The headline in the Metro section of Saturday’s Washington Post reads “2 Md. Teens killed when car smashes into tree”.
POLICE: GROUP WAS AT DRINKING PARTY
Speed, alcohol believed to be contributing factors.
Take out the reference to Maryland and you can place those same headlines in dozens of newspapers across the country – especially at this time of year. Teen drinking and driving sometimes leads to tragedy and it has once again.
As the Post story points out, “The crash is emblematic of what AAA considers a disturbing and persistent phenomenon: Teen drivers, especially when they are out of school for the summer, are involved in frequent fatal crashes. The driver advocacy organization released a report last month calling for the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day the “100 Deadliest Days,” a reference to the fact that teen fatalities typically climb during that period.”
This one really hits home for me and not just because if happened only a few miles from my home. The two 18-year-olds who died were from the recently graduated class of 2015 at Wootton High School. So was the driver, who’s hospitalized in critical condition and the front-seat passenger who escaped with minor injuries. As you may know, both of my kids went to Wootton. And as hard as I tried to point them in the right direction, I’m not naïve enough to think they never put themselves in a dangerous position involving cars and alcohol. I know I did and was damn lucky not to have anything terrible happen. And I believe there’s some luck involved in both of my kids growing up to be healthy adults.
When I was growing up, the drinking age was 18 and I, like most of my friends, still didn’t wait. We were underage drinkers and sometimes, irresponsible drivers and passengers. What happened just before midnight on Thursday in North Potomac could have happened to me as a teenager – maybe it could have happened to you.
Police say the group of four had been at a party where there had been underage drinking. Going what was described as “very fast” in a 30-mph zone, the Post reported, “In one fleeting moment, the 18-year old driver lost control of the vehicle. It veered into a driveway, vaulting into the air and thudding into a tree. It struck another tree and a fence and overturned by the time it came to rest in a homeowner’s side driveway, according to authorities.” A few cans of beer were found in the car’s wreckage.
The front-seat passenger who suffered the minor injuries is identified as being 17-years-old and because of his age, has not been named. The two back-seat passengers who died were Alexander Murk and Calvin Jia-Xing Li, both 18 and both former football teammates of the driver – Samuel Joseph Ellis, who the story identifies as, “the school’s star quarterback.”
I saw Sam Ellis play at Wootton in the fall of 2013 when he was a junior. Wootton ran a pass-oriented spread offense with speedy receivers including Trayvon Diggs, the younger brother of former Maryland star Stefon Diggs. In fact, Stefon walked the sidelines in the game I attended. Later that season, Ellis broke the Maryland state record with 557 passing yards in a game against Rockville. At that level, he was a star. Ellis looked like he could have played college football, maybe even Division 1.
Obviously an athlete of that level in the insular world of a suburban high school was considered a leader. It’s likely he felt invincible and his former teammates followed his leadership that fateful night – as misguided as it was.
In the time it took for his speeding car to leave the road and hit the tree – an instant – he forever changed the lives of the families of the two victims and his own. Speeding with passengers and alcohol in the car may have been the only big mistake Sam Ellis ever made in his young life, but it was a mistake that will last forever.
The story says he was accepted to the University of South Carolina. It doesn’t say if he planned to play football. Whatever the case, a lawyer friend tells me Ellis is more likely to spend time behind bars than in a Columbia, South Carolina bar.
I don’t have solutions to this tragic problem. I said what many parents say to their teenage kids, “Don’t ever get into a car with someone who’s been drinking. If you’re in a position where you need a ride home, call at any time of the night and I’ll come get you with no questions asked. And if you’re at a home and you’ve been drinking, it’s best to spend the night there.”
I don’t know if they always followed those rules, but at least they were never arrested and are alive and well today in their mid 20’s. I wish they would have waited until their 21st birthdays to start drinking, but I also knew about the fake ID’s they took to college. If you’re a parent you know there are no easy answers here. You just pray for the best.
This crash has left two dead, one slightly injured and one with life threatening injuries, who will carry the burden of this tragedy, if he survives, for the rest of his life. The story does not say if Ellis was driving drunk, so we don’t yet know the full truth. But we do know the consequences and they are devastating.