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Caldwell High player dies during football practice


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  • Caldwell High player dies during football practice

    Caldwell High player dies during football practice
    Thursday, October 12, 2006
    Star-Ledger Staff
    The varsity football players at James Caldwell High School took turns catching the ball and sprinting down the field yesterday afternoon during practice.

    When it was James Bliss' turn, the 16-year-old wide receiver snagged the ball and was then tackled. Seconds later, as he walked back to the huddle, police said he collapsed face-first onto the field in front of his teammates. A team doctor performed CPR, but police said the boy went into cardiac arrest.

    He was rushed by ambulance to Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, where he was declared dead at 4:45 p.m., West Caldwell Police Chief Charles Tubbs said.

    "We're all shocked and heartsick," said Kim Sirvan, a family friend and former president of the Caldwell Gridiron Club. "He was a nice kid from a hard-working, good family."

    Dan Gerardi, superintendent of Caldwell-West Caldwell Public Schools, said the boy had no known medical conditions and had passed a physical before being allowed to play football.

    "We're trying to piece together what happened," Gerardi said. "It was right on the field."

    Mary Davidson, the school board president and a family friend, said the district will conduct an investigation as the incident occurred on school property. But based on what she knew yesterday, she said the district had the proper personnel and medical equipment.

    "We have a defibrillator at the school," Davidson said. "I do know our personnel are certified, the trainer was there."

    Tubbs said police used the defibrillator before Bliss was rushed to the hospital.

    Friends and teammates were numb with grief as word of Bliss' death spread through this small, football-minded community in west Essex County. The Chiefs, who pride themselves on a 23-year streak of winning seasons, have gotten off to a rocky start, winning only one of their five games so fa
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    Their next game is scheduled for tomorrow night against Madison. Gerardi said he had not yet decided whether to postpone the game, which is to be played in Madison. Gerardi said he is not sure if the team will have its regular two-hour practice at 4 p.m. today.

    The team was planning on a pre-game party tonight to lift their spirits before the game, but might host a vigil instead, said one player, who did not give his name yesterday at Mountainside Hospital.

    About a dozen players still dressed in their practice sweats gathered in the hospital lobby yesterday evening, embracing one another in tears. Mayor Joseph Tempesta, who said he knows the Bliss family well, said the players gathered in the hospital auditorium for a prayer.

    Tempesta said Bliss was a standout at the high school.

    "He was a top student, a top athlete," Tempesta said. "He was not sick. It was a normal, routine practice. They weren't doing anything strenuous. There were no warning signs."

    Bliss, who was known as "Jamie," was the youngest of three boys, all of whom were star athletes at Caldwell High School, friends said.

    One brother, Tim, is a senior at New York University and his other brother, Dan, was the valedictorian at Caldwell High School last year, according to Davidson. Dan Bliss is a freshman at Georgetown University.

    At 6 feet 3 inches, James Bliss excelled at basketball, said Gordon Lawshe, co-president of the Caldwell Gridiron Club. He also was a pitcher on the baseball team, Lawshe said.

    When he entered high school, the 175-pounder decided to give football a try as well. Bliss was not a starter, but demonstrated as much passion for football as he did with other sports, Davidson said.

    "There wasn't anything he couldn't do," Davidson said. "He was determined to achieve the highest he could do. All you expected from Jamie was the best."

    Lawshe said to his knowledge this has happened only once before in the school's history -- predating Coach Ken Trimmer who has been the head coach for 11 years.

    But sudden deaths on athletic fields have become more common around the country.

    Last week, a 17-year-old cross-country runner died during running drills on the school track in Katy, Texas. The death marked the fourth time a Houston-area student-athlete died during a practice or a game.

    Closer to home in Newark, Darius Slater, a 16-year-old, died last October while he ran warm-up laps at Essex County Technical Careers Center. Doctors said he had a massive heart attack.

    Gerardi said grief counselors will be on hand today at Caldwell High School.