On the other end of the line, my son was crying. It was a late Sunday afternoon last October, and Jordan was away at a military academy, in his senior year of high school. "Jacob died, Mom," he said, sobbing. "He's gone."
Jordan became friends with Jacob Logan, a senior and star football player at Coppell High School, about nine years earlier, when we lived in a small apartment complex, one of the few in Coppell. Although both families eventually moved into homes and both boys found a new core group of pals at different middle schools, their friendship had remained intact.
Jordan told me 17-year-old Jacob had drowned after jumping from a cliff into Possum Kingdom Lake. It was heartbreaking to hear my son in such pain and to have him so far away. I told him I’d arrange for him to come home for a week so he could grieve with his family. And, by that, I didn’t just mean me and Jordan’s younger brother, Jon, who played freshman football for CHS. I was referring to the students and people who make up the Coppell family. That’s what people here call the community.
To an outsider, it might sound hokey to refer to an entire suburb as a family. But that’s only because if you live in a big city like Dallas, you wouldn’t guess that a place like Coppell, just up the road, could exist. There are no reasons for outsiders to come to Coppell. There are no highways that run through the town of 39,000 people. There’s no Southlake Town Square, no high-rises, not even a movie theater. Parents in Coppell don’t worry about letting their kids ride their bicycles all over town. The only time I’ve ever felt compelled to lock my front door is when we go on vacation. Whether you’re having dinner at Anamia’s or breakfast at Deliman’s Grill, you’re guaranteed to run into someone you know. The whole town turns out for the annual Fourth of July and Christmas parades along Parkway Boulevard—and for Friday night football games at Buddy Echols Field.
During the agonizing week last fall that began with Jacob’s drowning, our family grew stronger than I could have imagined possible. But it came at a high price. Two days after Jacob’s death, as Coppell was still reeling, Jonah Blackwell, another senior, took his own life. The two boys, and their deaths, were very different, but their families and friends experienced the same excruciating pain.
Mona Logan says she doesn’t remember some of the details about the days following Jacob’s death; she was struggling to grapple with the loss of her son. But one thing stands out. “If I had to use one word to describe that week, it would be ‘love,’ ” she says. “I’ve never experienced such love before. People were not only loving us, but loving each other. They were saying, ‘We’re here, whatever it takes, to support each other.’ ”
Preston Ramsey didn’t want to go back out on the boat. He was fine just chilling on the dock at his buddy Nick Hruby’s lake house, where he and other friends from CHS were celebrating Nick’s birthday. But two of the guys, Gavin McDaniel and Jacob, had never jumped off Possum Kingdom Lake’s famous cliffs before, and they wanted to give it a try. So back out onto the water they went. Gavin and Jacob jumped into the lake and swam toward the cliffs. Preston and others hollered at them to come back for life jackets. But the two boys ignored them. Jacob told Gavin as they climbed the 60-foot cliff, “If God wants to take me, he’ll take me.”
Gavin jumped in first. He was already back in the boat when Jacob jumped. Jacob hit the water awkwardly, feet first but bent forward at the waist. “Oooh, that had to hurt,” Preston said. Still, no one on the boat was concerned.
Jacob surfaced and looked toward the sky. Then he went under again and never came back up. Preston and the others began screaming. “We were so far away,” he says. “There was nothing we could do.” The water in that part of the lake is about 60 feet deep.
Preston called 9-1-1. “He’s my best friend,” he told the dispatcher. “He hasn’t come up. Please hurry, please hurry, please hurry.”
That afternoon, Solomon Thomas was at home in Coppell, catching up on homework. Although he was a year younger than Jacob, the defensive end was among the many who considered Jacob his best friend. The two shared something the others did not. They both had a black father and a white mother. “We just clicked,” Solomon says. “He got me, and I got him.”
The friends started calling themselves “hybrids” and came up with a hand signal (hands facing forward, thumbs together, fingers straight up) to represent. The meme took off with CHS students. At one football game, a group of boys painted their torsos to spell “hybrid” on the front and “nation” on the back. In Coppell, a town that’s about 65 percent white, Jacob and Solomon made being biracial cool.
“He wasn’t gushy and he wouldn’t hug you, but you could always tell he loved you,” says Solomon, a top national recruit for 2014. “Even when Jacob made me mad, there was a point behind it. When we were younger, he’d say, ‘You’re no good at football. You’ll never make it at the high-school level.’ When I was a freshman, he’d say, ‘You’re too soft for varsity.’ He’d find ways to piss me off—because he knew it motivated me.”
The Friday night before that Sunday at Possum Kingdom Lake, Coppell played an away game at Hebron High School in Carrollton. Jacob went up to Solomon and said, “What’s wrong with you? You haven’t gotten any sacks all season!” The two had worked out a signature move: Solomon, after a sack, would bring his palms together and bow to the crowd. The very next play, Solomon got a sack and took his bow. “Jacob went crazy,” Solomon says. “He chest-bumped me and said, ‘That was the sickest celebration!’ He was screaming and laughing and so pumped up.”
Cam McDaniel, Gavin’s older brother, a running back at Notre Dame, was the first to reach Solomon on the phone that Sunday afternoon to give him the terrible news. “What should I do?” asked Solomon, shaken. Cam said, “Solly, pray. And just keep the faith.” The 6-foot-3, 260-pound athlete hung up the phone and fell to the floor.
As word spread, CHS students flocked to the one place they felt closest to Jacob—Buddy Echols Field, where hundreds held a prayer vigil Sunday night.
Mike Jasso was in his second year as principal at CHS. He had worked at the school as an assistant principal from 2000 to 2005 and had jumped at the opportunity to return. “The thing about Coppell that struck me then, and still strikes me now, is the total commitment by the entire community—the parents, the teachers, and the kids—to an outstanding education,” Jasso says. “There aren’t a lot of places left like this.”
Jasso called a meeting with staff before school that Monday morning. He knew it would be difficult for everyone to make it through the day. The students would need a lot of support, but the teachers were hurting, too.
The hallways were filled with an eerie silence. Music played, but the normally boisterous students—nearly 3,000 at CHS—were quiet. “Seeing the pain on their faces—it was almost unbearable,” says teacher Chase Wofford, the school’s student newspaper adviser.
Over at the field house, Joe McBride was trying to pull it together. He had rushed out to Possum Kingdom Lake on Sunday to be with Jacob’s family and the students who were there. Now it was time to meet with his team. A standout linebacker and defensive end at Texas Tech, McBride had taken the helm of Coppell’s football program in 2009, lured by
the opportunity to coach in a one-high-school town. “It’s everything I thought it would be,” he says. “It’s very tight-knit and small-townish. Everyone knows where everyone lives. There aren’t a lot of secrets rolling down the avenues of Coppell.”
McBride had immediate success as a coach, and the 2012-13 season was shaping up to be particularly strong. Coppell was undefeated and had recently won a thrilling victory against powerhouse Allen. But this Monday morning, football seemed meaningless. McBride sat in his office and prayed, not knowing what to say to his players, or how to say it. He turned to the Bible and found 2 Corinthians 12:9. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
McBride shared that verse with the players and did his best to comfort them, even as he struggled to maintain composure himself. Instead of practicing that afternoon, the players and coaches watched a video tribute to Jacob and grieved together as a team. “I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to just cry, to let it all out, within our football family,” McBride says, choking back tears even today. “We made a promise to each other that we would commit what we had left to the impact Jacob had on our lives.”
Mikey Gonzalez was worried. It was early Tuesday afternoon, and he and his friend Alex Riggs hadn’t seen their buddy Jonah Blackwell for a couple of days. Other seniors had been staying home from school; it was a text he and Alex got from Jonah that raised concern. “Hey, are we friends?” Jonah had asked.
Jonah liked to text quirky observations to his friends, funny messages. This was different. The odd question came out of nowhere.
Mikey texted back, “Yeah, we’re friends, Jonah. What’s going on?” Jonah sent a second text, another strange question about their friendship. Mikey put off answering him, because he knew he’d see Alex in the hallway next period. Alex knew Jonah better than anyone. They’d met in seventh grade, at Coppell Middle School North. He and some friends noticed Jonah sitting by himself at lunch one day and invited him over to join them. After that, he was part of the group.
During seventh period, Mikey got another text from Jonah. He ran out of the classroom to get Alex and contact the police. Jonah told his friends he had committed suicide. A short time later, police found him in a car parked at the back of a park just outside of Coppell city limits, dead from a gunshot to the head.
Jonah had given his friends the combination to his locker. There, Mikey and Alex found a dozen or so letters written to family and friends, neatly stacked in the cleaned-out space. “He said he didn’t want us to feel like we were at fault, or that there was anything we could have done to prevent it,” Mikey says. “He made it clear that it had nothing to do with Jacob’s death. He said he was sorry for the unfortunate timing.”
Along with running cross country with Mikey and Alex, Jonah was a member of the school’s Silver Spurs, a squad of about a dozen boys who carry the giant flags at football games and do pushups after touchdowns. Alex says his friend was an outgoing, generous, and caring person. But he had been under a lot of pressure his senior year, with cross country in the morning, a full-time job, and a lot of AP classes. “Up until that last week, he seemed his usual self. He seemed fine,” Alex says. “But what must have been going through his mind was a lot different.”
At a cross country meeting later that afternoon, Alex and Mikey broke the news to their teammates. Alex says if Jonah would have known how hard his death hit people, and how many people cared about him, he wouldn’t have taken his own life. “He would never want to cause others pain.”
Mikey felt a huge responsibility to be there for those who needed support. About a year earlier, he was at Lake Lewisville when another classmate, Jha’Kyric Nixon, drowned. The next evening, hundreds of CHS students and residents gathered at a prayer vigil at Andy Brown Park. What was unusual about that outpouring is Jha’Kyric and his family had moved to Coppell just two months before.
“I was in the water right next to Jha’Kyric,” Mikey says. “I was trying to help him find air, but I didn’t have the physical strength to pull him out. Later at the hospital, when they pronounced him dead, I collapsed. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t talk. Something in my head made me feel like I was at fault.
“So many people were there for me, people who didn’t even know Jha’Kyric,” Mikey says. “It was the first time I really saw the Coppell community as a family. When Jacob passed away, and then Jonah, I decided that instead of crying, I needed to help everyone else. It was my turn to be strong.”
Other schools love to hate Coppell’s student section. It’s raucous and more than 800 strong. Coleman Armes and Seth Slover were among the leaders of the 2012-2013 group. They brought a businesslike sensibility to the task and an open-arms attitude. “We wanted everyone at Coppell to become a family, no more separation between the grades,” Coleman says. “We said, ‘We don’t care if you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior, or if you play sports or not.’ We wanted everyone.”
They held weekly meetings and assigned members to do opposition research, so they could heckle the other team’s players. They raised money for drums, megaphones, a dry-erase board, and horns. They researched college student sections to learn chants and wrote many new ones of their own.
A private Facebook page was used to disseminate plans to members. For the Garland game, Coleman and his crew somehow lucked into getting about 30 old Garland band uniforms. “What are the chances of that?” he says with a laugh. “At halftime, when the Garland band was marching, we were mimicking their movements. It was hilarious. We didn’t do it to make fun of their band. We just had to capitalize on the opportunity.”
For the home game against Allen, students were instructed to wear all black. They did their signature “I believe that we will win” chant, but this time threw baby powder up into the air at the end, to give the appearance of a magic puff of smoke. (A YouTube video of the cheer has been viewed more than 24,000 times.) The intensity never let up, in the stands or on the field. Allen was on the 1-yard line in overtime when it got a costly delay of game penalty and had to settle for a field goal. Coppell came back to score a touchdown and handed Allen, which went on to win the 5A Texas state championship, its only loss of the year.
“I like to think we had something to do with that,” Coleman says.
Preparing for the Flower Mound game, the first since Jacob’s death, took on new significance. Leaders knew it was critical to be there for the team and that the student section could play a big part in Coppell’s healing. That was especially true for Coleman and Seth, who, along with Preston and Jacob, made up a kind of subset of The Bros, a group of 15 or so Coppell boys, most of whom had hung around together since middle school.
“There was even more of a reason for unity,” Coleman says. “The friendships made and just the knowledge that we were a family, and that everyone was there for each other—all that was hugely important. It was no longer about win or lose; it was much more than a game.”
There would be a big flag with Jacob’s jersey number, 21. And instead of Coppell’s school colors of black or red, students would wear orange, Jonah’s favorite color, and t-shirts that had been printed up in Kentucky blue, in honor of Jacob’s favorite university. They read, “The hybrid. The legend. The guardian angel.”
Thursday night, as plans were being finalized, word came in that Jacob’s body had been found at Possum Kingdom Lake. He was recovered at 9:21 pm or, in military time, 21:21.
The Friday Night game in Flower Mound was like a homecoming for Coppell. Recent graduates returned to be with their friends; the stands overflowed. Jacob’s younger sister, Jordan, a sophomore at CHS, wore her brother’s jersey and represented him as co-captain, a role she’d play for the rest of the season. After the coin toss, Solomon grabbed her hand and led her off the field. The team, sporting large “21” stickers on their helmets, made it their mission to look out for her.
The Silver Spurs set out a pair of black cowboy boots topped by a black hat on the sidelines, to represent Jonah. And instead of “I believe that we will win,” the jam-packed student section loudly chanted, “I believe that they are here.” During halftime, the crowd was silenced as Coppell’s band skipped the traditional CHS fight song and played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” then slowly walked off the field.
Somehow, through all the emotion and without a star player, the team found a way to win. Afterward, the Flower Mound crowd gave Coppell a standing ovation, and players and coaches from both teams gathered at the center of the field and knelt in prayer.
“It was about more than Jacob and Jonah,” Seth says. “It was about faith. It was about community—camaraderie, commitment to friends, and love.”
Watching it all were Jacob’s parents, Howard and Mona. “A lot of people asked me why we were going to the game,” Mona says. “I felt that we needed to be there. The team needed to see that we were hurting, but that we could be there for them, too. We all needed each other.”
Howard says his son “didn’t waste a day. He didn’t have time for foolishness.” Jacob also had a special place in his heart for the underdog and was always willing to stick up for those who needed his help. Even from an early age, he had a quiet way of making people listen. While going through her son’s things, Mona came across a journal Jacob had kept in first or second grade. He wrote, “I saw a boy today. His name was David. He was sad. I asked, ‘David why are you sad?’ He said, ‘they are being mean to me.’ So I said to them, ‘why are you mean to David? Leave him alone.’ And so they did.”
A week after Jonah’s death, his family released an open letter to the community. They wrote of their overwhelming sadness at losing Jonah and of being “unimaginably blessed” by the support they had received. “[It] has been, and continues to be, an inspiration that has filled our hearts with humble gratitude,” they wrote. The Blackwells also shared information on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Nothing will bring Jonah back to us physically; however we can hope and pray that this tragedy will make an impact and change others’ lives for the better. Jonah would want us to help one another. … Stay Strong Coppell.”
Months later, in May 2013, a group of CHS juniors organized the Jonah Blackwell Run for Life, a benefit that raised more than $5,000 for the AFSP. Although the volleyball and soccer teams would go on to win state championships, with the loud-as-ever CHS student section cheering them on, the football team would lose to DeSoto in the second round of the playoffs. “They just ran out of gas,” Howard Logan says.
McBride received several “Coach of the Year” awards, for his leadership on and off the field, and the Tom Landry Classic renamed its MVP honor the Jacob Logan Defensive MVP Award. And on June 6, when the Class of 2013 picked up their high school diplomas, the students had one final cheer: “I believe that we are done.”
When I met with the Logans in mid-July, they had just returned from Africa, where they spent time with orphans in Zambia. Jordan had convinced her parents to go on the mission trip, organized by Irving-based Family Legacy Missions. “Ever since Jacob’s death, there has been a huge hole in my heart,” she says. “In Zambia, for the first time, it began to get filled.”
Jordan and her parents are now on a quest to raise scholarship funds for the 30 orphans they mentored, and have a continuing role at the orphanage. Losing Jacob has put their lives on a different path, and working with the children in Zambia is a perfect way to honor him, Jordan says. “He was a voice for the voiceless.”
As we talk, Howard gets up and begins rifling through things in the living room, looking for the DVD of Jacob’s funeral. A photo of Jacob with a group of friends falls out. Howard brings it back to the table and stares at it for a while. When he realizes that Jacob was photographed in the shirt he’s now wearing, Howard smiles.
Top recruit Solomon has narrowed his choices down to 13 schools. He’s wearing a Stanford t-shirt as we talk. But there’s some business to take care of in Coppell first. “I don’t want to leave without a ring,” he says. For that to happen, the team will have to stay healthy, McBride says. “If we can do that, we’ll be as good as anyone.” Jacob’s framed jersey hangs on the field house walls; his No. 21 was retired. The experiences of the past year are still very much on everyone’s minds, says McBride. The players “see life a little different than most kids their age,” he says. “They realize things can happen, and they realize the power of a life well-lived.”
Coleman has handed off the reins of the student section to a new group of leaders. He’ll attend the University of Mississippi this fall. Seth, who gave a moving eulogy at Jacob’s funeral, is heading to the University of Texas. Preston will be at Oklahoma State University. At their joint graduation party, the three posed with their college flags—and a big 21 in Kentucky blue.
“I’m looking forward to going to college, and I’m excited about it,” Coleman says. “But I don’t want to leave this family: my bros, my friends, and the new relationships that were made this year. God has been good to me and this community. I just don’t want to leave Coppell.”