Experiment gone wrong may have claimed ‘gentle giant’

Published 12:51 am Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alex Wentz

Alex Wentz

Niles Daily Star

Alex Wentz was a kid with extraordinary potential.

He was an athlete, an entertainer, a community volunteer and a friend to all. And yes, just a teenager.

Unfortunately, after an apparent experiment gone terribly wrong, that potential will never be fully realized.

On Feb. 11, Teresa Russell, his grandmother and caretaker, found the 15-year-old on his knees unconscious in his closet with a dress tie around his neck and attached to a closet rod.

When she found him, his body was still warm. Attempts to revive him with CPR failed.
The medical examiner ruled the death unintentional, and Russell believes his death may have resulted from an experiment with the “choking game,” an activity in which people strangle themselves and cut off flow of blood to the brain for a few moments of lightheadedness or a “high.”

Russell said she and Wentz had seen a television show about the game earlier that week and he called it “crazy.” She said the evening of his death he had been in an argument with his girlfriend and was “extremely upset.”

“In less than 10 seconds you can lose consciousness,” Russell said of the choking game. “If there is nobody there to find you quick enough, the outcome is not good.”

Jim Knoll, principal of Niles High School, where Wentz attended, said the school did a survey of students to find out about what they knew about the choking game.

“It is not popular among our high school students,” he said. “Most kids hadn’t even heard of it.”

But they definitely know about it now and will think about it whenever they remember the popular yet quirky freshman with that bright smile.

Knoll said Wentz’s death will have an impact on the school for a while.

“Experts say the repercussions from a tragedy like this can last until that student would have graduated,” he said. “We could be feeling this the next four years.”

More than 1,000 people attended Wentz’s viewing and 600 came to the funeral, which was so crowded that the doors were closed on several people.

On his online guestbook, dozens of people called him a “best friend” or a “brother.”

“I actually didn’t know he was that popular, really,” Russell said. “He never acted like he was. He was just an ordinary kid. They say if you’re the jock or the popular person, the ones who are not popular will not get involved with you. He wasn’t like that. He was open to all.”

Wentz played baseball, wrestled and played trumpet in the high school band. He was also an active member of the Sumnerville Bible Baptist Church youth group.

His pastor, the Rev. Daniel Greegor, whose family was like a second family to Wentz, said he had everything going for him and will be missed by the youth group.

“He was a spark in that group,” Greegor said. “When Alex was in the room, you knew he was there. Take him out of the mix, and it’s not the same.”

But out of all of his activities, football was his passion.

Wentz, or “Big Mac” as his athlete friends called him, was a 5-foot-11-inch, 250-pound lineman for the Niles football team and was in line to play varsity next year.

Russell said Saturdays and Sundays during the fall were dedicated to watching Ohio State and Indianapolis Colts football. His goal was to one day suit up for an NFL team.

Despite his big size, he was not seen as an intimidating force. Russell said at school, they called him a “gentle giant.”

“Alex was a true gentleman,” his aunt, Shannon Blackwell, said. “He would do anything to make sure your day was OK. I think that it was his goal every day to make sure he made somebody laugh.”