Many fans recognize Michael Mantenuto from his role in Disney’s Miracle, but those who knew him best will remember him more for his work offscreen as a father, soldier, hockey star and community activists.
“He was so much more than just a Miracle actor,” Teena, a friend of the actor who asked that her last name remain anonymous, tells PEOPLE. After a short career in show business, Mantenuto joined the Army. He was a Special Forces sergeant stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington at the time of his death. He was 35.
The actor was found on Monday afternoon after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the King County medical examiner’s office in Seattle, Washington, tells PEOPLE. His death has officially been ruled a suicide. He’s survived by his wife, Kati, and two children: daughter Ava and son Leo.
Teena, who knew Mantenuto from his special forces training at Fort Bragg, says, “[He] was awesome and charismatic, people were naturally drawn to him.” While going through a rigorous special forces qualification course, Teena says Mantenuto found time to start a youth hockey program on post with MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation), a network of support and leisure services for soldiers and their families.
“This course is intense and incredibly time consuming, but he found time for his passion and youth. People’s needs always came before his own, he was so giving,” she adds. At Fort Bragg, Teena notes, the special forces corps trains around the clock for a minimum of 16 to 18 months.
In addition, Teena says the actor “started a substance abuse program to save lives,” adding, “He is such an amazing person … He has touched a lot of people’s lives.”
Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt, Director of Public Affairs for U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, tells PEOPLE, “Our deepest condolences go out to Michael Mantenuto’s family, friends, and teammates,” adding, “The cause of death is still under investigation.”
Mantenuto enlisted in 2010, two years after making his final film, Surfer Dude. He attended special forces training in 2013, and went on to become a communications sergeant. He was assigned to 1st Special Forces Group, where he was stationed as a communications sergeant until his death.
He also attended SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) training — a notoriously tough course that prepares soldiers for when they are lost behind enemy lines, or are taken prisoner.
He deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve, the military’s operational name for the fight against ISIS, according to Bockholt. “He was a decorated service member,” Buckholt says. His awards and decorations include the following: Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, National Defense Service Member, Global War on Terror Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, and Good Conduct Medal with two knots.
In the wake of his death, social media was flooded with posts from friends and fellow soldiers sharing memories and well wishes for his family. “In life you find those that inspire you and mentor you. Those that take the time to impact lives of others,” wrote Samantha Brinegar, a U.S. Army Specialist on Facebook.
“SSG Mike Mantenuto was that not only for me but for my team,” she continued. “Best known for his role as OC in the Disney movie Miracle, Mike impacted the Army as Special Force k-9 handler and recently was developing a program for soldiers who struggle with addiction. On the 24th this amazing man passed away. 22 veterans commit suicide a day. This stuff is real and it breaks my heart that I lost such an amazing leader and friend. I will never forget you and will always remember your guidance. RIP Military Angle Mike Mantenuto!”
Her post includes a video of the actor giving an inspirational message to a youth hockey team.
Doug Westcott, a photographer whose son Drake knew Mantenuto from his work with youth hockey, also took to Facebook to mourn his death. “It has been a tough 24 hours since I found out one of Drake’s hockey coaches took his own life on Monday,” he wrote.
“Drake is devastated and confused. Mike Mantenuto meant the world to Drake and they both had talked about their troubles at times. Our hearts go out to his wife Katie, son and teammate Leo, daughter Ava and his parents,” he added.
Along with a number of photos and videos of Mantenuto, Wescott added, “Drake will never forget you Mike and will miss seeing you. You had a love for hockey and a devotion to the Army. You left us too early and I wish I was there to help. I was working only a few miles away on Monday and never knew or I would have been there for you. Katie, Leo and Ava you will always be a part of our hockey family. RIP Mike.”
Forums dedicated to remembering the actor have also popped up, with dozens of friends and fellow service members leaving their condolences. The website Legacy.com has an open comment board where fans and loved ones can leave messages. And the 1st Special Forces Group Veterans on Facebook has also been filled with support.
Before his career in the military and in Hollywood, Mantenuto was known for his hockey prowess. His father Ed, a hockey coach, put him in skates at an early age, and Mantenuto later tagged along with him to practices before he was old enough to play for his dad in high school.
This early exposure to the sport led him to become a Division 1 player at the University of Maine before leaving his sophomore year to pursue acting at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. His mix of hockey and acting as a background made the role in Miracle of Jack O’Callahan — a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team that beat Russia and won gold — perfect for him.
“With this movie, I was able to combine the different parts of my life that were important to me,” Mantenuto told the Globe, who was 22 when he filmed Miracle. “To be able to combine the acting, all the expression, the hockey, and be able to segue from one career that I loved so much to another where I wanted my life to go … It was pretty special.”
And Mantenuto’s assistant high school coach Peter Torilli told the Globe at the time that his former player had the right attitude to play the brash and charismatic O’Callahan.
“What you see on the screen — that’s what he was like,” said Torilli. “He was tough and determined, and he was a heck of a player, too. He was very confident in himself. I didn’t know he wanted to be an actor then, but I definitely knew he wanted to play.”
Mantenuto (left) as O’Callahan
That attitude came out at his audition when another player started taunting other actors and he defended them, getting into a fight in front of director Gavin O’Connor. But right when he thought he lost his shot, it turned out the fight had made him stand out.
“He was being a tough guy, picking on all the kids,” Mantenuto said. “I wasn’t really looking to fight, but once we started fighting, I thought I was going home … Afterwards, I went up to Gavin to apologize, but he was very happy. He was pumped.”
Mantenuto moved to Los Angeles after the film and appeared in two other movies — the 2006 TV movie Dirtbags and the 2008 comedy Surfer, Dude.
- Reporting by SUSAN KEATING