High school lacrosse coach Juan Gaytan and his players were devastated after team captain Nate Cowsert, 18, took his own life on a Sunday evening in January 2018.
Six months later, their heartbreak doubled when another popular teammate, Jeremy Shipp, also killed himself. He was 16.
Gaytan and his team of 30 players at Box Elder High School in the rural northern Utah community of Brigham City were overwhelmed with grief and scared that there could be more tragedy. They knew it was not uncommon for suicides to cluster, for one person’s suicide to prompt another. Gaytan couldn’t let another tragedy happen on his team.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I see what I needed to see?’ ” said Gaytan, 41, a volunteer head coach whose son Brandyn, 16, also plays on the team.
He vowed to take action. After soul searching, Gaytan decided what he needed to do was connect with the boys. Not just as their coach — he went on a mission to understand them emotionally. But as he soon learned, it’s not that easy with teenage boys.
So when a new school year started in the fall, Gaytan, who was in his third year as lacrosse coach for the Box Elder Bees, started making monthly home visits to every boy on his team. Even the ones who seemed fine.
As first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, he began inviting those who were feeling down or having problems at school to join him for outings to get hamburgers or pizza and just talk. He’d show them his emotions, hoping to show them that it’s okay to talk about such things.
He even asked them to read Viktor Frankl's “Man's Search for Meaning,” and write essays about how Frankl's experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II could help them in their own lives.
Then Gaytan recruited assistant coaches with counseling experience to help out at practice, and he added each player’s name to a group text so that everyone could communicate any time, day or night.
He knew the grim statistics: In Utah, suicide is the top cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, according to state health statistics from 2018. And Box Elder County was found to have one of the highest suicide attempt rates in the state.
Constantly echoing in Gaytan’s head was his last interaction with his former team captain.
The day before Nate killed himself, he had sent his coach and four other people a text saying: “I’m sorry. I love you.”
Because Nate had once accidentally sent him a text that was meant for his girlfriend, Gaytan assumed it had happened again. “Hey kid, don't worry — everything will be OK. I love you too,” he texted back.
“I thought he’d just had a disagreement with his girlfriend,” Gaytan said. “When I learned what had happened to him the next day, I went into a dark place. I thought: ‘I should have done something. I should have called him.’ I felt a lot of guilt.”
When Gaytan's players took to the field to practice last fall, they found that their strict coach had changed his focus from winning every game to playing lacrosse just for the joy of it.
At the beginning of the Bees' fall season in 2018, Gaytan addressed his team as they sat in a circle.
“Lacrosse itself is just a sport — a tool to help you cope with things later on in life,” he recalled telling his players.
He explained the history of lacrosse — how it originated as stickball with Native American tribes in the 12th century — then told the team about the game’s original intent.
“It was to offer thanks to the Creator,” Gaytan told them. “If we focus on (that), it will help to heal any wounds you have in your heart.”
Players and parents began to notice small changes in the team's demeanor.
"The coach stood up and led with love,” said Sara Becerra, 40, a single mom who works two jobs and has three children, including 18-year-old Jacob, captain of the lacrosse team this year.
She said Gaytan helped the boys open up about their fears and sadness.
“It’s okay to show emotion and talk about it,” she said. “Juan is more than just the lacrosse coach. He’s committed to who these boys become as men.”
Her son was close friends with Nate, and said he felt helpless when he learned that the affable senior had ended his life.
Nate worked after school as a manager at a local Burger King and always went out of his way to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable, he said.
"He spent a lot of time at my house and was always very personable,” Jacob said.
Jeremy Shipp had the same qualities of acceptance and kindness, he added.
"Jeremy was great at being friends with everybody,” he said. “My first and second year on the team, there were a lot of cliques, but Jeremy was the type of guy who would hang out with everyone.”
Jacob said he is grateful his coach stepped up and encouraged him and his teammates not to be afraid of their feelings, that if they’re feeling despair or hopelessness, it’s better to talk about it than let it fester and grow.
"Our coach is very passionate now about feelings — it takes priority over winning, even though we obviously like to win,” he said.
He said the squad now has lots of team talks.
This wasn’t how Gaytan imagined coaching when he first became coach of his son’s team when Brandyn was in fourth grade.
Gaytan learned to coach on the fly. Soon, he was coaching his son’s middle school team, then volunteering to coach the Bees at Box Elder High. In 2017, Gaytan’s boys won the state high school championship — a major feat for a team that once lost almost every game.
There was much to celebrate. Until on a crisp January Monday, they learned of their team captain’s suicide and everything changed. And then shortly after, another unimaginable tragedy.
Gaytan spoke at Jeremy’s funeral, telling the team members sitting in the front rows: “You guys should be speaking at my funeral. I should not be speaking at yours.”
After months of Gaytan’s campaign to open up to the boys and get them to open up to him, it seems the team has gotten the message.
“Our coach will cry and share personal stories,” Jacob said. “He doesn’t judge anyone for showing emotion — in fact, he prefers that we show it. He doesn’t want any of us to feel like we’re going through something alone.”
This report has been updated to reflect that the players’ suicides and Gaytan’s efforts to help the team were first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.