Tom Cutinella, who played linebacker and guard and was in his junior year, "was a spectacular human being and there wasn't a student who met him who didn't love him," said his criminal justice teacher, Ruth Squillace.
"The send-off he received today was precisely what he was due," she said of Thursday night's memorial.
Cutinella, who wore No. 54 for the Wildcats, was hit around 6 p.m. Wednesday in the third quarter with Shoreham-Wading River leading 17-12 over John Glenn High School in Elwood, about 43 miles east of Manhattan. He was able to get up after the collision but then collapsed, officials said. An ambulance rushed him to a Huntington Hospital, where he died in the intensive-care unit following surgery. He had passed a preseason physical, said Steven Cohen, the superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River School District on Long Island's North Shore.
Cohen offered his sympathies to Cutinella's family.
"I think it was the result of a typical football play. It was just a freak accident," Cohen said at a news conference earlier Thursday. "You know, the game involves contact and it was the result of a freak football play."
The athletic director will lead the district's investigation into Cutinella's death, Cohen said, looking at everything from the type of hit, to what kind of helmets and equipment Cutinella and other players were using.
The medical examiner will determine the cause of death, though it appeared Cutinella suffered a head injury, officials said.
Assistant varsity coach Hans Wiederkehr, who coached Cutinella since he was 6-years-old, described the team as a tight-knit group still struggling to understand what happened. He declined to recount the Wednesday night collision.
"Tommy loved to play football," he said. "He loved the game."
A member of Cutinella's family declined to comment, and school officials said the family had asked for privacy. A police car was parked outside their home in an upper-middle class sub-division in Wading River.
Thursday evening, hundreds clapped as the football team walked around the school's track before players hugged members of the team they were playing Wednesday when Cutinella went down. Others were seen kneeling down next to a poster with the teen's pictures and placed candles around the makeshift memorial.
Former Shoreham student Adam Tanner, now 18, returned to the say goodbye to his friend and former teammate. "It was just the worst feeling, I just had the worst taste in my mouth, the 2012 graduate said, recalling when he heard the news of Cutinella's passing. He said he remembered thinking, "It couldn't have been him."
"He was a great guy, very inspirational," fellow football player Kenny Degolyer, 15, said as he carried a candle away from a vigil held on the school's football field. "He just kept moving you forward; he wouldn't keep you down."
Cohen said it hadn't yet been determined whether the season will be cancelled in the wake of Cutinella's death. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association said all coaches are required to be licensed and since 2012 have been trained to recognize symptoms of a concussion.
An average of 12 high school and college players die every year, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Concerns about hard hits have grown in recent years, and concussion management has gained renewed attention for the roughly 1 million boys who play high school football.