Official: Fatal football hit a 'freak accident'

Kathy Kmonicek/APTom Cutinella

WADING RIVER, N.Y. — The death of a 16-year-old varsity high school football player following an on-field collision during a game was “a freak accident,” the school's superintendent said at a news conference Thursday.

Steven Cohen, the superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River School District on Long Island's North Shore, offered his sympathies to the family of Tom Cutinella, who played linebacker and guard and was in his junior year.

“I think it was the result of a typical football play. It was just a freak accident,” Cohen said. “You know, the game involves contact and it was the result of a freak football play.”

The athletic director will lead the district's investigation into Cutinella's death, Cohen said, looking at everything from the type of hit, to what kind of helmets and equipment Cutinella and other players were using.

The medical examiner will determine the cause of death, though it appeared Cutinella suffered a head injury, officials said.

“Tom Cutinella was beloved by everyone who knew him,” Cohen said in a statement he read at Thursday's news conference. “His death in a terrible sports accident yesterday has touched everyone in this community very deeply.”

A member of Cutinella's family declined to comment, and school officials said the family had asked for privacy. A police car was parked outside their home in an upper-middle class sub-division in Wading River.

Cutinella, who wore No. 54 for the Wildcats, was hit around 6 p.m. Wednesday night in the third quarter with Shoreham-Wading River leading 17-12 over John Glenn High School in Elwood, about 43 miles east of Manhattan. He was able to get up after the collision but then collapsed, officials said. An ambulance rushed him to a Huntington Hospital, where he died in the intensive-care unit following surgery. He had passed a preseason physical, Cohen said.

Principal Dan Holtzman says counselors have been made available to students. A candlelight memorial was scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday on the football field.

Brian Dollard, a Shoreham-Wading River sophomore, said teary-eyed students were hugging and consoling one another in the high school's hallways and classrooms. He said Cutinella was known as a smart and kind student who volunteered in a peer-to-peer counseling group.

“He was one of the nicest kids in the school,” said Dollard. “He was just always helping people.”

Cohen said it hadn't yet been determined whether the season will be canceled in the wake of Cutinella's death. The executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association didn't immediately return messages seeking comment.

An average of 12 high school and college players die every year, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Concerns about hard hits have grown in recent years, and concussion management has gained renewed attention for the roughly 1 million boys who play high school football.

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