By Brian Hamilton
Chicago Tribune

On a day when he was still a timid, unassuming 6-foot-6, 250-pound incoming freshman, Matt James stood beneath a football goal post during orientation at Cincinnati's St. Xavier High School.

Next to him stood another freshman, a reed-thin kid standing about 5 feet tall, the two of them like adolescent nesting dolls stacked side-by-side. So after some talk, it only made sense for James to hoist his classmate and hang him from the crossbar, both boys smiling in a moment of spontaneous delight.

"A lovable kid," said Steve Specht, James' football coach at St. Xavier. "He was a mountain of a man, but he had the biggest heart. Matt made everybody around him a better person."

Snapshots such as these clashed with a caustic, unfathomable reality that set in Friday evening and bled through the weekend. James, a prized Notre Dame football recruit just a week shy of his 18th birthday, fell to his death Friday from a fifth-floor hotel balcony during a spring-break trip to Panama City, Fla.

The circumstances of the accident, as detailed by police Saturday, stood in stark contrast to the heartfelt memories shared in candlelight vigils and prayer services conducted in the hours after James' death. James and about 40 St. Xavier classmates were in Florida for the vacation.

"Witnesses and friends indicate he had become drunk and belligerent," Panama City Beach police Maj. David Humphreys said Saturday in an Associated Press report. "He had leaned over the balcony rail, was shaking his finger at the people in the next room over. He fell over."

James was pronounced dead on the scene. An autopsy and toxicology report were pending, according to police.

After learning of their son's death at a 50th birthday party for James' uncle Friday, James' parents, siblings and others flew to Florida on a private jet a family friend provided, Specht said. They returned Saturday, and Specht said the family was hopeful James' body would return to Ohio early this week.

"We would like to thank everyone for their prayers and support during this tragic time, particularly the family at St. X," Jerry and Peggy James said in a statement. "Matt was a very special young man, and it is gratifying to us that you all could see that as well. We are touched by this outpouring of love."

On Saturday morning, more than 200 St. Xavier students gathered for a private prayer service, several of them walking onto the football field afterward and simply lingering on the turf.

By then, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly already had traveled to Cincinnati, and he issued a statement saying his program was "in a state of disbelief and incredible sadness."

"On a personal level, I got to know Matt quite well over the past few years and he was a wonderful young man from a great family," Kelly said. "Matt was an extremely talented person who was very bright and possessed a great, dry sense of humor. He could not wait to join the Notre Dame family."

Meanwhile, for those who knew him, James' death shined a light on his best qualities. He was remembered as humble and caring, a top 100 national recruit who shrunk from individual attention and felt miserable about calling coaches who recruited him and informing them he chose Notre Dame.

He was part of the "Bomber Pilots" program at St. Xavier, in which seniors spend a year in freshman homerooms. Administrators saw James develop into almost a protector of sorts.

"Man, those freshmen, they gravitated to him," St. Xavier athletic director John Sullivan said. "To everyone else, he was just one of the students. They didn't see Matt as being anything special. He was just one of the guys. And that's the way he wanted it."

James was just a bit player on the St. Xavier basketball team, but coach Scott Martin said he was "probably our hardest worker," a 290-pounder always striving to finish first in practice sprints.

And James excitedly elaborated to Specht on just one memory from football recruiting trips: when he saw his older brother, Romey, in a cafeteria at Cincinnati, and banged on a glass window to get his sibling's attention.

"Usually, when you talk to kids about a recruiting visit, they're talking about the bells and whistles," Specht said. "He wanted to talk about seeing his brother at the doggone cafeteria. That's Matthew. That's who Matthew will always be."

It is the second student death this year for St. Xavier, after junior wrestler Kevin Le died after being hit by a car in September, just days before James began a senior season that solidified him as Kelly's first landmark recruit at Notre Dame.

Then, in an instant, that promise vaporized.

"It's crushing," St. Xavier spokesman Mark Motz said.

Specht accompanied the James family to Florida and back. He spent every hour since Friday in a blur, he said, wondering if blind faith was enough to answer his questions about why Matt James was gone.

"They have been the most empty 24 hours of my life," he said.