Students to honor Ray-Pec track athlete who collapsed and died

For the better part of seven months, Raymore-Peculiar High School athletic director Tom Kruse has spent time praising the school’s senior class — a group he describes as motivated, leadership-driven and kind.

That class lost one of its prominent members on Wednesday night.

Senior track athlete Ja’leel Freeman died Wednesday after he collapsed during track practice. He was 17.

Emergency crews responded just after 5 p.m. and found Freeman in cardiac arrest. Staff performed CPR until EMS arrived and transported Freeman to Belton Regional Medical Center, where he died.

District officials expressed their sympathy to Freeman’s family and friends.

Ben Sinclair, a senior at Ray-Pec, said news of Freeman’s death circulated across social media late Wednesday night. Teachers began the school day Thursday by informing their students with an announcement.

“Everybody was shaken up,” Sinclair said Thursday. “Everybody is really thankful we get to come here to school today. Knowing that he doesn’t, it puts everything in perspective for all of us.”

Freeman was beginning his fourth season as a distance runner on the track team. Practice for the spring season began Monday.

Freeman completed a physical exam, as required by the state’s governing body of athletics, before participating in track, Kruse said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 2,000 people under age 25 die each year of sudden cardiac arrest. That number includes all young people, not just competitive athletes.

The likelihood of sudden cardiac arrest for those with heart conditions increases with athletic participation. But even so, cases are rare. There are about 75 sudden deaths per year among athletes between the ages of 13 and 25, according to an estimate from Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

The most frequent cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. Congenital abnormalities in heart arteries and an inherited heart rhythm disorder are other common causes.

Any cause of Freeman’s cardiac arrest has not been released.

“He was a guy that took great care of his body,” Kruse said. “He was a really hard worker — always a 100 percent guy.

“He just changed the light of the room when he walked into it. I’ll be honest — the kid did not have an enemy. Everybody that was around him was better for being around him.”

Students plan to wear shirts honoring Freeman during the Ray-Pec boys basketball district championship game Friday at Rockhurst High School. Prior to the game, the students will release balloons into the air in remembrance of Freeman.

“I got to know him through class over the years. He was just a really nice kid who had a good heart,” Sinclair said. “He’s the type of kid everybody respected because that’s how he treated everybody else. It’s just tough right now.”

To reach Sam McDowell, call 816-234-4869 or send email to smcdowell@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SamMcDowell11.