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Top N.D. recruit Matt James, 17, dies after falling five stories from Panama City, Fla., hotel balcony

Photo by Michael E. Keating

Photo by Michael E. Keating

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 Saturday.

Matt James died Friday around 6:30 p.m. at the Days Inn Motel in Panama City Beach. Police said he was dead when officers 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, mourning the second death of an athlete this school year. James, an all-state offensive lineman, had been the first top signing for new Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

James was part of a group of about 40 St. Xavier students and a half-dozen parents on the trip.

"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 they learn who provided the underage teen with alcohol.

Police said an autopsy on James would be done later. Toxicology results were pending.

James' parents went to Florida on Friday night, returned to Cincinnati and released a statement Saturday evening asking for privacy while they make funeral arrangements and grieve.

"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. "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."

The 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman also was on St. Xavier's varsity basketball team.

"This is just such a tragedy because he was just a wonderful, wonderful kid," said Mary Massa, the mother of St. Xavier quarterback Luke Massa, who also has committed to Notre Dame. "When he first came to St. X, he was pretty quiet. He was tall and kind of awkward. He just blossomed while he was there. He was just a good, wonderful kid. It's heartbreaking."

Word of his death spread quickly through social-networking sites on Friday night. Students gathered at the football field next to the school for an impromptu vigil.

On Saturday, James' former football and basketball teammates held a private prayer service led by the school's chaplain, Paul Rieselman.

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

James originally planned to go to the University of Cincinnati, where Kelly coached the last three years. When he left for Notre Dame, James reconsidered and chose the Fighting Irish over Cincinnati and Ohio State.

"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. "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."

Luke Massa's father, Gary, said his son and James had "big dreams together" about their careers at Notre Dame.

"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," Gary Massa said. "He was just a gentle giant, that's the best way to describe him."

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.