UConn honors Jasper Howard's memory by reaching Fiesta Bowl
Dynamic DB Jasper Howard was stabbed to death at fight on campus last year
Nicknamed Jazz, his personality and zest for life still resonates with team
After 3-4 start, UConn rebounded to win Big East and make 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."