Young, full of life and looking towards a bright future are the things I remember about my last visit with Matt James. It was National Signing Day and the setting was St. Xavier High School’s library.
As other Bomber athletes and their families gathered along with friends, teammates, coaches and media, James and his fellow classmates entered with the smiles you’d expect from young people getting ready to commit to their future.
Following all the pomp and circumstance, family keepsakes (photos) were taken with family and coaches. It is this moment that is etched into my mind as I think back to all of the times I spoke with Matt James during his high school career.
On that day Matt James was set free and allowed to declare his passion to play and attend Notre Dame.
The recruiting process was over and now questions would be only about his future in South Bend and the Irish football program. But what made Matt so special was he was looking at far more than Saturdays inside a stadium with so much history.
Notre Dame was where Matt felt like he belonged. As a man-child standing 6-6 and over 290-pounds, Matt had gotten use to eyes following him. Now, just like at St. Xavier High School, Matt found a place to be himself and relax.
Yes, football would still be there, but Matt knew Notre Dame would allow him a chance to be the same person he’d become while in high school, a humble caring person who had a sense of humor but also a sense of what really was important in life.
While those who got the chance to read about Matt James on the many recruiting websites that followed him, Matt knew their thirst for the latest news on him was over.
All was right with the world for Matt James that day.
As news spread on Friday night that we lost Matt at such a young age, I sat at my computer looking for the words to express the many thoughts going through my head. As a father of four we never prepare ourselves for such terrible news. But there I was sitting and staring at several photos I’d taken over the past few years.
When I got to the file of photos from the last time I saw Matt my heart pained and the tears fell. There was Matt sitting at a table just two months ago with his mother standing over one shoulder and his coach the other.
While this photo became the one I continued to look at, I found my hands frozen unable to type out anything that made sense.
Friday, we learned how vulnerable life is. A person full of life with such a bright future was taken from us way too soon.
For me, the past three years gave me a chance to know Matt James on a personal level. I watched Matt just like I’ve watched the many young athletes I’ve covered over the years grow from a shy, reserved child to a self confident man. For that I’m grateful. I was given a chance to know a young man full of life who was getting comfortable in his own skin.
By this past season Matt had gotten to understand people had questions about his college future. And while he spoke with members of the media he also never allowed the recruiting frenzy to take him away from his teammates, family or friends. Matt loved being a St. X Bomber and knew he’d never get these moments after a win or loss back. It was here those who paid attention learned about the real Matt James.
After home games Matt would be walking around the field from interview to interview as small children raced to talk with him. While others in his shoes would pay small attention Matt knew many of these kids would soon be walking the same halls that he loved at St. Xavier. He gave them quality time in those moments and the kids loved it.
While his loss comes as a complete shock to me and the many that had the chance to know Matt, each of us will remember Matt not as a football player, but as a human being.
While some may look at Matt’s passing as a tremendous loss to the Notre Dame Football program, I know the real loss is for what Matt would have done on campus as a member of the Notre Dame student body. Matt was a special person who just happened to be built to play football at the highest amateur level it can be played at.
Saturday I spoke with several coaches who recruited Matt over the past couple of years. Their hearts were broken with the news as they also felt the game of football loss a player of such promise. But each of them also spoke about the loss of the person and not the athlete.
To all of Matt’s friends and the James family my thoughts and prayers are with you.