Students and faculty packed the Marist High School chapel Friday afternoon for an emotional prayer service to celebrate the life of Paul Simmons, a 17-year-old student who died early Friday after collapsing while playing basketball during a senior overnight function at the Southwest Side school.
Deacon Andy Neu, the school chaplain, read a letter that Simmons wrote to himself on a recent Kairos trip, a retreat designed to give teenagers a sense of their relationships with God, families and friends.
“Remember to make the most of every moment that you have. Just keep on rollin,” the teen had written.
Neu said Simmons, who was captain of the varsity basketball team at the Catholic high school, 4200 W. 115th St., didn’t find out until late in the process that he’d be able to attend the retreat.
“Paul was thrilled. He didn’t just go to the Kairos retreat; he MADE the Kairos retreat,” Neu said. “Paul knew Christ. He is enjoying the promise that was made to all of us.”
About 260 students attended the senior lock-in that started about 9:30 p.m. Thursday and was scheduled to conclude at 6 a.m. Friday, according to the school. Simmons collapsed while playing basketball, and police said he was pronounced dead at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn just after midnight Friday. The cause of death was not immediately known.
“He was at a place he loved, playing a sport he loved, with people he loved,” said Marist Principal Larry Tucker, adding that although seniors were excused from school Friday because of the overnight event, many returned for the prayer service. He said students had also stayed at the school after the event Friday morning to pray and tell stories about Simmons. “He touched a lot of lives,” said the principal.
Fellow senior Connor Quinlan, who said he played on the basketball team with Simmons as a freshman, said Simmons would go out of his way to say “hello” and was concerned about others.
“He was a great kid. He was just a fun kid,” Quinland said.
Former Marist athletic director Tom Schergen said Simmons “was an unbelievable kid” who had developed into a leader on and off the basketball court, and that Simmons’ drive and determination made him a top player on this year’s basketball team. Simmons, who was well-known and well-liked around the school, “always said the right things and did the right things,” Schergen said. “He was really a special kid. He always worked hard. He had a great personality.”
The teen had earned a $20,000 academic scholarship to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., his principal said.
“The hearts of our seniors, our faculty and the entire Marist community are heavy as we come to terms with the painful sadness of Paul’s death,” the school said in a statement. “Paul was a dynamic, outgoing individual who beat tough odds to become a successful student-athlete at Marist High School. Paul had a winning smile, a vibrant personality and a tremendous work ethic. The loss of Paul Simmons is an enormous loss for the Marist family and for Spring Hill College, where Paul was to attend as a student-athlete in the fall.
“The Marist community prays for Paul, his parents, Paul and Vera, his siblings and his extended family — including the Marist family — that God provides us with the strength to understand this heartbreaking loss.”
Contributing: Amy Lee, Southtownstar staff reports