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Track star dies in hammer throw accident

By SHARON RUTENBERG

DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. -- Witnesses say an errant hammer throw during warm-ups at the weekend Illini Classic track and field meet killed 24-year-old track star John Tucker.

Tucker died Tuesday night at Good Samaritan Hospital where he had been in critical condition since Saturday.

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The accident occurred during warm-ups prior to the hammer throw event Saturday -- the first event that day in the meet at North Central College in Naperville.

Another participant -- whose identity was not disclosed -- lost control of the hammer and the attached 16-pound steel ball. Tucker was struck on the head.

Tucker, of Calumet City, Ill., was a 1980 graduate of Northern Illinois University. He represented the University of Chicago Track Club in the meet.

Tucker was standing about 20 to 30 yards to the right of the protective cage when an 'errant' throw struck him in the head, a North Central College spokesman said.

'A young man lost his balance while he was taking a warm-up throw. And obviously the hammer slipped from his hand and the errant throw went off to the side, out over the top of the cage and it hit Tucker.'

Tucker was taken to Edward Hospital in Naperville and later transferred in critical condition to Good Samaritan Hospital.

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Lee Slick, track coach at the University of Illinois-Circle campus, recalled the accident:

'I was walking across the field and I saw him get hit. A kid was warming up in the circle. He lost his balance and he just lost the hammer. It took off on a vertical plane and like on a parabolic curve it came back down.

'John was not looking up. He wasn't watching. He was tying his shoes at the moment. Right when he looked up, it hit him,' Slick said.

In the hammer throw event, the competitor throws the ball which is attached to a 3- to 4-foot handle. The player holds the handle with both hands, takes several turns to build up speed and releases the entire hammer.

The competitor stands in a 12- to 15-foot high cage open at the top and front 'because of the danger possibly involved,' the spokesman said. He added the cage at North Central was built last year to NCAA specifications.

NIU track coach Martin Pushkin said Tucker's death was a 'terrible loss.'

'He was one of our better athletes. He was a very fine, very strong competitor. But even more important, he was a very fine person. He was a first-class type of an individual,' Pushkin said.

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Tucker, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, placed second in the state championships last year, second in the Mid-America Conference championship and won the Central Collegiate Conference championship last year.

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