UConn honors Jasper Howard's memory by reaching Fiesta Bowl (cont.)
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.