A clean-cut athletic kid, Thomas Erskine Jr. was proud of his well-groomed hair.
But that didn’t prevent the Manassas Park rising sophomore from being a good sport after losing a bet two years ago to former Manassas Park Middle School Assistant Principal Darrell Earman. A basketball and football player in middle school, Thomas always told Earman that he and his friends could beat him in a game of basketball.
So at the end of his eighth-grade year, Thomas and his buddies took on Earman and a group of teachers with a bet that the losers got their heads shaved by the winning team. Thomas lost and had to come up in front of the school and get a haircut.
“They did it right after lunch period,” Earman said. “We had all the teachers take a whack off. It was a hoot, and he was a great sport about it. His mom didn’t want to come up and cut it, so his sister came up. He was very fond of his hair … It was medium length and he always kept it immaculate.”
“It was hysterical,” said former school librarian C.L. Arbelbide. “We grabbed a camera from the library and shot all the angles.”
On Monday afternoon, 16-year-old Thomas, who played basketball and football for the Cougars, was killed in a one-car accident in Centreville. The vehicle hit a tree, killing him instantly. The driver of the car suffered non-life threatening injuries and was taken to Prince William Hospital in Manassas.
Prince William Hospital would not release any information on minors, Donna Ballou, director of public relations, said Tuesday.
According to Fairfax County police officer Jody Donaldson, both individuals were wearing seat belts when the accident occurred. Charges are pending, according to Tuesday’s press release.
The first day of football practice was Monday. After a two-hour morning session, the scheduled afternoon practice was called off, as well as both sessions Tuesday. The team will practice at the regularly-scheduled time today.
Arbelbide and Earman said Thomas made a great impression with both students and teachers alike during his time in middle school.
“He used to come to the library and read and bring other athletes to shelve books,” said Arbelbide, who knew Thomas all three years she was at the school. “He was a very charming, personable young man. He had a very quiet leadership style about himself. The students gravitated towards him.”
“He was one of the only kids that got along great with all kids and all the staff,” Earman said. “I don’t know how to describe it. He was loved by all.”
As word of the accident and Thomas’s death spread Monday, students gathered at the school for a candlelight vigil.
Tuesday and today, Manassas Park school division’s crisis intervention team, composed of guidance counselors, were available at the high school for students, staff and parents grieving the loss.
Manassas Park is two square miles with four schools in its division. The city is the second smallest in Virginia.
“One of the attributes to the school system is personalization,” said School superintendent Thomas DeBolt. DeBolt did not know Thomas personally but met with teachers and staff Tuesday. “Every single person is aware of the loss.”
“Our heart goes out to Thomas’s family and our prayers are with them,” DeBolt said.
Thomas always had a smile on his face, said friends, who were heading into the school during the same time the football team and school officials held a closed meeting Tuesday.
“He was the sweetest person in the world,” said Amanda Shifflett, 16, who joined two friends in wearing black tops to express their mourning. “He was really good to his girlfriend too,” she added.
Amanda was in cheerleading practice Monday when she received the news of Thomas’s accident. She said it came as a shock and she could barely breathe.
“You just never thought that his time would come so soon,” Amanda said.
“He was a good friend, nice guy,” said Samir Khalif, 18, who played football with Thomas.
Angela Varnadore, 14, is a cheerleader and has known Thomas for two years.
“He never stopped smiling,” Varnadore said, as tears filled in her eyes, noting how much he was in love with his girlfriend. After wiping her cheek, she said, “He’s a great role model, mostly just a good friend.”
Sixteen-year-old Travis Hicks joined Khalif and Angela, piling out of the car with two other friends a few minutes before the team’s meeting. Travis said he was simply coming to show his respect. “I know he was a good kid,” Hicks said before catching up with his friends to go inside the school.
When it came to try out for basketball, Thomas helped out Robby Mele, 15. Thomas started last season on the junior varsity team but was moved up to varsity by the end of the season.
“Uh,” Robby said and then paused. “Good kid.”
Steven Easom, who arrived to the school with Robby, said he was good friends with Thomas. “He’s an awesome friend to me. He’s an awesome athlete too, man,” Easom said.
The school division set up a memorial fund. Donations will be accepted at the high school and checks should be made to Manassas Park High School Thomas Erskine Fund. Donations can be mailed to the high school at 8200 Euclid Ave., Manassas Park, VA 20111.
Thomas’s family members could not be reached for comment Tuesday.