How a Utah coach responded after two boys on his lacrosse team died by suicide

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Box Elder High School lacrosse coach Juan Gaytan says a prayer with his players before a tournament in Logan on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018.

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide and recovery from depression. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Brigham City • With the dinner rush over, Juan Gaytan slid into an empty booth at the little pizzeria off Main Street and, while he waited, started drawing lacrosse plays on the plastic tabletop with his fingers. An O charged past a defending X, and in the coach’s imagination, scored a goal into the basket of condiments between the parmesan cheese and the red pepper flakes.

“Yahoo,” the 40-year-old declared with the sliver of a Texas accent that remains after his 25 years in Utah. “That’s how you do it.”

Jacob Geddie, 18, taking his break at the restaurant, grabbed a chair across from Gaytan and his mom just as his coach cheered the pretend victory. They’ve been meeting here almost every Tuesday night. Ever since two members of this northern Utah town’s high school lacrosse team died by suicide and Geddie had briefly planned to become the third.

“So did you go to your counselor today?” Gaytan asked, jumping into it with a directness learned from years of shouting calls from the sidelines.

“No,” Geddie responded. “I didn’t have a car.”

“Next Tuesday, you can borrow mine. For therapy,” Gaytan said. “I’m not giving you my car to go on dates.”

The coach paused and chewed his lip. “It’s not a Lamborghini or anything,” he added. “But you need to go. I want you to go. Will you go?”


Since losing their teammates this past year, several lacrosse players have struggled with depression. Three have said they had suicidal thoughts.

Gaytan’s goal has shifted from winning games to doing whatever he can to support these boys. He tries to visit all 30 team members each month, whether it’s at work or after practice or on the couch at their parents’ house while they do algebra homework.

Showing up, checking in, being there. He wants them to know it’s OK to talk about what’s going on in their lives. Drawing plays at a pizzeria might be a way to start the conversation.

Geddie pushed aside the pile of napkins to set up another play on the table between them. “What about a fake to the left this time? We could try it at Saturday’s tournament.”

“That could work,” Gaytan nodded. “That just might work.”

— — —

Parents were anxious to know: Was lacrosse somehow the cause of the two boys’ deaths? Should their sons keep playing on this team? Would it make things worse if they did?

Some decided to pull their kids off the roster. Others told Gaytan they were going to limit how much time their sons spent at lacrosse practice. At one point, even high school administrators started to question whether they should allow the club team to continue.

But district officials were equally worried that dissolving lacrosse could deepen the boys’ sense of loss. So they decided that the team could keep at it, practicing on a small field below the rugged slopes of the Wellsville Mountains in Brigham City, which has now had five teens die by suicide in the past four years; in Box Elder County, which leads the state in the rate of emergency room visits for suicide attempts; and in Utah, where suicide is the leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 17.

Nate Cowsert and Jeremy Shipp became two of the roughly 40 teens who die each year by suicide in the state, where the rate is growing four times faster than the national average. Utah has seen the highest rates in rural towns like this one, sandwiched between two highways and surrounded by orchards.

After the deaths, the coach heard from many concerned about the team. He’s been told that teens who know someone who has attempted suicide are three times more likely to attempt it themselves. We don’t want the contagion to spread any more, some advised him.

So maybe Gaytan could not yell at the players so much, not push them so hard. Maybe he should print off a list of suicide statistics and hand it out at practice to scare the boys with numbers. Since Nate and Jeremy had used guns, maybe he could take the team hunting, which is a lifestyle here, and talk about gun safety.

None of those responses is recommended by experts, and the last two ideas are even considered harmful. But at first, Gaytan was too stunned to do much of anything anyway.

On a quiet Monday night at the end of October, nearly three months after the second death, the coach drove past the movie theater that plays only two shows and the houses with jack-o'-lanterns lit on their porches to the practice field, which sits across from a thick grove of peach trees.

He came to this town every summer with his parents and two younger sisters. They lived in Edcouch, Texas — about as far south as you can get before crossing into Mexico — and drove to Utah to work as pickers on the farms. Together, they’d sometimes pluck 20,000 peaches in a day.

He decided to stay here year-round after graduating from high school in 1996. He got married, moved into a little white house with a “Texas raised” sign by the door and brought up his son, Brandyn.

That’s who got him into coaching the Box Elder High School lacrosse team two years ago. Before Gaytan took over, the boys would regularly lose by 20 points. Under his direction, they got better. The crowd started to get a little bigger, and residents were there in force when the boys won a state championship in 2017. The school displayed the trophy in a tall glass case with their picture.

But even Gaytan wondered if he should move to a different town after Nate and Jeremy died, in part to get Brandyn away. Would it be healthy for his 16-year-old son to stay on the team?

He could see his son was struggling. Brandyn started acting out; he stopped talking. Gaytan didn’t know how to help.

“I couldn’t lose him, too,” Gaytan said. He reached for his keys and turned off the ignition. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door.

— — —

The boys raced to Gaytan’s white pickup and started unloading the nets and orange cones from the back.

The kid they’ve nicknamed Stinky — ”and he hasn’t showered since,” his teammates joke — hauled equipment onto the grass. Scuba Steve and Pecs stood to the side, directing him where to set it up. Geddie, who the boys call Yeti though he’s shorter than most of his teammates at 5-foot-8 and looks nothing like an abominable snowman, teased them all.

“Let’s go, boys,” Gaytan yelled. They slapped on velcro pads and laced up cleats. A few put on helmets with makeshift memorials, the initials “N.C.” and “J.S.” written in black Sharpie on athletic tape wrapped around the metal frame.

After Nate Cowsert died, Gaytan didn’t talk to the team about it. The coach grew up in a Pentecostal household in a largely conservative town. And when a boy there died by suicide, no one said anything. The community carried on like nothing had happened, he said.

So that’s the example Gaytan initially followed. Don’t glorify it. Don’t give it attention. Don’t mention Nate’s name too often. Even if it was rough, the coach hoped that strategy might help the boys and possibly himself, too. Maybe he could ignore his own grief and self-doubt and guilt.

But experts say there’s a middle ground between glamorizing a death and ignoring it completely; the latter can feel stigmatizing and can stop those who need it from asking for help.

The boys started to run drills in the brisk evening air. A few rushed past Gaytan to join the group and greeted him with calls of “Hey there, beautiful.” For a while after the deaths they had stopped calling him that. It’s a nickname the coach got from Nate.

Gaytan’s phone had buzzed one afternoon while he was working at Hill Air Force Base, where he writes equipment contracts. “You’re so beautiful. I love you,” the text said. Nate had meant to send it to his girlfriend.

(Photos courtesy of the Cowsert family) Nate Cowsert was a member of the Box Elder High School lacrosse team.

“Well, Nate, thank you. Nobody has ever called me beautiful before,” responded the coach, a burly man with a thin black beard and a paunch that he blames on his wife Trisha’s cooking.

Nate, playing it cool, showed up to practice the next day and acknowledged Gaytan with a grin and a “What’s up, beautiful?” The new name stuck.

Standing off to the side of the field, Gaytan scrolled past that message to find the one Nate had sent him the January night he died. Gaytan thought it was another text the teen had meant for his girlfriend and responded, “I love you too Kid and it’s ok!”

The next morning, the coach learned Nate had died by suicide. He was 17.

Gaytan wishes he had called when he got the text, reached out more often and put less pressure on Nate. He had coached Nate, who was two years older than his son, since he was in Little League.

Nate hadn’t told anyone he felt depressed, said his dad, David Cowsert, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t warning signs. Cowsert believes his divorce from Nate’s mother weighed on his son, who had turned 10 a week after it was finalized. Nate had lived with his mom for a while but then moved in with his dad in Brigham City. Nate was hard on himself when he didn’t get things right, his dad said. His car was totaled. His grandpa was dying. The lacrosse season was about to start.

“He just had all of these things going on,” David Cowsert said, choking back tears during his visit at practice. “He just got it into his head for one minute.”

As the lacrosse team captain, Nate never missed a practice and would sometimes show up after work and lift weights still in his Burger King uniform. His dad has saved all of his “Employee of the Month” certificates.

Still, Nate was impetuous, his friends said. He liked to drive 50 mph through town, past the sign on the way into Brigham City that told you how far you had to go until you were someplace else, and stop at Denny’s to choke down stacks of pancakes at 3 a.m. He wanted to join the Army.

On the field, Geddie ran past Gaytan, dancing around a defender to grab a water bottle. He was Nate’s best friend.

“I didn’t know then ... what an impact this would have on all the boys on the team,” Gaytan said, adjusting his baseball cap to cover his eyes.

— — —

In the weeks after Nate died, shortly before the spring season started, Gaytan would sometimes stand on the field after practice when the grass was littered with Gatorade cups and the boys had gone home. He’d wonder if he should resign. The boys had struggled to get through games; they won a few and lost a few more.

But by the time the season was over, Gaytan thought the worst had past.

Then, in July, Jeremy died.

Jeremy Shipp was popular and nabbed a part in almost every school play, particularly relishing the role of Ryan Evans in “High School Musical.” He played guitar and practiced in front of a Bob Dylan poster that hung in his room. His teammates said they often heard him singing as he ran past them on the field.

Logan Clark, a midfielder, remembered Jeremy climbing on top of a shed during a party once and confidently — and seriously — belting out Toto’s “Africa.” Now, Clark said, “every time I hear that song I think of him.”

(Photos courtesy of the Shipp family) Jeremy Shipp was a member of the Box Elder High School lacrosse team.

Jeremy was 16 and never talked about depression, said his older brother Steven Shipp. Jeremy did question why Nate’s death happened, and it didn’t seem to leave his mind, he added.

“I don’t know how,” Steven said, not finding the words. “I just don’t know how to explain it.”

After Jeremy’s death, Gaytan’s brain rattled through the roster at all hours of the night. 11:04 p.m: Why was Geddie so quiet? 12:26 a.m.: Was Harrison trying to tell me something? 1:37 a.m.: Did Cru act weird at practice? 2:51 a.m.: What am I doing wrong?

When he did manage to sleep, he’d dream about standing on the field, waiting for the players. None would show. The coach was constantly battling his own regrets.

The team now faced attending a second funeral together, again filling the first two rows of pews at the church. Afterward, Gaytan, still in his neatly ironed black suit, drove to every player’s house. He was worried others might be having suicidal thoughts and wanted to talk to their parents.

Moms opened up about what their sons were feeling. Dads confided about their fears. It was like they were just waiting for someone to ask.

— — —

The coach was also seeing the effects in his own home.

Brandyn started skipping school. He took his dad’s truck without asking and, with just a learner’s permit, crashed it. He quit the football team. He locked himself in his room and played video games until he fell asleep. He stopped talking.

“He became defiant,” Gaytan said. “He was like a totally different kid.”

Brandyn and Jeremy had a connection on the field. Brandyn would find Jeremy — nicknamed “the fox” because he was sneaky — tiptoeing past defenders and fire a pass that would turn into a score.

After Jeremy died, Brandyn would sometimes find himself still looking for him. He was angry. “I didn’t want to play for Jeremy. I wanted to play with him.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brandyn Gaytan listens to his dad, Box Elder lacrosse coach Juan Gaytan, between games during a tournament in Logan on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018.

On a Wednesday in early October — about two months after Jeremy died and things seemed to be only getting worse — the coach finally asked his son what he’d been avoiding: “Have you thought about hurting yourself?”

Brandyn nodded: “It was a quick thought, but yeah.”

Gaytan and his wife, Trisha, called a therapist, and Brandyn has gone in every week since. Advocates recommend being similarly direct if someone seems to be planning to hurt themselves.

The coach decided then that doing nothing, not talking and not acknowledging the suicides wasn’t working. It was clear to Gaytan, to the school and to the community that they had to take some action.

The school had four counselors; the district brought in more and trained teachers on the warning signs of depression and suicide, said Assistant Superintendent Gary Allen, who was principal of Box Elder High when Nate died. Administrators talked to parents and athletes with a social worker; they focused on “more conversation and awareness,” Allen said.

Gaytan took a more personal approach. At a practice after Brandyn’s first counseling appointment, the coach listened to the boys shouting their moves during drills.

Lacrosse relies heavily on communication. The players yell: “I’ve got your right.” “Cover my left.” “I’m open.” “Ball, ball, ball.”

He realized the boys were essentially giving advice and asking for help. He thought: Why couldn’t they do that off the field?

Gaytan took that inspiration slowly at first, telling the boys they could come talk to him if they needed to. A few did.

Geddie and his mom told the coach that in September he’d had a plan to die by suicide, but then his mom stopped him. He was glad she had, but he was still fighting it every day and was getting help from a counselor, which they feel is working.

Cru, who’d been in school plays with Jeremy, mentioned that he had thought about suicide, too. A couple of the other boys talked to Gaytan about feeling depressed. And none of them could get through a day without thinking about the two deaths.

They said they could see the faded ribbons still tied to the sycamores lining the streets into Brigham City to memorialize Nate and Jeremy. They said they walked past a mural painted on the school driveway that said, “Unite against suicide,” and posters with the suicide prevention hotline number hung every few feet in the hallways.

In his own home, Gaytan had gathered up his rifles and taken them to his dad’s so Brandyn wouldn’t have access to them. After some of the boys talked to him about how they were feeling, he urged other parents to remove their guns, too.

Many folks in Brigham City own guns and hunt religiously; the grocery store stocks shotgun shells. Although most youth suicides here — and in Utah — are by gun, some were reluctant to follow Gaytan’s advice.

“My son knows we only use the guns to hunt,” dads responded. Or, “We can’t take every dangerous object out of the house.” And, “How would I defend my family if there were a break in?”

No one thing — removing guns or communicating more — would solve this, the coach said. But he wanted to persuade parents to take both those steps, which he considered reasonable and experts agree can limit the risks. And Gaytan wanted the players to know it’s OK to talk about the deaths and to ask for help.

— — —

The coach started visiting each of the boys at least once a month, too, more often for those who seemed to be struggling the most.

He sat down with Geddie during his break at the pizzeria on Tuesday nights. He drove his ‘77 Chevy back to his place to talk with Brandyn between driver’s ed and chemistry homework. Then he went to Cru’s house at 7:30 p.m. because he’d be home from play practice for the school’s production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” by then.

Gaytan also recruited more coaches for the team. One played lacrosse in high school and lost a teammate to suicide. One had battled depression and suicidal thoughts and counseling has helped him cope. And one is a licensed clinical social worker.

He asked Jeremy’s dad to come chat with the boys and invited Jeremy’s brother to help with the goalies and the face-offs.

“We’re doing what we can to get them to talk,” Steven Shipp said. “We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

David Cowsert, Nate’s dad, stops by practice occasionally, as well. These boys, he said, should be worrying about homecoming and first kisses and college applications and graduation; he doesn’t want them to have to think about losing their friends.

“When they have their helmets on, it’s hard. I just picture Nate,” Cowsert said. “But a lot of the boys playing now are playing because of him.”

Gaytan has brought counselors to practice, too. He even had his players write essays about how they’re feeling. Some, he knows, still don’t want to talk about it. But all of them, he believes, can recover.

The coach started a group text so the boys could reach out to him or their teammates at any time. Offensive coach Levi Grover joked that most of the messages are “When’s practice again?” and “Going for burgers,” but he’s glad it’s there, that someone is there to respond.

“I didn’t know how close a team could get,” said Grover, 30, an alumnus of Box Elder High.

It’s now been more than a year since the team lost Nate and nine months since Jeremy died.

“I don’t think that wound will ever be gone,” said Cru.

“But it’s caused us to watch each other closer,” Brandyn added.

— — —

Midway through drills near the end of the fall season, Gaytan called the boys into a huddle. They pulled out their yellow mouthguards and spit into the grass. They tugged off their helmets, revealing sweat-soaked hair and bright red cheeks.

“If your minds are in the right place, it will work,” Gaytan shouted, “Play for the right reasons.”

He was answered by a chorus of “Yes, coach.”

“Find something you love and play for that. It could be each other,” he added. “That’s heart, boys. Now bring it in, bring it in.”

They put their fists in a circle. “What do we play with?” Geddie called out.

“Corazón,” the boys yelled back.

“One, two, three.”


After four hours of practice, the sun was down and everything besides the field, illuminated by eight towering floodlights, had disappeared. Even then, the boys begged to continue.

“One more play,” they pleaded. “One more.”

“OK,” Gaytan said. “Let’s keep going.”