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To Nineteen Athletes Dying Young


During the 2003 fall sports season, MomsTeam received numerous e-mails, phone calls and visits with news far exceeding our worst fears about the number of deaths in youth sports.

Nineteen kids:

  • Sixteen boys and three girls. 
  • Eight football players, three soccer players, two running cross-country and playing basketball, one cheerleader, one playing baseball, one rowing crew, one trying out for a marathon team.
  • One was a redheaded kindergartner on his first sports team, another, a high school senior competing for his third consecutive state football championship ring. One weighed only forty-eight pounds while another tipped the scales at two-eighty. One hoped to be elected homecoming king while another helped her mother raise and show Dobermans. One drove a tractor on his parent's dairy farm and raised pigs and steers to sell at county fairs; another was president of her student class and had a "million dollar smile."

Nineteen kids from all over the country: six each from the South and Northeast, five from the Mid-West, and two from the Pacific Northwest. Nineteen kids with one thing in common: Within a two and half month period in the fall of 2003, they were all dead.

One minute they were all alive, apparently healthy, the next they were suddenly, tragically gone, leaving teammates, families, classmates, and communities to grieve, to ask why, and to wonder "what if..." And leaving us at MomsTeam to wonder: if we learned about nineteen children, how many more had died during the same time period that we did not learn about?

Nineteen Lives Recounted

From interviews, newspaper stories, and Internet websites the following accounts of the lives and tragic deaths of the nineteen athletes emerge:

Matthew Thomas

A 14-year old high school freshman from Victoria, Texas, Matthew was participating in pre-season football practice on August 12, 2003 when he told the trainer he was feeling ill and began vomiting, a symptom of heat stroke. An ambulance was called and Matthew was rushed to DeTar Hospital, where he later died. The autopsy concluded that he died of cardiac arrhythmia (rapid, irregular heartbeat) related to mild dehydration, but the medical examiner could not rule out the possibility that Matthew's death was heat-related (the high temperature that day was 92 degrees).

Dan Gorcyzk

On August 12, 2003, the same day Matthew died, heat likely claimed the life of a second high school football player. Dan Gorcyzk, a 16-year-old sophomore at Scranton (Pa) Prep, collapsed during practice on a sweltering afternoon and died the next day. The cause of death has not been reported.

Peter Heuchling

On August 22, 2003, ten days after Dan Gorcyzk and Matthew Thomas died, Peter ("Todd") Heuchling, a 19-year-old Durham, New Hampshire native and second-year cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, was leading a group of cadets competing in a time trial for Army's marathon team. Just yards from the finish line, he collapsed and died. Described by classmates as bright and personable, a leader, and an amazing athlete (one said Todd "redefined the word 'fit' for me"), Todd had no previous health problems. No cause of death has been reported.

Emil Gadjev

On September 11, 2003, Emil, a 13-year-old middle school student from Atlanta, Georgia, collapsed after soccer practice. Due to a series of errors, paramedics did not arrive on the scene until 12 minutes after the 911 call. Emil was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at a nearby hospital from a previously undetected heart condition which had caused sudden cardiac arrest ("SCA"). A math and science whiz, he was described by friends and classmates as funny and charismatic. One entry on a memorial website asked Emil to "be happy" because he arrived "at heaven's gates ... with Johnny Cash and John Ritter."

Justin Saccone

Ten days later, on September 21, 2003, Justin, a 15-year-old high school freshman from Cold Spring, Kentucky, was filling in for a youth baseball team short a player when, attempting to bunt, he was struck in the chest over the heart and died from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) as a result of a phenomenon called commotio cordis, a rare disruption of the heart's electrical system resulting from blunt impact to the chest. Mourners waited up to two hours to view Justin's casket at the Campbell County High School gym. Close by hung Justin's purple pinstriped baseball uniform with the number 3 on the chest. A crowd of 500 attended a subsequent memorial at the park where Justin, known for his infectious smile and for teaching neighborhood kids to play baseball, had died. In an ironic twist, the game that Sunday involving Justin's former team, being played on Field 3 after Justin's number 3 was announced for the last time, was called off on account of rain at 3 p.m. in the 3rd inning, ending a bake sale which had raised $333 for a memorial fund in Justin's memory.