When University of Maryland student John Spies moved back into The Varsity for the second semester of his sophomore year, he recognized a familiar face in the elevator.
“You’re Spear, right?” he said.
“You’re Spies, right?” replied Alec Spear, then a freshman.
Spies first heard of Spear, who played varsity football at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, through mutual friends, but the two didn’t connect until that day, Spies said. He told Spear to add him on Facebook so they could hang out sometime.
Less than two minutes later, Spies recalled receiving a message: “Yo what room are you in? Do you care if I roll now?”
Spies, a senior finance major, said his friendship with Spear would change his path in college. They spent nearly every day together at The Varsity apartment complex, where Spies lived and Spear often visited.
Spear, a junior marketing major, died on Saturday, said his mother, Anita Brikman Spear. Fairfax County Police Officer Reem Awad said Spear died in McLean, Virginia, and the cause of death is still being determined, but it’s being investigated as a possible overdose. He was 20.
Spear was the oldest of four children and is survived by his parents, brother, sister, paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother.
“He was just a huge guy and he had a huge smile, a huge personality, and he made people around him feel very loved,” Brikman Spear said.
On Tuesday night, the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity held a candlelight vigil to honor Spear’s life, drawing more than 100 people. Friends and family gathered and shared some of their favorite memories of him.
“The more I learned about Spear, the more I learned what an amazing friend he was,” Spies said at the vigil. “Every text from him, a please and a thank you, it was so genuine and from the heart. He was a big kid with a bigger heart.”
The fraternity provided attendees with candles, hot chocolate and a book where anyone could write a message to Spear. The book will be engraved in Spear’s name and given to his family, Spies said.
At 6 feet, 4 inches, Spear was described by friends as the type of person whose presence would attract others. He loved to wear flashy clothing, attend EDM concerts and work out.
Before college, he was a swimmer and coached children at Carderock Springs Swim and Tennis Club. He was also a catechist at Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, helping prepare kids for their first communion, Brikman Spear said.
“His zest for life was infectious, and he just generally had excitement and fun and a collaborative spirit in so much that he did,” Brikman Spear said. “I think people were attracted to that.”
While Spies doesn’t remember what he did the first day he hung out with Spear, he said something always stood out about the man who he thought would be his lifelong friend.
“He was a really really big kid, super muscular. So we’d see him and we’d think he’s almost like intimidating,” Spies said. “He’d really draw the attention in the room. But he really did have a caring side and was someone you could open up to and talk to on a personal level.”
Spear’s interest in business was one of the reasons he wanted to attend this university, Brikman Spear said. He was determined to get into the business school and was admitted this past summer as a marketing major, Spies said.
“That kid was extremely strong — physically and mentally,” Spies said. “When he wanted to do something, he would totally get it done.”
During summer 2016, Spear wanted to start a modeling career and reached out to Noah Fields, a family friend, to help get him in shape. They quickly started working out every day, and two months later, they both signed with AIG Model and Talent Management, Fields said.
“He put 110 percent in. Every workout, everything he did, he put 110 percent in,” Fields said. “Whatever he did, he did because he wanted to do, and he did a damn good job at whatever he was doing.”
Growing up, Spear played several sports, including lacrosse, volleyball, swimming and basketball. At 10 years old, he boasted a black belt in karate, but it was football that won his heart, Brikman Spear said. He started playing in the fourth grade and was a varsity starter for the Walt Whitman High School football team beginning his sophomore year, she added.
Spear was good at making friends, and Fields said “he never let [him] down.”
“He would never turn his back on me, no matter what,” he said. “I don’t think it gets more loyal than that.”
Spear understood the importance of gratitude and would always reach out to people when they didn’t expect it, Brikman Spear said. He supported his mother as she shifted from a career in broadcast journalism to being a communication team and education foundation leader at Consumer Healthcare Products Association in 2016. In turn, she supported him with his business pursuits.
“Our conversations were intense and honest, and I will miss that terribly,” Brikman Spear said. “He brought that same kind of honest, open accepting character to the friends who are so close to him now, because he would listen and try to lift people up and make them see life as joyful as he did.”
Shaquyl Diboti-Lobe, a close friend of Spear’s in high school and a student at Baltimore City Community College, said Spear was someone he could always count on.
“Being loyal to his friends was very important to him,” Diboti-Lobe said. “If you needed to talk, you could talk to Spear, whether you just met him or been friends with him for a long time.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Spear was a member of this university’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. He was never an official member. This story has been updated.