The hallways inside DuVal High School are normally filled with conversation and laughter, but they were silent yesterday. Instead of preparing for an afternoon football game -- one that many at the Lanham school hoped would produce the Tigers' first victory of the season -- students, teachers and administrators were coping with the death of varsity player David Butler.

Butler, 15, a gregarious sophomore who was one of the team's best -- and most popular -- players, suffered fatal head injuries in a two-car crash on Wednesday. The 1995 Saturn he was riding in was struck in the rear by a Mercedes-Benz, causing it to spin and collide with a tree; the accident remains under investigation, police said.

"All week long people were talking about how big this game was," said senior defensive end Ambili Ndumbi, referring to yesterday's game, scheduled to be played at Friendly but postponed after school officials learned of Butler's death.

"Now, it's like football doesn't really matter. We aren't able to play a football game mentally right now. I talked to David right before I left practice, and then someone told me what had happened as I was walking to school. I hoped it was just a rumor. But when I saw our football team standing in front of the school, I knew something was wrong. He was here, and now he's gone."

DuVal Principal Thomas Anderson and football coach DeLawn Parrish summoned the team to the cafeteria just after school started. They confirmed what many students had either seen on the morning news or read in the newspaper: Butler died several hours after being flown to Washington Hospital Center.

"There is a lot of emotion running through our school right now," Parrish said. "This affects more than the football team, because everyone loved David. He worked hard in school, and even in classes he wasn't so good in, the teachers loved him because he was such a great kid and never did anything wrong."

Butler's was the lone fatality in the car accident, which happened around 7:25 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after DuVal's football practice ended, according to the police report. Police would not provide the driver's name, but Parrish said DuVal teammate Joseph Washington, 16, was driving the car carrying Butler. Cpl. Joe Merkel, a police spokesman, confirmed that two teenagers in the car with Butler were treated and released from local hospitals after suffering minor injuries.

Butler was in the back seat of the car when it turned south from Crandall Road onto Woodfield Chapel Road and was hit. Prince George's County Police questioned the man driving the Mercedes-Benz on Wednesday night but did not file charges, Merkel said.

Emergency technicians had to pull Butler out of the car; it is unclear if Butler was wearing a seat belt, Merkel said.

Butler's death is the 11th traffic fatality involving a person 22 years old or younger in the region in the past few weeks.

Butler's father, Keith, arrived near the site of the accident early yesterday morning, tears flowing as he placed a picture of his son dressed in a football uniform on the ground.

"When that car hit my son, it ripped my family apart," Keith Butler said.

Keith Butler also left a Washington Redskins football, a Scooby Doo balloon, a bottle of Gatorade and a green apple -- items that he said represented things his son was most fond of -- before he returned home to grieving family and friends.

Butler played middle linebacker and was the team's leading tackler, and he also was the Tigers' punter and backup quarterback. The Tigers were 0-6 entering yesterday's game against Friendly (4-2), a game that likely will be rescheduled for Monday.

"All he talked about was one day he was going to play in the NFL, and he would wake up early to work out and he had a passion for football," said Butler, who had not finalized funeral arrangements as of last night. "These days you have young people out doing drugs and David never did none of that. He always made the right choice. I keep asking myself why this happened and I don't know -- only God has the answer."

DuVal's students also had questions, which prompted Prince George's County school officials to bring in counselors and administrators to deal with grieving students, Anderson said.

"This isn't going to take one or two days for our students and faculty to get through, because David was liked by so many people," Anderson said as a student lowered the American flag to half mast. "We want the community to know that we are here for their kids."

Tameaka Fleming, a junior who knew Butler since middle school, said: "How could this happen to such a sweet and nice person? He was cute and real nice and had a good sense of humor."

Said sophomore Lenysa Gardner: "Everyone liked him -- getting girls was never a problem for him."

Said sophomore Brandon Hickson: "Everyone needs to stay strong because David's in heaven and is in a better place now. We just have to stay strong. I mean, it was total silence in school today and I've never seen it like that before. All week, people were talking about going to the game, and David was really looking forward to it."

And for good reason.

He was going to start his first game as a varsity quarterback.

BUTLER

Sophomore linebacker was Tigers' leading tackler and handled the team's punting.