The Kennedy Family: Tragedy Strikes Again

Within hours of Michael Kennedy's senseless death on a vertical football field in Aspen, Colo., the cliches--of "vigah" and hubris, crossed stars and a genetic predisposition to take stupid risks--had piled up so high, it was hard to dig through to the sad story beneath.

Michael's friends mourned him as a smart, hardworking, bighearted man who, had he died a little sooner or a little later, might have been remembered as a hero. He founded a university in Angola, gave loans to women-owned businesses in Ecuador and ran a company that supplies heat to 147 homeless shelters in Boston. He spent much of his life doing generous things, but just enough doing reckless things to join the long index of scandals and self-destruction in untold Kennedy histories to come.

On New Year's Eve, the family had gathered at the Sundeck restaurant on top of the mountain in Aspen, fame's playground, waiting for the slopes to clear at the end of the day so they could have the hill to themselves to continue the annual family downhill football game. The ski patrol was not keen on this bit of Kennedy showboating and had warned that it was a dangerous sport--skiing fast and close, without poles, tossing a football through improvised goals as the sun sank and the shadows stretched and the slopes turned gray and icy. Aspen has had less snow than normal this year, 24 inches of hard-packed base on mid-mountain. Members of the patrol had been warning the Kennedys off the game all week; the night before the accident, a senior official of the Aspen Skiing Co., which runs the mountain, contacted Michael's mother Ethel to try to halt this family tradition. "They told her there was a rough game going on," a source close to the company told TIME. "They wanted it stopped."

But Michael, 39, was an expert skier and a cheerful quarterback; he even brought along a video camera to record the game for the family archives. By 3:30 the restaurant was closing, the lifts had stopped and the ski patrol was telling the lingering Kennedys and their friends that it was time to head down. Nevertheless, 36 members of the Kennedy party prepared to play. "Michael is the ringleader, without question," says New York City social columnist R. Couri Hay, who describes himself as a longtime Kennedy acquaintance, and whom the National Enquirer quickly made a special correspondent last week. Ethel, however, did not join the march to the slope. Sipping cocoa at the restaurant, she had announced that she did not want to ski alone and was taking the gondola back.

The clan split into two teams: Michael was captain of one, his sister Rory the other, both wearing matching rust-colored ski suits. A game the previous day had left the score tied, Hay recalls, though there was amiable bickering over a goal. "Then they said, 'We'll play tomorrow--death to the loser.'"

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