Hundreds attended a funeral Tuesday morning for a 16-year-old Long Island varsity high school football player who died hours after an on-field collision during a game.
The funeral for Tom Cutinella was held at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church on North Country Road in Wading River, where friends, family and even students from neighboring High Schools gathered to say goodbye to the teen.
"Tom was such a tremendous student and a tremendous person," said family friend John Higgins. "It's just such a loss for the community as you can tell by the tremendous outpouring that's here, that we loved him very much."
Cutinella, a junior who played linebacker and guard and wore No. 54 for the Wildcats, was hit last Wednesday in the third quarter with Shoreham-Wading River leading 17-12 over John Glenn High School in Elwood. He was able to get up after the collision but then collapsed, officials said.
An ambulance took him to a Huntington Hospital, where he died in the intensive-care unit following surgery.
He had passed a preseason physical, said Steven Cohen, the superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River School District.
Cohen offered his sympathies to Cutinella's family.
"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 how Cutinella died, though it appeared he had a head injury, officials said.
Assistant varsity coach Hans Wiederkehr, who coached Cutinella since he was 6 years old, described the team as a tight-knit group still struggling to understand what happened. He declined to recount the Wednesday night collision.
"Tommy loved to play football," he said. "He loved the game."
Last Thursday, hundreds clapped as the football team walked around the school's track before players hugged members of the team they were playing Wednesday when Cutinella went down. Others were seen kneeling down next to a poster with the teen's pictures and placed candles around the makeshift memorial.
"He was a great guy, very inspirational," fellow football player Kenny Degolyer, 15, said as he carried a candle away from a vigil held on the school's football field. "He just kept moving you forward; he wouldn't keep you down."
Cutinella was the third tri-state youth to die playing football this school year. Sixteen-year-old Miles Kirkland, of Staten Island, and 12-year-old Jeremiah Pierce, of Salem, New Jersey, both died during practices in September.
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.
On Tuesday, a mixture of relatives and friends served as the pallbearers for Cutinella's Coffin. Mourners hoped Cutinella's memory would live on. His family donated his organs and an athletic scholarship has been created in his name.
"Tom was the kind of guy that would give you the shirt off his back," said family friend Brian Sheehan. "God really did reach down and grab an angel."