As his future teammates sweated out the first days of spring practice in South Bend, prized Notre Dame signee Matt James was sweating out one of his final weeks of high school the usual way for an outgoing senior, on spring break in Florida. That week ended abruptly and tragically Friday evening, days before James' 18th birthday, when the 6'6", 290-pound Cincinnati blue-chip fell to his death from a hotel balcony:
PANAMA CITY, Fla. - St. Xavier offensive lineman Matt James, one of the nation’s most sought-after football recruits, died Friday in a fall from a hotel balcony on a Gulf of Mexico beach while on spring break.
James, 17, died almost instantly after falling from a third-floor balcony at about 6:25 p.m. at the Days Inn on Front Beach Road, according to police reports cited by WJHG-TV in Panama City.
In Florida, Panama City Beach police are continuing to investigate details of the incident.
"The best that we know is Matt fell," Gary Massa [father of St. Xavier quarterback and fellow Irish signee Luke Massa, who was with James in Florida] said.
Without confirmation on the cause of the fall, it would be unfair to present the obvious assumption that alcohol was involved as a fact. There are a number of balcony falls on spring break and other alcohol-fueled occasions every year, one of the reasons officials have tried to distance the annual Florida-Georgia game from its unofficial brand as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party; WJHG-TV reported another spring breaker from Georgia fell to his death last week about a mile from the hotel where James fell on Friday. James' death is tragic, but pending further details, it is not necessarily freakish.
Students at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati -- already hit with one senseless death earlier this school year when another classmate was hit by a car and killed last September -- set up an impromptu vigil for one of the community's rising stars late Friday night, as well as a Facebook group with nearly 2,900 members as of 6 a.m. ET. Last month, St. Xavier coach Steve Specht told an Irish Web site James was "the biggest freshman who ever walked through the doors" at the school, but was "just so clumsy" that coaches weren't sure he'd ever be able to play. Friday night, Specht described James as a "perfect" player to the site, but didn't get much further because, he said, "I just can't do this right now."
[UPDATE, 5:40 p.m. ET] Panama City police described James as "drunk and belligerent" before the fall, according to the Chicago Tribune, though police refused to use James' name during an afternoon press conference where they relayed witnesses' reports that "a 17-year-old from Ohio who had signed with Notre Dame" had "leaned over the balcony rail [and] was shaking his finger at the people in the next room over" when he went over the railing from five floors up. Maj. David Humphries said police would be interested in pressing charges if they discover who supplied the alcohol.