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DETROIT FREE PRESS

The Real Tragedy Of A Spring Break Death

By Mitch Albom

Matt James fell off a balcony. He died. He was 17, four years under the legal drinking age. Police say he was drunk. This would be a tragic story if it were an isolated story.

It's more tragic because it is not.

James was not the first underage kid to die during spring break this year. He wasn't the first in Florida, nor was he the first in party-happy Panama City Beach. He wasn't even the first in Panama City Beach to fall five stories. Just two weeks earlier, a 19-year-old man from Georgia did the same thing. Fell off. Died. Alcohol, according to the guy's friends, was involved in that one, too.

James' story got more attention over the past week because he had been a top football recruit for Notre Dame, an offensive lineman hailed for his agility and towering presence. After his death, the Internet lit up with tributes and sad farewells. Matt James was mourned as a pied piper to small kids, a gentle giant.

No one spoke about how much alcohol it takes to intoxicate a 6-foot-8, 290-pound body. No one said how preposterous it is to argue with people next door by leaning over the balcony and shaking your finger - which James was reportedly doing when he fell.

No one asked how a 17-year-old, on a trip with 40 other kids and six adults, manages to drink enough to be in such a state - at 6:30 in the evening, not exactly the wee hours - with nobody stopping him.

In fact, when James' high school football coach was questioned by the media about the intoxication, he said, "I think you trivialize the situation if you start focusing on that. A young man, a 17-year-old young man, lost his life."

Yes. And alcohol may be the reason.

There is nothing trivial about that. No place for teenagers

If anything, alcohol is the real story here. Between March 11-28, police said they arrested 985 people in Panama City Beach for underage possession of alcohol. Read that again. Nine hundred eighty-five kids. And I call them kids, because when it comes to drinking, they are.

Which begs the question, especially with James, a 12th-grader: What was he doing down there? Since when did spring break become a high school thing? Since when is 40 kids with six adults - who, according to the football coach, weren't even there as official chaperones - a good ratio?

How much more evidence do you need that Florida, spring break and hotel rooms can be a dangerous combination? There is an awful history of people falling to their deaths from balconies in the Sunshine State. Sometimes they are jumping to another room to avoid crowded elevators. Sometimes they are diving into swimming pools. Sometimes they are taking foolish dares.

And sometimes they have no idea how precarious their posture is.

In any and all cases, it is no place to send your high school kid. I don't care how much they beg. I don't care how hard they work in school. And I really don't care how much they promise not to drink. Come on. We were all that age. Between the pressure from your friends, the ease of acquisition and the teenage ability to stay up longer and later than any adult chaperone, booze is always going to be a threat.

How do you avoid a threat?

How about staying away. Yes, kids will be kids

Now, of course, our prayers go out to James' family and friends. Losing a young, healthy man is always heartbreaking.

But dying in war is one thing. Dying on spring break is another. There is no kind way to say this. But you cannot, in good conscience, paint Matt James as a tragic hero. At best he is a victim of naïveté, thinking alcohol is just fine for a 17-year-old, and balconies are not dangerous places.

At worst, he is an example of the brazen fearlessness that young men exude, sometimes with deadly results. What, one imagines, could possibly have been so important to have an argument over across a balcony five stories high?

Probably something that would make you say, "Ahh, you know kids." And that's the point. If you know kids, you don't allow them in those situations. Then, hopefully, you don't have to mourn them later.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch "Monday Sports Albom" 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.