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Notre Dame Recruit Dies from Balcony Fall

A top Notre Dame football recruit from Ohio died after falling from a hotel balcony while on spring break in Florida, a high school spokesman said Saturday.

Students at St. Xavier High School gathered on the football field Friday night to remember senior Matt James following reports of his death in Panama City Beach, Fla., spokesman Mark Motz said.

The 17-year-old James apparently died instantly after he fell from the third-floor balcony of the Days Inn Motel at around 6:30 p.m. Friday, police told WJHG-TV in Panama City.

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.

James was the first big signing for new Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. James selected the Irish over Ohio State on signing day.

The 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman was an all-city and all-state football player for St. Xavier and signed a letter of intent in February to play for Notre Dame. He also was a member of the high school's varsity basketball team.

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," 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.

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.

"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 followed him to Notre Dame when Kelly was hired in December, choosing the Fighting Irish over Ohio State.

"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."

Kelly had recruited James while he and his staff were at Cincinnati. What set James apart, Kelly previously said, was his size and quickness.

James' family received the news of his death at a gathering to celebrate the 50th birthday of an uncle, according to Dan Rudolph, who attended the gathering and whose son Kyle Rudolph is a Notre Dame tight end.

"His mom and dad were here when they got the call," Dan Rudolph told the Chicago Tribune. "The whole James family was here. I can't believe that happened."

Mary Massa said her son, Luke, was James' friend, teammate and a fellow Notre Dame recruit. She 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," she said.

Gary Massa, Luke's father, 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," he said.

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, noting that St. Xavier is on spring break until April 12.