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Superintendent Calls Death Of Long Island High School Football Player 'Freak Accident'

ELWOOD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- A grieving Suffolk County community gathered Thursday night to mourn a high school football player who was fatally injured during a game.

As CBS 2's Carolyn Gusoff reported, school officials on Thursday were calling the death of Tom Cutinella, 16, a "freak accident."

Cutinella, a 16-year-old junior at Shoreham-Wading River High School, died Wednesday after he collapsed following a collision with an opponent during the third quarter of the game at John Glenn High School in Elwood.

Superintendent Steven Cohen said Thursday that Cutinella, a guard and linebacker, had an "immediate reaction," stood up and then collapsed.

"It was a freak accident," said Cohen. "The game involves contact, and it was the result of a freak football play."

An ambulance arrived in 10 minutes. Cutinella was taken to the hospital and rushed into the intensive-care unit after undergoing surgery, but never recovered.

"I can't even wrap my hand around it right now. I've had him since 6 years old in the PAL and up through the junior high and the JV. He was such a wonderful kid that I don't think anyone can wrap their head around it," said Shoreham-Wading River Assistant Varsity Coach Hans Wiederkehr.

Superintendent Calls Death Of Long Island High School Football Player 'Freak Accident'

Wiederkehr watched the tragedy unfold on the field. He and other school officials were not speaking Thursday about what type of helmet Cutinella wore or what kind of hit he suffered.

The football game was videotaped by the school and an investigation has been planned into how such a tragedy could happen to a high school football player wearing a helmet. But on Thursday night, the community was stunned and in mourning and school officials said the hurting community needs time.

Superintendent Calls Death Of Long Island High School Football Player 'Freak Accident'

At the North Shore-LIJ Huntington Hospital Wednesday night, relatives, friends, teammates and coaches waited for news on his condition. As word of his death spread, some fell to the floor crying. The grief continued through the day as students and friends held a vigil Thursday evening.

"A lot of crying, a lot of hugging," said Shoreham-Wading River Principal Dan Holtzman.

Jack Costas, a member of the Shoreham-Wading River School Board, said students at the school were all devastated.

"It's an unbelievable experience for children their age and it's going to be difficult for them to deal with it," he told 1010 WINS' John Montone.

Football Player Dies Following On-Field Collision

Many parents and others in the community were likewise shocked by the news of Cutinella's death.

"He's the type of kid you'd want to tell your kids to be when they grow up," neighbor Daniel Menezes sobbed. "You can't say enough about the kid; he was probably one of the greatest kids you've ever seen."

"Both my boys are very active in sports and it scares the hell out of me," one parent told WCBS 880's Mike Xirinachs. "Every parent's worst nightmare."

"It's scary because at any moment, you can be done," former high school football player Chris Scarpinato told CBS 2's Janelle Burrell. "It's going the wrong way -- anything. It's crazy."

Football Player Dies Following On-Field Collision

Forty miles away at John Glenn High School, a second community was also in mourning and flags were at half-staff. Grief counseling was made available to students at the school in Elwood -- where the game was played -- as well as in Shoreham, where Cutinella -- the son of a police officer -- was a star student and beloved.

"We're allowing students to support one another in the hallways, go into the library to speak with a counselor, building administration is also available, teachers are available," Holtzman said.

Holtzman said Cutinella was "amazing academically" and that he "exemplified the values and morals that were instilled in him."

Hundreds came to a vigil at Shoreham-Wading River, attending from all over Suffolk County. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the same football field used by Cutinella to grieve together.

Ruth Squillace taught Cutinella's criminal justice class and says he dreamed of a career in law enforcement. She talked about Cutinella while attending the vigil.

"He was honorable, upstanding, all the greatest characteristics.  There wasn't a student that he interacted with that didn't instantly love him.  He was kind to all and he will be sorely missed," she told CBS 2's Jessica Schneider.

Fellow Students Stunned By LI High School Football Player's Death

"He comes from a tremendous family," Holtzman said. "And he will be missed."

Costas said the district will begin a review of its equipment, safety procedures and medical screenings. Cohen also said the school will be looking into the type of helmet the teen was wearing.

"I know that's a concern of people, and we are going to be reviewing all of the equipment, as well as everything else that happened in this event," he said.

High School Athletic Association Looks To Cut Violent Hits

By some accounts, there are five to seven high school football deaths a year nationally, WCBS 880's Peter Haskell reported.

Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, said the group is considering reducing violent hits by "limiting the number of contact days that a high school team can participate."

Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, whose mission it is to solve the concussion crisis in sports, supports the idea.

"We can probably take half the hits out of football tomorrow, but is half enough?" he told Haskell.

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