Penn football co-captain Owen Thomas was a fun-loving, hard-working young man who undertook a number of tasks, including those relating to football or classes in the Wharton School, with a deep intensity.
However, according to his mother, it was that same intensity that "spiraled out of control" as the junior defensive end worried more and more about his schoolwork, and prompted him to take his own life on Monday.
"The intensity, that was his personality," the Rev. Katherine Brearsley said Tuesday from her Allentown home. "But his intensity spiral went downward. His friends and his football coaches all tried to help him put it in perspective and we thought they were succeeding. They told him to take it one day at a time.
"But there was something with his schoolwork where he said, 'I can't do this' and it's not worth it. All the energy that we had seen him put into life spiraled out of control and made him do this."
Rev. Brearsley, a minister in the United Church of Christ, confirmed a report that Thomas, 21, hanged himself in the campus apartment he shared with four roommates, all members of the football team.
She said her son had no history of depression.
"Obviously, we should have gotten those signals but we never personally thought he would ever kill himself," she said. "He was so full of life. He did say he was working so hard but not doing well, and we said, 'We'll deal with it.' He was worried about getting a job in the summer. He was made captain so now he felt responsible to set high standards for the team. I never imagined it would suddenly turn so bad."
She said Thomas' position coach met with him Friday and "went away feeling positive."
Thomas' death was being felt around campus Tuesday as students were preparing for final exams. They attended an information session where they learned of where to go for assistance in coping with the tragedy.
Senior linebacker Jake Lewko said he was shocked.
"He was a really funny guy, a great guy," Lewko said. "You couldn't tell there was anything wrong with him. Owen was very entertaining in the locker room and on the field. He was a great leader."
Thomas' father, the Rev. Thomas N. Thomas, pastor of the Union United Church of Christ in Neffs, Pa., and a former football player at the University of Virginia, relayed a message through university chaplain Chaz Howard to students to "ask you all to take care of each other."
Rev. Brearsley said Thomas was the youngest in a family of four boys - two of whom (not including Thomas) were adopted. She said she was worried at first that young Owen would be intimidated by his older brothers, but that turned out to not be the case.
"He great into a vibrant, energetic, personable young man," she said. "He was never intimidated by his big brothers. He was full of energy."
Thomas, who helped his parents on missions to Puerto Rico and the Appalachia region as a teenager, played most sports but he really loved football.
He started out in sixth grade playing on a 90-pound team. Later, he discovered he was one pound too heavy to play in a higher weight class, but lost two pounds to qualify "and kept it off all season," she said.
Thomas starred at Parkland High School in South Whitehall Township, serving as captain of the football team for two seasons.
"I've never had that happen before and I've been doing this for 41 years," Parkland head coach Jim Morgans said. "He was a wonderful kid. He was such a caring kid. He cared about everybody."
After he considered attending Lehigh to study engineering, Thomas decided on Penn. With the Quakers, he grew in confidence on the field, emerging to become a second-team All-Ivy League player during Penn's 2009 championship season.
His mother liked something else. "He loved his red hair," she said. "We'd watch him play and he'd take his helmet off and he would shake his head and a wave of red hair would flow out."
Rev. Brearsley said that "as a person of faith," she is comforted by the fact that she will see her son again. But that doesn't take away from a parent's sorrow.
"In a way, we don't really understand," she said. "No parent ever wants to bury their child. To know we'll see him again is as much comfort as we can have.
"Please encourage young people, anybody, to reach out and get help. You can't believe the pain we're going through."
The funeral service for Owen Thomas will take place at 10:30 a.m. Monday at the Union United Church of Christ, 5550 Route 873 in Neffs. Friends may call before the service beginning at 9:30 a.m. A viewing will be held beginning at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Heintzelman Funeral Home, 4906 Route 309 in Schnecksville.