GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) - A Fort Collins teen suddenly died over the weekend while playing rugby against a team from the Grand Valley. Now the stunned players are trying to make something good out of the tragic situation.
Monday, the Larimer County Coroner's office ruled that it was a heart defect -- not a hit -- that caused 17-year-old Matthew Hammerdorfer to collapse and die during a rugby match Saturday.
Although he was playing opposite of them that day, members of the Grand Gents Rugby Team say they can't help but feel like they lost a member of their family.
"We're all saddened by this," said Doug Evans, head coach of the Grand Gents. "It just chokes me up to see anybody go through that."
Dark clouds loomed over the rugby field Monday -- both figuratively and literally -- as the Grand Gents got back to practice for the first time since the untimely death of Matthew Hammerdorfer.
"I think it's been draining on all of us," said Evans.
Evans says about 58 seconds before the half was over, Hammerdorfer had tackled one of the Gents players.
"The gentleman that he was, he bent over, picked up our player, and got him to his feet," said Evans. "He immediately ran backwards because you have to be ten meters back once a penalty is established. He retreated back, took two steps and immediately dropped to the ground."
Evans says seeing someone die has had a profound effect on the players -- the player who he tackled not yet ready to return to practice. Counselors have been on hand to help the high schoolers and Evans arranged to have a pastor attend their Monday practice. But the players say being back on the pitch is doing the most good for them.
"We're going to keep him in our memories and our prayers," said TJ Downey, a member of the Grand Gents Rugby Team. "But we've got to move forward."
Moving forward, but not forgetting, the team has set up a memorial fund in Hammerdorfer's name.
"We're trying to extend this to their team to let them know we're a family and we're here for you," said Evans.
They're also reaching out to the community, asking them not to let the incident reflect badly on the sport they love.
"We don't want anything taken away from our sport," said Evans. "Our sport is a rough sport. But this wasn't caused because of a hit."
The coroner's report says Hammerdorfer died of cardiac arrest caused by a congenital heart defect that had required three surgeries during his life.
Evans points out the game's rules limit how players are allowed to tackle and that studies have shown more youth are injured in football than in rugby.
"The sport is very much a finesse sport and you have to think the whole time you're out there," said Evans.
Now their thoughts turn to healing and preparing for their next game.
"It's a hurt, it's a loss to the whole rugby community. He was a good player," said Downey. "But as bad as it is, as hard as it is, we've got to keep practicing."
You can make donations to the Matthew Hammerdorfer at any Wells Fargo Bank. The team says the money will go to his family and possibly towards the purchase of heart defibrillators for rugby teams across the state.
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