Irish recruit, 17, dies after fall in Florida

Updated: April 3, 2010, 3:49 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Notre Dame recruit Matt James died Friday in Panama City, Fla., after falling from a hotel balcony, a high school spokesman has confirmed.

James, 17, was vacationing in Florida for spring break.

A 6-foot-6, 291-pound offensive tackle, James was named USA Today first-team All-American after leading Cincinnati's St. Xavier to a No. 4 ranking in the final state poll.

Matt James
John Albright/Icon SMIMatt James, an offensive tackle from Cincinnati St. Xavier, was named a first-team All-American by USA Today as a senior.

James' former teammates from the football and basketball teams gathered for a private prayer service in the school's chapel on Saturday, led by chaplain Paul Rieselman.

"His message was that we have to take care of one another," spokesman Mark Motz said.

James apparently died instantly after he fell from the Days Inn Motel at about 6:30 p.m. ET, police told WJHG-TV in Panama City.

Students at St. Xavier High School had gathered on its football field Friday night to remember James.

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 April 12 after spring break.

Police had not confirmed James' identity as of Saturday morning, but Motz said the school was "devastated" by the news. 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.

The mother of St. Xavier quarterback and fellow Notre Dame recruit Luke Massa said 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," Mary Massa said.

Massa's father told the Cincinnati Enquirer the teammates were among several dozen students on vacation together.

"Luke is devastated," Gary Massa told the newspaper. "He lost one of his best friends."

Gary Massa fondly remembered James.

"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," Massa said, according to The Associated Press.

James, a senior, chose Notre Dame over Ohio State, committing on Feb. 3 on national signing day.

"It was a really tough decision," James said then, according to the Enquirer report. "... I like the situation of being in the first class with Coach [Brian] Kelly there."

James' family learned of his death during a family gathering for the 50th birthday party for one of James' uncles, according to the Chicago Tribune.

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.

-- Irish coach Brian Kelly

"His mom and dad were here when they got the call," said Dan Rudolph, father of Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph, according to the Tribune. "The whole James family was here. I can't believe that happened."

Whit Majors, a forensic investigator with the Florida State Medical Examiner's District 14 office, said the person who died was on spring break but did not release his name. The cause of the fall was being investigated, and officials planned to do toxicology tests, Majors said.

James was an all-city and all-state football player for St. Xavier. He also was a member of the high school's varsity basketball team.

"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 decided to follow him to Notre Dame when Kelly was hired in December.

"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 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.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.