April 3, 2010

St. Xavier star, ND recruit James dies in fall

MORE: Complete list of 2009-10 State High School Hoops Champions

Matt James, one of the nation's top high school football players who was headed to Notre Dame this fall, died instantly Friday night after falling from a fifth-floor balcony during a spring break trip in Panama City, Fla.

According to Cincinnati.com, the Web site of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Panama City Beach police Maj. David Humphreys said during a press conference on Saturday that James had been drinking prior to the fall.

"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."

There were about 40 students from St. Xavier and a half-dozen parents were on the trip to Florida, police said.

Humphreys said police would be interested in pursuing charges if it was learned who provided the underage teen with alcohol.

It appeared the cause of death was from blunt force trauma, police said, but it could be up to eight weeks before an official cause is determined. It will likely also take that long for toxicology results to be received, police said.

James, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound offensive tackle from Cincinnati (Ohio) St. Xavier, was one of the top recruits in Notre Dame's incoming class, according to IrishIllustrated. He was ranked as the No. 86 overall recruit by Rivals.com in the Class of 2010, No. 14 at his position, and was a U.S. Army All-American.

James would have been 18 on April 9.

St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht described the tragedy to the Chicago Tribune in a phone interview Saturday afternoon as "the most empty 24 hours of my life."

"He was a mountain of a man, but he had the biggest heart," Specht told the paper. "Tremendous sense of humility. He got it. He was just a tremendous talent with a big, big heart. He was just one of the most lovable kids, and he was just a tremendous football player. He made you a better person. Matt made everybody around him a better person."

Specht and the James family flew to Florida late Friday night and returned Saturday afternoon, the Tribune reported.

According to Cincinnati.com, St. Xavier teammate and fellow Notre Dame recruit Luke Massa was with James when he fell.

"Luke is devastated," Massa's father, Gary, told the paper Friday night. "He lost one of his best friends."

Mary Massa, Massa's mother, told the Associated Press that she heard James was pretending he was going to fall and lost his balance.

"It was an accidental fall. Nobody pushed him, there wasn't anything like that," she said.

St. Xavier, a national high school football power, said in a release issued late Friday night that several hundred students, faculty and friends joined in a circle at midfield of St. Xavier Stadium and held lit candles while sharing stories of James before offering a prayer.

The release said tough times often bring out the best in the school.

"It's amazing how quickly the word spread and how quickly the community came together. Lyrics in our alma mater say 'we are Xavier men forever,' and I think this gathering showed how much these guys take that to heart. For this many people to appear on the first night of spring break is a testament both to Matt and to the strength of the St. X community in difficult times.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the James family in this horrific time of loss. The entire James family - immediate and extended - has always been good to St. X. We hope we can be of comfort in their time of need. We are a faith community and this certainly is a test of that faith, but we will get through it together. We are all devastated by the news, but grateful for the gift of having had Matt as a Xavier man."

A prayer service was held Saturday morning at the school's chapel.

James, who had offers from many of the top college football programs, was considered an NFL prospect and would have competed for playing time as a true freshman, Rivals.com football recruiting expert Barry Every said.

"Linemen this big and athletic do not grow on trees, so he should get a chance to compete for a spot on the two-deep as a freshman. Look for him to be a solid three-year starter with serious NFL potential barring an injury."

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly - who previously coached at Cincinnati - expressed his sorrow in a statement released by the university:

"The Notre Dame football program is in a state of disbelief and incredible sadness with the news of this tragic event," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Matt James in this most trying of times.

"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. 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.

"My prayers and deepest condolences go out to the James family as well as the St. Xavier High School and Cincinnati communities."

The story will be updated throughout the day on OhioVarsity.com and IrishIllustrated.com .

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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