Sixteen-year-old Evan Rosenstock loved sports and had a big, easy smile. When he took his own life last year, the Churchill community was devastated. How could this have happened? And who or what was to blame?
In Jewish tradition, a cemetery gravestone or plaque is “unveiled” about a year after a person dies. And so it was that on a beautiful Sunday in May, Sue and Howard Rosenstock removed a felt cloth covering the bronze plaque memorializing their son, Evan.
Unveilings are invariably sad affairs, but this one was especially so. Evan, a beloved student and varsity basketball player at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, had committed suicide at age 16. It was, his parents said, the conclusion to a spiraling depression linked to his inability after surgery to play basketball, the sport that had become so central to his life that without it he saw no reason to live.
About 50 mourners gathered at the gravesite for the unveiling at King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church, Va. “It’s as hard to imagine we’re here today as it was when we opened the earth to bring Evan to a place of rest,” Rabbi Adam Raskin, the spiritual leader of the Rosenstocks’ Potomac synagogue, Congregation Har Shalom, told those in attendance.
The mourners left pebbles on the grave marker, also a Jewish tradition, to make a tangible public statement that the deceased was remembered. The Hebrew word for rock, Raskin told them, is eben. “Evan should be our rock, his memory, his life, what he has continued to teach us. Let him be our eben, our strength, our rock.”
If there was any solace, the rabbi said, it was in Evan’s legacy: His death had given birth to an organization, umttr—texting shorthand for “you matter”—that seeks to combat bullying and abuse in youth sports and to fight the scourge of teen suicide, the third leading cause of death nationally among 15- to 24-year-olds, behind unintended injuries and homicide. There had been a recent spate of them in the Washington, D.C., area—six teens had killed themselves within three years at Northern Virginia’s W. T. Woodson High School.
When a tragedy like this happens, it is natural to look to place blame, and more than a year after Evan’s death, everyone who knew him is still grasping for an explanation. Some of Evan’s family members and friends focus their anger on the Churchill basketball coach, Matt Miller, who they say demanded too much and felt too little of the pain—physical and emotional—that befell Evan. Sue Rosenstock, especially, feels that Miller abandoned her son, leaving him to wallow in a deepening depression and asking him to do manual labor when he knew Evan was in pain.
Those who support the coach strongly disagree. They say he cared deeply not only about winning but about the well-being of all his players. He worried about their academics as much as their athletics, they say, and went out of his way to help kids.
They say there must be other factors at play. Perhaps, they say, there was an overbearing parent pressuring Evan. Or perhaps it was the antidepressant medication, Celexa, that Evan was taking in his last month of life, despite a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning that it and other antidepressant medications in its class could cause adolescents to have suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Or, perhaps Evan’s death was just a tragedy. One without villains. No more, no less.
“I haven’t touched it,” Sue says as she walks into Evan’s basement room one evening this past March. Evan’s clothes are still on the floor, the bed is unmade, sheets and pillowcases unchanged. She says the room still smells like her son.
His backpack contains a calculator, notebooks, a copy of Lord of the Flies and rubber bands for his braces. The last entry in his assignment book is for Wednesday, May 15, five days before he died. On May 13, he notes, it’s his sister Allison’s birthday. Also a Chinese quiz, a bio quiz, an English chapter that must be read by Thursday. Churchill sweatpants are in a laundry basket, waiting to be washed. There is the 2013 Churchill yearbook, and a Robert Griffin III jersey, “his favorite,” Sue says.
Evan’s room at his father’s house is similarly preserved. There’s a Buzz Lightyear figure, Evan’s math binder on the desk and a Michael Jordan poster. An art project Evan made in preschool reads, “I am Special. My name is Evan Rosenstock.” A swimsuit calendar is opened to May 2013.
Evan’s parents separated in 2004 and divorced in 2006. The divorce, initiated by Howard, was uncontested, and the parents shared joint custody of Evan and his older sister, Allison.
Today, both parents still live in Potomac, less than 4 miles apart. Howard, 60, an attorney, continues to reside in the large 1971 brick colonial where they had lived together as a family on Sorrel Avenue, near Potomac Village. Sue, 52, an accountant, lives in a town house she purchased in 2008 on a cul-de-sac off Falls Road, near their synagogue.
Though the divorced parents had other relationships, they remained dedicated to their children and determined to keep their lives as normal as possible. “I always thought Sue and I worked as a very effective team,” Howard says. Evan’s pediatrician concurs, writing to Sue after Evan’s death that the boy had “adjusted well to changes in his life due to his parents’ divorce.”
Howard and Sue say Evan was an easy child. Sweet and even-tempered, he was nicknamed “Effervescent Evan” by his preschool teacher. He volunteered to shovel the neighbors’ walks when it snowed. “I would put up a list of things—chores—he’d need to do,” Sue says. “By the time I’d wake up in the morning, the list was done.”
Sue says Evan loved all sports but that basketball was his favorite. He began playing basketball at age 7 in a recreational league. “He was always in the 90th percentile for height and weight, so he was just a big kid. He really took to it. It became natural for him.”
He played forward and center, and in addition to his school teams, he played on Potomac Pride, an Amateur Athletic Union team, and in the I-270 Youth Basketball Association under former Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan.
At home, Evan would spend free time shooting hoops on a neighborhood court behind Sue’s house. “I made him do this,” Sue says. “It was for him to get exercise and, also, when you’re the big man in the middle, what does it come down to? Foul shots.”
Elliot Thaker, a friend of Evan’s since kindergarten, says Evan loved to make people laugh. “He always had this big, stupid-looking smile on his face,” Elliot says. “He was one of the most caring people I’ve ever seen.”
The older of two children, Matt Miller grew up in Northwest D.C. and graduated from Gonzaga College High School. His father, now retired, worked as a scientist for the federal government, and his mother teaches interior design at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
Miller, 31, studied economics and played basketball at St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland. A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) forced him to sit out his senior season but also helped him discover a passion for coaching, he says. “I earned a coaching position with the team during my senior year,” Miller says. “While it wasn’t the same as playing, it really helped me transition to the next part of my life.”
He went on to obtain a master’s degree in education from Marymount. Before coming to Churchill, he taught physical education and coached basketball at Wheaton and Walt Whitman high schools. Under Miller, the Churchill Bulldogs won three consecutive division championships and compiled a 79-41 record. He also coached the Potomac Pride summer team that was an unofficial training camp for Churchill players.
Miller declined to be interviewed in person for this article but agreed through an attorney who describes himself as a family friend to respond to emailed questions.
“My philosophy is pretty simple with regards to both basketball and the classroom,” he says. “Work hard, make a commitment to doing the best you can, communicate issues or concerns early and often, manage your time well, and respect fellow students, teachers, coaches, opponents, referees and your family. I have always thought that high school athletics was an excellent opportunity to help kids develop certain skills that will serve them well later in life, such as teamwork, communication and responsibility. I was fortunate to be a part of three different high school programs as a coach and I feel good about the impact I was able to make.”