Skalsky mourners are united in grief by single question: why? UMBC guard touched many before curious death

January 07, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF nTC

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Looking downward, a tear welling in his eye, B. J. Abrams briefly found himself at a loss for words yesterday. The night before, he was on the basketball court with his East Lansing High School teammates. Yesterday, he was trudging through the snow at St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery, facing one of the most difficult moments in his young life -- watching as a former teammate was laid to rest.

There were plenty of tears yesterday as a community paid its respects to Matt Skalsky, an honor student and basketball player at UMBC, who died on Monday after a New Year's Eve party in the Darnestown section of Montgomery County.

"I just don't understand," Abrams said, shaking his head and struggling for words. "I didn't believe it when I heard it. I still didn't believe it until I went to the wake [Friday] and saw him. I just can't believe that he's gone."

And many of the hundreds who turned out for the funeral at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, just blocks away from the high school where Skalsky earned all-state honors, had a single question: Why?

Police have said that Skalsky, 19, was involved in a shoving match with another person at about 1 a.m. Monday, and that at some point in the evening he fell and injured his head outside the house, but the head injury has been ruled out as the cause of death.

"Why? It's normal to ask all sorts of questions," Father Michael Murphy said during yesterday's service. "Who would have imagined that we would be in this church, paying our respects to this wonderful young man.

"Every now and then we get stopped in our tracks by an event that is absolutely shocking," Murphy added. "We found that out with Matt's death."

And what a community found out yesterday was that Skalsky was a young man whose outgoing demeanor and popularity as an athlete transcended all barriers. The mourners were young and old. Black and white. Some wore their Sunday best; others athletic jackets and khakis.

Three members of the UMBC basketball team, including Tony Mensah, a sophomore forward who was at the party, were in attendance, as well as athletic director Charles Brown, coach Tom Sullivan and former coach Earl Hawkins. One UMBC student even drove from Baltimore.

Most had difficulty controlling their emotions.

"He was an incredible person, and he'll be missed," said Karen Pricha, a student at Hope College who was a high school classmate of Skalsky's. "He would always be laughing, was always smiling. He would bring happiness wherever he was. This is shocking."

Skalsky, who was majoring in computer information systems, was coming off a semester where he had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. Limited to 11 games last year because of a stress fracture in his left foot, Skalsky, a 6-foot-5 guard, had played in nine of the team's 10 games this season, averaging 4.9 points.

"It's a tragedy," Brown said. "Matt was such an outstanding young man. Any time something like this happens to a young man, you just ask yourself 'why?' "

During the funeral service, letters were read from Skalsky's parents, Chuck and Denise, and from his brother and sister, Charlie, 17, and Megan, 13. His parents recalled that Skalsky would end each phone conversation with the words "I love you." His sister wrote, in the ending line of a poem, "A role model he will always be, even though he's not with me."

After the church service, a funeral procession of more than 100 cars with a police escort slowed the afternoon traffic on the trip to the cemetery in neighboring Lansing. When the final prayers were said in the building where Skalsky's body will rest, there were hardly any dry eyes.

As the mourners began to file out into the bitter cold, UMBC guard Eric Hayes stood against a wall, staring blankly into space. About 20 feet above the left shoulder of Hayes, Skalsky's roommate, a cranberry-colored cloth covered Skalsky's final resting place.

"Matt and I were very close, and this hurts," Hayes said. "We'd do almost everything together. He was such a close friend."

Then it was time to go. Hayes, his teammates and coaches had a flight to catch for last night's home game against Winthrop.

"It's going to be hard to play," Hayes said. "There's going to be some tears but, although we won't forget, we have to put it aside once the game starts.

"Matt would have wanted us to do it that way."

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