Equipment sits on a football practice field near the main entrance for Shoreham-Wading River High School on Oct. 2, 2014, in Shoreham, N.Y.
Kathy Kmonicek—AP
By Sean Gregory
October 3, 2014

Tragedy has struck a high school football field — again. Tom Cutinella, a 16-year-old junior from Shoreham-Wading River High School in Suffolk County, N.Y., died after suffering an injury in Wednesday’s game between Shoreham-Wading River and John Glenn High School in Elwood, N.Y. Steven R. Cohen, superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, told reporters Cutinella’s fatal injury was the result of a “freak football play” where there was “typical contact.”

Cohen said Cutinella suffered a head injury; Newsday reported it occurred after he “blocked an opponent for a teammate.” School officials said Cutinella stood up after the play, then collapsed. The injury occurred at 6 p.m., police say: Cutinella was rushed to a hospital, and pronounced dead Wednesday night. The Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s office told TIME that it has yet to perform an autopsy on Cutinella. Daniel Holtzman, principal of Shoreham-Wading River High School, said Cutinella was nice, well-rounded, and an “amazing student.”

ESPN says that in the last week alone, three high school football players have died. One other death, like Cutinella’s, happened after a collision. The third player died after collapsing in pre-game warm-ups. As TIME noted in a recent cover story, eight people died playing football in 2013, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. That was the highest toll since 2001; all eight were high school players.

This latest incident is another stark reminder of the risks of high school football. Despite these deaths and heightened awareness of the dangers of concussions, high school football participation has held steady: it’s down just 1.12% since the 2007-2008 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Participation for kids ages 6 to 12, however, has dropped 26.5% between 2007 and 2013, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

On Thursday afternoon, around 1,000 people gathered for a candlelight vigil in Cutinella’s honor at the Shoreham-Wading River field. As Newsday describes it:

Cutinella’s No. 54 was up in lights on the scoreboard, and at the 50-yard line white candlelights were set up to form the number of the linebacker and guard…When his Wildcats teammates lined up as if for a football play, they left a spot empty for Cutinella, 16, and players began talking about the student they admired.

“He always went out of his way to make you smile,” one player said.

 

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