The Shoreham-Wading River High School, Long Island football player who died after colliding with another player in a game Wednesday was an amazing student with a tremendous family, school officials said Thursday as the community tried to come to grips with a "freak accident."
The family of junior Tom Cutinella, 16, a linebacker and guard, "exemplified the values and morals that were instilled in him," said the school's principal, Daniel Holtzman, at a news conference.
"He will be missed."
Cutinella died Wednesday night after collapsing on the field during a game against John Glenn High School in Elwood earlier in the day, officials said.
Cutinella, who sustained a head injury while blocking for a teammate during a running play in the third quarter, was pronounced dead at Huntington Hospital, police and school officials said.
Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen described the play in which Cutinella sustained the fatal injury as "typical contact" and "a freak effect."
Cohen said the school's athletic director would lead the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the student's death.
"We are going to be reviewing all of the equipment as well as everything else that happened in this event," Cohen said.
He also said school officials do not know "the medical judgment" of the death.
"I can only imagine the grief his family must be feeling," Cohen said at the news conference.
Cohen called Cutinella an amazing student academically and said the district extended its deepest sympathy to his family.
"We will do everything we can to support them," he said "We ask that the Cutinella family's privacy be respected at this time."
He also said counselors and a school crisis team were on hand in the school library to address needs of students and faculty members.
Holtzman said students will host a candlelight vigil at 6 p.m. Thursday at the high school field.
Earlier Thursday, at John Glenn High School, the site of the game, school buses lined up the entrance to the school and students streamed inside, just like any other day. But a flag flew at half-staff as school officials stood guard outside; reporters were not allowed on school grounds.
The death shook the Elwood community, said Peter Illovsky, a parent who had just dropped off a student. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's just devastating."
All after-school activities at the high school and Elwood Middle School have been canceled for Thursday out of respect for the Shoreham-Wading River community, according to Deirdre Gilligan, a spokeswoman for the district.
News that Cutinella had died blindsided students, coaches and parents assembled in the hospital's intensive-care waiting area late Wednesday.
Several students cried out when hearing the news their classmate was dead, and two people fell to the ground, weeping. Dozens of friends and teammates consoled one another.
About 45 minutes after those at the hospital had learned of Cutinella's death, his father arrived wearing blue jeans and a red and white T-shirt.
He briefly hugged about 15 supporters before two officers escorted him behind a pair of double doors.
Moments later, he emerged with about a dozen of his son's teammates. Four officers then ushered the group into an elevator.
Shoreham's head coach, Matt Millheiser, sat alone in a corner and appeared numb after hearing of the death of his player.
"He was a great kid," Millheiser said before leaving the hospital late Wednesday with some of his football staff.
A spokeswoman for both districts, Gilligan confirmed Cutinella's death, saying he had been in the intensive-care unit Wednesday night after undergoing surgery.
"It was a big hit," Millheiser said shortly after his player was taken off the field by an ambulance.
The coach was among 60 friends, relatives and teammates who spent hours at the hospital.
Before news of his death, the waiting area had been silent for much of the night. Many of Cutinella's friends and teammates, wearing the school's colors of navy and gold, paced the hallway or watched television.
Hours earlier, they watched Cutinella and other Wildcats play at John Glenn High School in Elwood.
The Suffolk Division IV game, which started about 4 p.m., was halted in the third quarter with Shoreham-Wading River leading 17-12.
"His health and safety is more important than any high school football game," Glenn coach Dave Shanahan said shortly after play was suspended. "And our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the entire Shoreham-Wading River team and community. I asked my team to pray for him."
Jack Costas, a member of the Shoreham-Wading River school board, said, "We're a small community and we're all devastated. It's always tragic when someone so young and so full of life has their life ended. It's going to be a very, very difficult road ahead from this."
Costas said safety will likely be discussed Tuesday when the board meets.
"I think that, obviously, we're expecting to get a full report, find out exactly what happened and do an audit of our equipment and, if there is some way to ensure safer play, then, obviously we're going to have to make some adjustments," he said.
Cutinella was the third high school football player to die in the past week, ESPN reported.
A Tory, Alabama, high school player died after collapsing on the field after a tackle, and a Rolesville, North Carolina, high school player died after collapsing following pregame warm-ups, ESPN said.
Cutinella is the third football player in the metropolitan area in the past month to die. Miles Kirkland, 16, from Curtis High School in Staten Island collapsed on the field during a practice on Sept. 1. In Salem, New Jersey, last Sunday, 12-year-old Jeremiah Pierce died after collapsing during a youth league football practice on Sept. 23.
In a statement, Cohen said Cutinella had played football for the district since ninth grade. He became a member of the varsity team this season and played lacrosse, Cohen said.
Cutinella was a member of the Natural Helpers program, which focuses on peers helping peers by giving advice or just a sympathetic ear, district officials said.
With Deon J. Hampton, Ellen Yan, Bob Herzog, Víctor Manuel Ramos, Zachary R. Dowdy and Joie Tyrrell