POTOMAC — It was standing room only in the auditorium of Winston Churchill High School on Aug. 10 as friends and family came together to remember Jacob Cassell.
On July 31, Cassell was riding his bike in Bethesda when he fell off and was struck by a car, according to reports. He died the next morning at a local hospital, according to his family.
Cassell, 17, was well known at the local high school for donning the Churchill Bulldog costume and invigorating the crowds at sports games and pep rallies.
Churchill’s Athletic Director Jesse Smith noted during his remarks that he had trouble finding someone to be the bulldog. Often, he said, students would begrudgingly portray the school’s mascot for a game or two before deciding to stop. But Cassell was enthusiastic and asked Smith about being the bulldog.
“Jake was a rock star; he was our rock star,” Smith said. “It takes a special kind of person to be the bulldog because when you’re a teenager, the last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself in front of others; you’re so worried about your image, but Jake didn’t care about that.
“Jake just went out there, and he just wanted to have fun and he wanted to show his spirit and his support for all of the athletes and all the fans.”
Smith explained that Cassell was very proud to be the bulldog. He even played in a bocce ball match last winter with the full mascot costume on.
“I remember getting (to the match), and the Whitman (High School) athletic director came over to me and pointing it out and all I could do was just laugh. I mean, it was the most amazing thing to see, and again, it just showed how much pride he had at being the bulldog,” Smith said.
During the nearly three-hour “Celebration of Life,” attendees sang Cassell’s favorite worship songs, shared stories and prayed together.
The Cassell family is very involved in the McLean Bible Church. The church’s pastor, Mike Kelsey, conducted the memorial service.
“It is uniquely tragic to lose someone so young,” he said in his opening remarks. “What you see here today is not just evidence of a tragic death but rather what you see here is evidence of a life well-lived.”
The McLean Bible Church Band was also in attendance and performed some of Cassell’s favorite worship songs.
Cassell was diagnosed with autism, which posed significant challenges for Jake and the rest of his family, his father said.
But in many ways, Cassell did not let his diagnosis get him down. He received educational support from the Diener School in Potomac, which specializes in schooling for students with learning differences. Three teachers from the school spoke of Cassell’s warmth and caring attitude to everyone he met. They noted his love for giving out hugs and high-fives and how he would often skip instead of walk between classes.
The three educators also read a poem called “Afterglow,” by Helen Lowrie Marshall.
Cassell’s close friend, Braydon Bachlott, also spoke during the memorial. He said that he, like Cassell, places along the autism spectrum, although with a different diagnosis.
Often the two young men would ride the Metro, not to reach any particular destination, but rather, for the joy of being on them.
“We were able to link with each other for many reasons because we had a lot of similarities in our lives,” Bachlott said. “We both loved exploring the world and our very obscure interest in the local public transportation system. For the past seven months, Jake and I tried to get out every single weekend we could. It didn’t matter what we wanted to do; some days we would just ride a large segment of the Washington Metrorail, and along the way, he taught me a lot about the world we all live in.”
Bachlott noted that Cassell taught him how to be compassionate and respectful to other people. But similarly, Bachlott said, Cassell learned from him as well.
“He kept telling me every time I met up with him that going out with me gave him all the confidence he needed,” Bachlott said.
Cassell’s father, Steve, noted in his remarks that having a son with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum made him rethink the life he had hoped for his son. It also made him rethink the way he would parent his child.
Steve Cassell explained that he felt incredibly close to his son; the two would pray every night side by side in Jake’s bedroom, and they would go on trips together. He recalled traveling by car to and from adventures with Jake’s Boy Scout troop. He said he loved spending the time in the car with Jake because it meant extra time to spend with his son.
“I had a whole lifetime of trips planned with Jake,” Steve Cassell said. “I dreamed of going everywhere on planet Earth with this kid, and it’s a great loss to not have my wingman with me.”
Sophia Schwab, a member of the cheerleading squad at Churchill, recalled playing hide-and-seek in the halls of the high school.
“Jake was one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever known and truly had a heart of gold,” she said. “He will surely be missed immeasurably by family and friends in the Churchill community. Once a bulldog, always a bulldog.”