Sports

UConn Still Mourns Cornerback Death

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall doesn’t need a calendar to remind him that cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death a year ago Monday.

He thinks about his former cornerback every day, something made very clear by the reminders that fill his office.

There is a stained-glass window sent by an alumnus with Howard’s number “6” on a football. There is a framed flag that was taken into space in Howard’s honor by Connecticut astronaut Rick Mastracchio. There are framed fatigues with Howard’s name and number on them sent by members of the armed forces from Baylor University, a unit that met Howard at a game in Texas last year. There is a pencil portrait of the cornerback staring from a bookshelf across from Edsall’s desk. And there is a photo of Ja’Miya, the 7-month old daughter Howard never got a chance to meet, attached to the window behind his desk.

“I still can’t believe it happened. I still don’t understand it,” Edsall said in an interview with The Associated Press, as his voice trailed off and his eyes welled with tears. “I never will.”

Howard, whose friends called him “Jazz,” arrived at the northeastern Connecticut school’s pretty country campus from one of the roughest neighborhoods in Miami. And he died there, after a group fight allegedly sparked by a comment over a young woman.

“I drive by that spot every day,” Edsall said. “To think that a stabbing happened there early one Sunday morning, to me is incomprehensible. But that’s the world we live in.”

Hours before he died, Howard, a junior, played one of the best games of his UConn career, getting a career-high 11 tackles and forcing a fumble that helped the Huskies to a 38-25 win over Louisville. He and some friends went out that night to a school dance.

According to a police report, Howard was stabbed to death following a fight that erupted when the fire alarm was pulled at the student union. John Lomax III of Bloomfield is awaiting trial on a murder charge, but maintains he did not stab Howard.

Another player allegedly said something about a young woman, and someone took offense. A group of players, including Howard, squared off with another group of young men. The fight appeared to have broken up before two people went to a car and came back with knives.

Howard was stabbed in the abdomen.

Kashif Moore, one of Howard’s best friends and a roommate, said it all happened so very fast. He said he didn’t think it was serious until a helicopter was called to take Howard to St. Francis Medical Center in Hartford.

“It’s still something I think of everyday,” he said. “Sometimes, I wake up thinking that he’s still here. That’s just something that I have to live with. We should have just chilled in the apartment, relaxed and calm. I think about that all the time.”

Moore said Howard’s death changed him, made him grow up. He no longer lets little things bother him as much.

“It’s matured this whole team, brought us closer together,” said receiver Mike Smith, who was also with Howard that night. “We’re a close-knit family now.”

There will be no formal memorial for Howard on campus Monday. His teammates have an off day, and many will be at home.

Friend Lorin Dixon, a member of the women’s basketball team, said those on campus will do something private to mark the day. She said it’s more important what they do with the rest of their lives.

“Jasper had a motto to play each play like it’s your last play,” she said. “And that’s how I live my life now. Each day you come out you have to give it your all. I’m going to keep him in my prayers and in my thoughts.”

Smith said he asks for Howard’s blessing before each football game. Edsall said he also finds himself talking to Howard, whether in church or while staring at his portrait in his office.

Moore said he spends a lot of time with Howard’s family and finds comfort in seeing the face of his friend staring at him in the form of little Ja’Miya.

“She smiles a whole lot. She’s a real good baby,” he said. “I haven’t even seen her cry yet. And she looks just like Jazz when she smiles.”

Edsall also visits Howard’s family and his grave whenever he is in Florida. He said the experience of identifying the body and calling Howard’s mother will remain with him forever.

And he’s still searching for a meaning to it all. One thing he’s learned, he said, is to take nothing for granted and to pass that message on.

“All I can do is try to help the rest of these kids become better in every phase of their lives,” he said. “And, hopefully, things will turn out better for them.”

As if to emphasize the point, Edsall takes time from the interview to talk to a player. The player stopped by the office after learning he will be up at 6 a.m. during UConn’s bye week, to run the stadium steps as a punishment.

“You know why you’re here,” Edsall starts, his voice getting louder. “You skipped a quiz? Are you kidding me? You wonder why you don’t play? This is why. You don’t do things the right way.”

There are many ways to learn life lessons, Edsall said later.

The death of a friend shouldn’t have to be one of them.

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