With a spotlight shining on a pair of shoes resting on an empty wrestling mat, Cold Spring Harbor High School paid tribute to one of its own Wednesday night.
Cody Taddonio, a 17-year-old senior and member of the high school's football and wrestling teams, died in his sleep this past weekend, and an overflow crowd was there to pay its respects before Cold Spring Harbor's wrestling meet against Massapequa.
"The shoes were a symbol of Cody's love for wrestling," said Michael Bongino, the school's athletic director. "It was very emotional."
Taddonio was a four-year varsity wrestler. The team captain was looking forward to earning his 50th career victory and competing in the Division II state tournament in Albany.
His mom, Susan Taddonio, said she found him unresponsive when she attempted to wake him Sunday morning. The cause of death has yet to be determined and the family is awaiting toxicology test results.
With the lights dimmed and the crowd silenced, Bongino thanked everyone for their support and love for Taddonio. His family was surrounded by the other team captains and coaches as the crowd gathered three-deep along the gymnasium walls and paid their respects.
The three-time All-Nassau County wrestler, competing at 195 pounds, won two of three matches on Saturday and finished second in the Manhasset tournament.
"He was really happy when he came home from the tournament late Saturday," Susan Taddonio said. "He thought he dislocated his shoulder again in the first match of the tournament. But he was very happy with the second-place finish. He'd been battling through a torn anterior capsule and a torn labrum and was trying to get through the season without surgery."
Taddonio was described by coaches and teammates as a tough-as-nails competitor who feared no one on the gridiron or on the mat.
"Cody never looked at the rankings or got intimidated by any opponent," wrestling coach Mike Ferrugiari said. "It didn't matter to him. He'd step on the mat against monsters and go right after them. I loved his spirit and competitiveness."
That spirit endeared him to teammates and other student-athletes in the district.
"He was my best friend since third grade," said teammate Rob Incorvaia, who wore half of Taddonio's headgear in honor of his friend on Wednesday night. Incorvaia won by second-period pin, bringing the house down.
"Cody was the definition of a captain," Incorvaia said. "I won for him out there. He's the guy who's pushed me in the practice room all these years as a workout partner. I'm going to miss him."
Cody's sister, Alexus, said her brother always put everyone else before himself. "He was such a polite kid who always cared about others," she said. "He had no tolerance for bullying and looked out for others."
Susan Taddonio is very proud of her young man who touched many lives.
"He loved working with children with disabilities and making them feel good," she said. "There was an inner quality, a caring that really characterized what he was all about. I never knew he had such an ability to connect with these children. He was always encouraging younger middle school children who were looking for guidance and looked up to him. He taught the wrestling in the mighty mites program and loved it."
She added, "It was very hard for us to come [Wednesday] but I'm so happy we did. He was communicating with friends on his Facebook and was trying to inspire a younger autistic boy to come out for the wrestling team. And another message read from a friend, 'You're the only kid who was ever nice to me.' And that really hit home for me.
"We want to keep his memory alive. The community and the school were amazing. The tribute really defined him and all the people he touched."
Viewing, before cremation, will be Friday at the Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.