The face on the new Bulldog head, Jake Cassell insisted, should sport a permanent smile.
Jesse Smith agreed. A year earlier, in the spring of 2018, Jake had asked Smith, Winston Churchill High School’s athletic director, about playing the role of the school mascot. Smith’s ears perked up. Ever since his arrival at the Potomac school in 2016, he’d tried unsuccessfully to recruit a student to wear the costume known simply as the Bulldog. Then, a skinny sophomore with crooked glasses and a “big ole’ grin,” Smith recalls, walked into his office and volunteered to do it.
“You could just tell how sweet and genuine he was,” Smith says. “He had so much enthusiasm. I just knew there was no way this kid wasn’t going to do well.”
By the end of the school year, Jake, already well-liked by his peers, teachers and school administrators, had become beloved for the obvious joy he took from being the mascot. He had catchphrases. “Nailed it!” he would yell in his nasally, high-pitched voice after a basketball player drilled a jumper. “Awesome!” he would declare with a fist pump following a Churchill goal. When the football team scored a touchdown, he’d celebrate with fans, offering paw-to-hand high-fives to kids and grown-ups alike.
“He had this glow about him that everyone felt,” Smith says. “Even if they didn’t know who he was, they saw that radiating from him.”
Jake performed routines with the cheerleaders, usually shimmying and shaking a beat or two behind the girls, but always executing the moves with the same verve. He’d occasionally wear the gray, furry outfit to school—even on days there wasn’t a game.
People didn’t love Jake Cassell because he was the Bulldog, they loved the Bulldog because he was Jake Cassell.
Mascots generally try to hide their identity, but Jake didn’t think twice about posing for pictures “headless,” his mop of sweaty black hair and grin visible for all to see. “There was a shamelessness to the way that he presented himself to the world,” says his father, Steve. “He wanted the whole world to know, ‘Hey, it’s me!’ We were always telling him to put his [Bulldog] head on, and he was like, ‘No, I’m good.’ ”
There was only one problem. The costume’s big, bulky head had a scowl plastered on its face that didn’t match the spirit of the teen wearing it. “Last year, we started the process of getting a new costume, and we talked all spring about the stuff he wanted,” Smith says. “I showed him a couple that had a menacing look, but Jake definitely wanted one with a smile.”
Late last July, Churchill Principal Brandi Heckert approved the purchase of the new costume. Days later, following Jake’s tragic death at the age of 17 in a bicycle accident, it was the smile of the kid who never got to wear it that she remembered during his memorial service.
The day Jacob Cassell was born, a fire broke out next door to his parents’ row house in D.C. Steve and his wife, Jennifer, don’t know if the trauma of that morning caused Jennifer to go into premature labor, but hours later their first child arrived six weeks early.
“His brain wasn’t developed enough to realize when he was eating or drinking that he had to stop and take a breath,” Jennifer says. “I was nursing, so I’d have to pull away so he would breathe, otherwise he would turn purple.”
It didn’t take long for his parents to sense that something was wrong. Looking at bright lights and ceiling fans would overstimulate Jake, causing him to tighten and flex his muscles. “I had to teach him how to crawl by getting on top of him, pushing his knees forward and moving his arms forward. Nothing came natural for him,” Jennifer says.
Jake was about 16 months old when the family received what Steve calls “the scarlet letter diagnosis.” Autism.
Jake had issues with his vestibular system, which affected his sense of balance. If his dad picked him up and turned him sideways, he’d go into a panic. Getting him to climb a couple of steps on a ladder at a playground was a major accomplishment. He had pica, a disorder that caused him to put things in his mouth, and suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But the whole of Jake was much more than the sum of the maladies that plagued him. Despite his challenges, he always reveled in human interaction. He viewed wherever he went and whatever he did as an opportunity to connect with people. Man, woman, boy or girl—it made no difference to him. One day in first grade at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, where the family had moved in 2004, Jake was acting up. When the teacher threatened to send him to the principal’s office, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Oh, I love the principal,” he said. “Let’s do that!”