UConn honors Jasper Howard's memory by reaching Fiesta Bowl
STORRS, Conn. -- The tears have long dried up, the rock at the north end of the UConn campus has been repainted dozens of times, the flames from the candlelight vigil have long burnt out and the residual smoke has cleared.
But his smile remains frozen in time, shining down from a giant memorial in the lobby of UConn's Burton Family Football Complex.
"You walk in the building and you see him smiling at you," says UConn coach Randy Edsall. "You see his face everyday and you almost know what he's saying to you."
The face is of former UConn cornerback Jasper Howard, the kid they called "Jazz." His eyes are shielded by a visor, his mouthpiece dangles beneath his facemask and his grin, though captured in still motion, seems as if it will never stop growing. Inscribed in the lower-right corner of the memorial are the words "play every play like it's the last play you'll ever play", the same words that Howard uttered just hours before he was stabbed to death during an on-campus fight in the early morning of Oct. 18, 2009. Every day sophomore cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson glances at those words and proceeds to the locker room, where his locker neighbors Howard's -- and all the of equipment that has remained inside of it since his death.
"I'll sit there and look at his gloves and his cleats," says Wreh-Wilson, who replaced Howard in the starting lineup following the tragedy. "His shoelaces haven't moved in a year; it's crazy."
No one touches Howard's belongings. And until his would-be graduation date in May 2011, it will stay that way -- even when UConn travels to Glendale, Az., for its Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl matchup with Big 12 champion Oklahoma.
"This is the one thing Jazz wanted," Edsall says. "He'd love to be on this big stage."
There's a consensus among the Huskies: A shot at the Sooners, a shot at history (many consider UConn to be one of the biggest BCS underdogs of alltime) and a shot at All-America receiver Ryan Broyles would have had Jazz absolutely salivating.
"Oh, he'd be going nuts right now," Wreh-Wilson says.
There was no stage too big for the pint-sized Howard. When the Huskies faced Pittsburgh in the 2009 Big East opener, Jazz -- who stood 5-foot-8, 174 pounds -- relished the chance to go toe-to-toe with Panthers 6-foot-5 wideout Jonathan Baldwin. The physical traits needed to hang with these receivers -- the blinding speed, smooth hips and sharp instincts -- were all there. As a sophomore, Jazz was gifted enough to start at cornerback, pick off a team-high four passes and finish second in the Big East in punt return average (10.9 yards per attempt). But it was an infectiously positive approach to practice, games and everyday life that endeared him to his teammates.
"He's the guy who could make you laugh and do things to lighten it up," Edsall says.
Sometimes Jazz pushed a little too far. During a spring practice two years ago, Jazz jumped a route by wide receiver Kashif Moore and intercepted the ball with nothing but 30 yards of green turf ahead of him. He flew down the sidelines, crossed the 10-yard-line and peaked over both shoulders to make sure the coast was clear.
"I swear he made eye contact with coach Edsall before he did it," Wreh-Wilson says, struggling to contain his laughter.
Howard proceeded to do a front-flip -- a "full-out DeSean Jackson" maneuver -- into the end zone and Edsall, a stickler for sportsmanship, immediately kicked him out of practice.
"He just liked to put on a show," says running back Jordan Todman, who ranks fourth in the nation in rushing with 1,574 yards. "He liked to have fun out there while he was making the big plays."
Jazz could make plays, and he had no problem talking about them. From playful banter with his teammates to serious, "get-in-your-head" trash talk on game day, there was never a dull moment with Howard. And, at times, you'd think he had the UConn locker room confused for a dance club. Jazz was always "sticking and slapping and smiling," Todman says.
He had a certain arrogance -- albeit an innocent, lighthearted arrogance -- that prompted him to vote himself 1, 2 and 3 in response to a student newspaper survey which asked for the top three swaggers in UConn athletics.
"That's Jazz for you," Wreh-Wilson chuckles.
On the field, his confidence never wavered. Any muffed punts -- and there were quite a few over the years -- were immediately thrust into the rear-view mirror. Jazz believed he'd catch the next one. Heck, he believed he'd bring it back for a touchdown.
Jazz grew up in Little Haiti, a gang-infested Miami neighborhood notorious for its high crime rate and drug trade. Howard's ability on the football field was his ticket out. As the first member of his family to attend college, Jazz believed he was responsible for his mother, Joangila, and his two younger sisters. He believed that his degree and potential football career held the key to a better future, a life without threats of eviction and violence. He was proud of Little Haiti, Edsall says, but determined to make things better.
"We'd be lifting together and he'd go on tangents like 'I have to do this for my mother and sisters back home,'" Wreh-Wilson recalls. "He'd lift so hard. He's a small guy, but he was lifting more than me. He'd push so hard on the bench to the point where his feet were off the floor. He felt like he had added pressure to succeed."
Jazz channeled that pressure, however, into a positive energy, a deep appreciation for football and for life. His contagious smile was as bright as ever following a homecoming victory over Louisville on Oct. 17, 2009. That afternoon, he recorded a career-high 11 tackles, and, early in the third quarter, stripped Cardinals tailback Bilal Powell at the UConn 9-yard line and pounced on the ball at the 4, which reversed momentum and negated a potential game-tying drive. Though the play illustrated his non-stop motor, Jazz's postgame words, "play every play like it's the last play you'll ever play," seemed rather cliche at the time.
"You have to understand that he didn't just say those words," says UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes. "He lived them."
Edsall got the call from safety Jerome Junior at about 1 a.m. on Sunday. As he received the news -- Jazz had been stabbed once in the abdomen during a fight outside of a campus-sanctioned party and was being airlifted to the hospital -- Edsall heard the unmistakable buzz of the Lifestar helicopter soaring through the sky over his house. He rushed to the hospital and identified himself as Jazz's father. Father by blood? No. But Edsall was Howard's head coach, his special teams coach and the man who convinced Howard to continue the pursuit of a degree and football career when he considered returning to Little Haiti to provide immediate relief for his struggling family.
Jazz lay on an operating table at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford while Edsall and Junior briefly left the waiting room -- already littered with distraught teammates and students anxiously hoping for a miracle -- to move their cars into the nearest parking lot. "I'll never forget it," Edsall says. "I parked my car and got out of it and (a police officer) came up to my car and he told me 'You're going on the longest walk of your life.'"
Minutes later, Edsall was called in to the operating room to identify the body of his junior cornerback, his "son," 20-year-old Jasper Howard. Edsall phoned Joanglia and Daneisha Freeman, Jazz's girlfriend who was four months pregnant with their child (Ja'Miya Tia Howard was born on March 27, 2010). The tears flowed at the ensuing 6 a.m. team meeting. They didn't stop all week. The tiny flames -- thousands of them -- illuminated the center of the UConn campus during a candlelight vigil. The large rock on the north end of campus, normally painted to promote fraternity and sorority events, read "RIP # 6" on one side and "Jazz Never Forgotten 1/28/89-10/18/09" on the other. Two roses, a newspaper clipping and a few notes were placed carefully in Jazz's locker. And it took nine excruciating days for investigators to charge 21-year-old John William Lomax III with the murder.
Through all this, the Huskies still had to play football. They had to watch Rutgers wide receiver Tim Brown, a Miami native and childhood friend of Howard's who had written "RIP Jazz" on his face in eyeblack, scurry 81 yards for a back-breaking, game-winning touchdown with 22 seconds left in the Huskies' first home game since Howard's death. They had to mope to locker room while 40,000 fans exited Rentschler Field in silence, like they were leaving a funeral.
"You never get through (Howard's death)," Edsall says. "But I can say that these guys stuck together."
The 2009 season (a year marred by five losses by a combined 15 points) eventually ended with four straight wins and a 20-7 victory over South Carolina in the PapaJohns.com bowl, which meant high expectations for 2010. And that meant some self-imposed pressure.
"I don't know if they tried to put too much pressure on themselves at the beginning of the year or they forgot that they had to go out at practice and do the right things," Edsall says.
Either way, the Huskies struggled early. In the season opener at Michigan, they jumpstarted Denard Robinson's brief Heisman campaign and, shortly after, UConn hit rock-bottom with losses to Temple, Rutgers and an inexplicable 26-0 thrashing at Louisville. Truth be told, the brightest highlights through the first seven games of the season -- UConn sat last in the Big East with an 0-2 conference record (3-4 overall) -- were two long interception returns for touchdowns by Wreh-Wilson.
Morale was low and confidence was even lower. Then, freshman offensive lineman Gus Cruz decided to speak up at a team meeting.
"He said 'Jazz would give anything to be in our situation, just to go out and play one more game. How are we going out there acting like we don't want to be out here at practice sometimes?'" Wreh-Wilson remembers.
Did the speech flip a switch for the Huskies? No one -- not even Wreh-Wilson -- can truly say. But he'll tell you this: When UConn hosted Pittsburgh on Nov. 11, Wreh-Wilson didn't back down from Baldwin, a likely first-round pick in next year's NFL Draft. Like Jazz, he wanted Baldwin. He'll tell you the secondary started chattering a bit more -- some playful banter and, to Edsall's dismay, a few small confrontations. And, after Todman plowed ahead for five yards on a crucial fourth-and-1 and the Huskies sealed a 30-28 win, the normally-stoic Edsall delivered his rendition of Jazz's front-flip: a series of joyous leaps capped by an emphatic, yet somewhat bizarre, Tiger Woods-esque fist pump along the sidelines.
As UConn continued to climb out of a seemingly insurmountable early-season hole, the stakes for each game grew larger, the stage grew larger and, in turn, UConn's belief in itself did, too. "You could feel it with each game," Wreh-Wilson says. "Everything just started rolling. It's a lot of fun to be a part of right now." The past -- the four mistake-plagued losses -- remained exactly that.
"I think Jazz's personality is reflected by some of the things that have taken place here in the last five games," Edsall says.
A 52-yard field goal from Dave Teggart, one of Jazz's former roommates, gave the Huskies a 19-16 win over South Florida -- UConn's fifth straight -- and inspired those talented Husky artists to repaint the rock on the north end of campus. It now reads "Tostitos Fiesta Bowl ... UC vs. OU."
This would have been the final game (and by far the biggest game) of Jasper Howard's college football career.
Win or lose on New Year's Day, the transition to next season will be admittedly difficult and emotional -- especially for Wreh-Wilson. He'll still throw up the Little Haiti symbol when he runs out of the tunnel and he'll still bob his head to the same songs that Jazz once danced to in the locker room. But, by then, the neighboring locker will either be unoccupied or taken by an incoming freshman.
"I'm so used to looking in there and seeing the Jasper Howard, Miami, Florida ...," Wreh-Wilson says as his voice trails off.
He's so used to staring at the No. 6 jersey, the helmet, gloves and the cleats with the shoelaces that haven't moved an inch. Then, there are the roses resting on the top shelf and the newspaper clippings taped to the back of the locker, adjacent to the professional photos of Daneisha Freeman and a giggling Ja'Miya. And, tucked away in the locker's upper-left corner, almost lost among all the photos, there's an anonymous message for Wreh-Wilson and the Huskies scribbled in light pencil on a yellow post-it note: "Don't cry because he's gone. ... smile because he was here."
You know Jazz would have.