Notre Dame recruit Derek Roback first heard the news around 10 p.m. Friday, just a few hours after future football teammate Matt James had fallen to his death while on spring break in Panama City, Fla. More than 12 hours later, Roback was struggling to find words to describe his feelings about someone he had only met a couple of times, but was looking forward to knowing over the next four or five years of his life. "You can tell I can’t really … it’s weird … it’s not supposed to happen," Roback said early Saturday afternoon via cell phone. "Someone who’s got everything, and to get it taken away, it’s not supposed to happen like that." Roback first met James, a senior at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School, last football season during an unofficial visit to Notre Dame. The two made official visits to Notre Dame the weekend of Jan. 29. Roback, considered an athlete who can play multiple positions, committed to the Irish that weekend, James, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman, joined him as a member of the Irish a few days later. The two were part of a group that socialized throughout the weekend. "He was a great kid," said Roback, a senior at Waverly (Ohio) High School. "As a person, he kind of seemed like a gentle giant. He was fun to be around, and I didn’t even know him that well." Already Saturday, Roback had talked with future teammate Andrew Hendrix, a quarterback from Cincinnati. The two looked to the future and talked about how they can keep James’ memory alive and never forget him. Even before Friday’s tragedy, Roback had found strength in the Notre Dame family. "I’ve kind of felt that even more since last night," he said. The feelings Roback was experiencing Saturday weren’t new. Five years ago, while in eighth grade, a good friend lost his battle with cancer. "That was one of the toughest things," Roback said. "I know how (James’) family and how his friends feel. It hurts me and I really feel for the people that are close to him." Saturday, Roback was fighting to find some sense with James’ death. "It’s something you never expect. You fear something happening like that all the time but you never expect it to be somebody you know," he said. "You know it can happen to anybody, but once it really does, you’re kind of like … I don’t even know how to explain it."
Staff writer Bob Wieneke: email@example.com (574) 235-6428