By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009
Six members of the River Hill football team, all wearing white jerseys, emerged from a group of waiting mourners outside St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Hyattsville on Thursday morning and approached the hearse that held one of their best friends.
As Steve Dankos's family arrived, the players, heads bowed, set to their somber task. Thomas Erdman, Nick Bonhag, Andrew Gluck, Breaon Hebron, Kevin Johnson and Max Williams -- all juniors or seniors at the Clarksville school -- carried Dankos's coffin past two long rows of teammates clad in navy blue jerseys and into the church where approximately 1,500 bid farewell to the 17-year-old who died in a single-vehicle accident in the early hours of Sunday morning. Alcohol was involved, according to police.
"He was always one of the most happy-go-lucky guys. He could just light up a room the moment he walked into it," said family friend and neighbor Richard Stellabuto, 18, who graduated from River Hill in 2009. "This has all been so sudden that no one really knows how to go on without him."
River Hill High School hasn't been quite the same since Dankos's death, students said.
The football team met for several hours earlier this week, with counselors, psychologists and coaches present to aid in the grieving process. Players and other students saw Dankos either at a party Saturday night or on Friday, playing in River Hill's 10-7 loss to Huntingtown in the Maryland 3A semifinals. His sudden death has left many at the Howard County school numb.
"We needed to be together as a team, to know that you weren't the only one feeling that way," senior captain Max Coale said. "At one point, they gave us all pieces of paper to write letters to his family. You could just see people furiously writing away, people staring at the paper not knowing what to write and the guys that wrote three pages for their own benefit because they crumpled it up and recycled it."
Described as a charismatic and fun-loving teenager by those who knew him, Dankos found ways to inject energy into the mundane and had a knack for forming quick friendships.
Coale recalled when Dankos and Erdman, best friends and fellow offensive linemen, decided to bleach their hair early this fall. Many on the roster decided to follow suit as a team-building exercise. The result was a hard-hitting football team with garish blond hairstyles. It didn't hurt that, until Friday night's loss, the team had won 40 straight games and two Maryland state titles.
When he was at a party Saturday night, just hours before his death, Dankos made an immediate impression on Atholton senior football player Matt Robinson when the two met for the first time.
"We were just getting to know each other," said Robinson. "But I knew pretty fast he was a fun guy that anyone could be friends with -- one of those genuinely cool kids. I couldn't believe it when I heard he had died. You never think when you're our age that something like that can happen to you. It has put a lot of things in perspective."
According to police, Dankos was riding in the bed of a pickup truck driven by Erdman's older brother, David Erdman Jr., 22, when it crashed into three stone pillars on Folley Quarter Road near Buckskin Lake Drive in Ellicott City at 2:58 a.m. Sunday.
Dankos was killed instantly. David Erdman was charged with drunken driving, homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated and manslaughter by motor vehicle. Thomas Erdman, who was in the passenger's seat, was also injured.
"I just hope this is something that sinks in with everyone," said Coale, who was not at the party Saturday night. "You want everyone to learn from this, to take the implications of drinking and driving seriously, but also realize that you need to live life to the fullest, because no one knows what might happen, and that's something that Steve always believed in."