An 'Incredible Future' Ends Needlessly
The most memorable moment turned out, however, not to be the procession, but a conversation between dad and his soon-to-be college freshman son about a weekend-long graduation party on Long Island that was to commence the next week.
The son, a near straight-A student who starred in varsity sports and volunteered for community service and was bound for Harvard, wanted to go; the father summarily refused.
"You've put in too much to get where you're headed," dad argued to his son in front of us. "I don't want to see you wind up in one of those headlines."
Dad was thinking about a headline like the one that reverberated Saturday from Panama City, Fla.: "Notre Dame recruit Matt James dead after falling from hotel balcony."
By the end of Saturday, police said Matt (pictured above), a Cincinnati St. Xavier senior who was on spring break, was drunk. He fell five stories Friday evening. Police said an autopsy and toxicology report was pending.
New Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, who coached Cincinnati the past four seasons, summed up Saturday to the Cincinnati Enquirer how many, no doubt, thought about Matt's sudden death: "To lose a young man at 17 years old, who had such an incredible future ahead of him, is tragic."
Matt was 17. The drinking age in Florida complies with the Federal Uniform Drinking Age of 21.
The first stories detailing Matt's death pointed out that his was the second of the school year for a St. Xavier athlete. Last September, junior wrestler Kevin Le was hit and killed by a car.
Kevin's death struck me as tragic; Matt's death as stupid.
I can't imagine that any of us can experience a pain worse than burying our progeny, except doing so when -- maybe -- we could have done something to prevent the gut-wrenching possibility. My friend didn't doubt his son's common sense; he just didn't trust the common sense of his son's peers no matter how outstanding and upstanding they appeared to be, too. So he made a unilateral decision.
I suspect Matt's parents didn't doubt their son's decision-making either. Why would they? St. Xavier athletic director John Sullivan told the Chicago Tribune on Saturday that Matt "was a great kid. A lot of people refer to him as a giant teddy bear. He always had a smile on his face."
One of Matt's classmates, Brandyn Cook, told The Enquirer that Matt "worked so hard that people say he slept here. He always stayed so late, trying to get better. He was such a selfless guy. We all looked up to him."
But an unfortunate thing happens to teenagers when left to their own devices. It's called peer pressure, or sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. All of us went through it. Some among us stood their ground. Others of us succumbed to it and, only by the grace of the Creator, survived.
A federal government study in 2005 found that three out of every four high school students drank alcohol by the time they graduated. The rate of drinking by teens declined slightly to 16.5 percent by 2005, but more boys like Matt (28.9 percent) than girls drank, participated in binge drinking (21.3 percent) and drank heavily (7.6 percent). Another national study as recently as 2001 found that excessive drinking in college contributed to more than 1,700 college student deaths and more than 500,000 student injuries, not to mention sexual assaults among college students.
Matt's parents, Jerry and Peggy, were probably reassured about their son's vacation to Panama City because among those making the trip were, according to Panama City Beach Police Maj. David Humphreys, five or six adult chaperones. They probably couldn't envision their son being described as police said on Saturday as "drunk and belligerent."
"I can't get away from the heartbreak I feel for his family," said Matt's would-be college coach, Kelly. "They're wonderful people who raised an incredible son. That's the thing that's hard for me."
As Saturday morphed into Sunday, police said they were still trying to find out who gave Matt alcohol. "It apparently magically appeared," Humphreys said. "Nobody wants to tell us where it came [from]."
Humphreys said police would be interested in pursuing charges against any adult who bought or gave alcohol to Matt.
It just so happens that one of my best friends from college has a son who plays football at St. Xavier.
"Matt was a particularly rare talent," he wrote to me Sunday morning. "As hard as this is on Matt's family and the entire X community, those in Florida with him will never be the same, as the death of a friend on Good Friday will have constant reminders and I imagine some will wonder if they could have done something to prevent all of this.
"The school prides itself in high academics, nationally-competitive athletics, and strong character building. Matt's death, as tragic as it is, may save some young people in the future if this in fact was alcohol-related, as the dangers of alcohol abuse will provide no more significant example. He was, and I stress, a very good person."
The son of my friend whose high school graduation us guys from the neighborhood witnessed was a very good person at Matt's age, too. More pointedly, he still is, thriving in his third year in college.