Spring Break in Panama City, Florida is hardly a vacation. I’ve made the trip, piling into two cars with six buddies during my junior year at Notre Dame. Caravaning through the night, an atlas in one hand, a Mountain Dew in the other, we drove the 900 miles as fast as we could make them, stopping only for gas and fast food as we barreled our way through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and into the Florida panhandle. We checked into a hotel less than a quarter mile from the Days Inn, the hotel where James and his friends planned to spend the last true vacation of their lives, before embarking on a collegiate athletic career that would leave little time for a boozy weeks spent in the sun.
That’s the thing with Panama City. Too many kids, too much booze, and too much sun. There’s been hundreds of us that’ve stood on those balconies, screaming and hollering at neighbors a few rooms over, thousands of us that drank far too much, far too quickly. James was just another kid — albeit much larger and more athletically gifted than most of us — that planned on joining the party.
This is a blog about college football, so I’m going to try and turn the page and cover the Irish as they continue to work their way through spring practice and into summer workouts. But James’ death hit many of us hard, just because the terrible tragedy could’ve happened to any of us. I’ve been on those balconies, seen kids who aren’t old enough to legally drink brazenly do so in broad daylight. That the police will consider seeking out the people who purchased the alcohol that led to James’ death does nothing to bring him back, nor remedy a city that’s livelihood depends on luring underage kids to excess for a few short weeks each spring.
The stories will move on to football here, but the memory of Matt James will not. Having never met him, I never got the chance to talk to a kid that touched so many lives and made so many people proud. While Notre Dame football has dealt with these types of tragedy before, the family and friends of Matt haven’t, and they’ll likely depend on the thoughts and kindness of others as they work through these terrible tragedies.
Once every while, a tragedy like this occurs, and reminds us that a sport that has become a multimillion dollar business with Saturdays treated like life or death is really only football, played by a bunch of college kids. Let’s all remember that, and remember Matt James and those close to him as well.