Students gather on the football field at Shoreham-Wading River High...

Students gather on the football field at Shoreham-Wading River High School to remember Tom Cutinella, a junior football player who died after sustaining a head injury in a game nearly 24 hours earlier. Credit: Deon Hampton

The light from candles held by teammates, opponents and friends of Tom Cutinella flickered Thursday afternoon on the same gridiron where the 16-year-old worked so hard as a member of the Shoreham-Wading River High School football team.

A day before, many of those gathered at Shoreham were on a football field in Elwood with Cutinella, a junior, when he sustained a brain injury during a game against John Glenn High School. He died several hours later Wednesday night at Huntington Hospital.

Members of the John Glenn team were there with nearly 1,000 others yesterday -- students, teachers, teammates, relatives and even rivals -- in Shoreham-Wading River for the somber and respectful ceremony.

The gathering was a fitting tribute for the promising student athlete, whose death not only stunned Long Island's thriving high school sports community but also caught the attention of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who talked about Cutinella's death during an event in Manhattan.

Many gathered on the field while others watched from the stands as Cutinella's jersey number, 54, was emblazoned on the scoreboard. At the 50-yard line, candlelight formed the number of the linebacker and offensive guard who collapsed after colliding with another player.

"I think we're . . . so very touched that the other schools came out and made a showing," said Ruth Squillace, a criminal justice teacher at Shoreham-Wading River who counted Cutinella among her students. "It's a testament to his character. I think it was very reserved and noble, which is what he deserved."

His teammates gathered at a line of scrimmage much like they had dozens of times in practice and during games with Cutinella. This time, they left a spot open for their fallen teammate. They took turns paying homage to the student they admired, the player they respected, the friend they loved.

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

At one point, the athletes were embraced by the Knights, the team from John Glenn High School, who walked on the field to applause.

School and district officials described Cutinella as an amazing student with a tremendous family and said the community was struggling to digest his sudden death from a "freak accident."

He was blocking for a teammate when he collided with an opponent. He fell to the ground, got up and collapsed almost immediately on Glenn's field during the third quarter.

The Suffolk Division IV game, which started about 4 p.m., was halted as players, coaches and fans watched while emergency crews tended to the player before loading him into an ambulance for the 15-minute ride to Huntington.

"His health and safety is more important than any high school football game," Glenn coach Dave Shanahan said shortly after play stopped.

Hours later, when word had spread in a hospital waiting room that Cutinella had died, his coach Matt Millheiser found a quiet corner away from everyone else as he tried to process the nightmarish news.

"He was a great kid," he said later as he left the hospital.

Suffolk homicide detectives are looking into what happened, as is standard in unusual deaths, and trying to find video footage of the game.

"We are investigating it as a tragic accident," said Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, head of the homicide squad. "It's still early in the investigation. We're sorting out exactly what happened."

Beyrer declined to say if an autopsy would be performed.

Shoreham-Wading River assistant coach Hans Wiederkehr, at an afternoon news conference near the Cutinella family's Wading River home, declined to describe the fatal play.

"I can't even wrap my hands around it," Wiederkehr said, adding that he has been coaching Cutinella, whom he affectionately called "Tommy" since the teenager was 6.

"There just aren't enough words to describe the type of kid this community lost," the coach said. "He was a wonderful kid academically. . . . Tommy loved to play football and he loved the fact that he was playing football on a quality team."

Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen said the school's athletic director would lead the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the student's death.

"We are going to be reviewing all of the equipment as well as everything else that happened in this event," Cohen said.

He said counselors and a school crisis team were on hand in the school library Thursday to address the needs of students and faculty members. It was not known if they will return today.

Earlier, at John Glenn High, school buses lined up at the entrance and students streamed inside, just like any other day. But a flag flew at half-staff.

The death shook the Elwood community, said Peter Illovsky, a parent who had just dropped off a student at Glenn. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's just devastating."

All after-school activities at the high school and Elwood Middle School were canceled Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Elwood district said.

Shoreham-Wading River announced Thursday its middle school open house was postponed, and middle school and high school sports had been canceled.

Jack Costas, a member of the Shoreham-Wading River school board, said safety will likely be discussed Tuesday when the board meets.

Safety was on Cuomo's mind when he addressed Cutinella's death. Cuomo said Cutinella's death was "obviously tragic and anything we can do to prevent them, we should."

Neighbors of the Cutinella family in Wading River said he was the son everyone would have wanted.

"As far as the kid, you couldn't ask for a nicer kid," said Danny Menezes, 54, who lives across the street. "If you tried to tell someone how to raise a kid and who to turn out like, it would be him."

With Gary Dymski, Ellen Yan, Bob Herzog, Víctor Manuel Ramos, Zachary R. Dowdy, Emily Ngo and Joie Tyrrell

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