Remembering Jazz

STORRS, Conn. – Before every Connecticut football game, before wide receiver Kashif Moore takes his first step onto the field, he gets down on one knee and quietly prays side-by-side with teammate Jonathan Jean-Louis.

"And then I talk to Jazz," Moore said recently. "I tell him to protect me. I know he's watching. It feels uplifting. It's kind of unexplainable really."

Unexplainable because it's such a personal experience for Moore. Why wouldn't it be? Perhaps the most difficult challenge in life is sharing the spirit of a friend, a brother, a mentor, or a teammate – in the effort to keep that person's memory alive.

Jasper "Jazz" Howard was all of those things – and more – to the UConn football program. It was two years ago today, on Oct. 18, 2009, that Howard, 20, died from wounds suffered during a stabbing on the UConn campus. It was only hours after Howard played a huge role in UConn's 38-25 victory over Louisville.

One moment he was taking part in a dance at the Student Union. The next he was on the sidewalk, in the arms of teammates – including Moore – with his future and his dreams slipping away. It was all the result of a senseless tragedy.

The Huskies no longer carry Howard's helmet and No. 6 jersey onto the field before every game. But a few of the Huskies who played with Howard have tattoos to honor him. Others wave the Little Haiti hand signal that meant so much to the Miami native. Others have their own memories tucked away in their lockers, their hearts, and their souls.

And, in the ultimate tribute, Moore wears No. 6 now. It is a constant reminder of the 5-foot-10, 180-pound cornerback with the effervescent smile, the competitive passion and the dream to build a better life for himself and his family.

Howard certainly is not forgotten. And he remains an inspiration.

"It's definitely hard [trying to find a reason]," Moore said of the soul-searching exercise he goes through almost on a daily basis. "I ask that myself all the time. At the time [I was holding him], I didn't know he was gone.

"I think of him every day. I don't think that will ever stop. That's something I've got to learn to live with."

Cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, the player who stepped into Howard's starting spot, agrees about the daily difficulty that comes with thinking about a fallen teammate. Wreh-Wilson tries to take Howard's approach to coping. And that may be more reflective of Howard's personality than anything else.

"It's still saddening," Wreh-Wilson said. "But, with Jazz, he was a very positive person. I know he wouldn't want us to dwell on it and keep looking at it as negative, negative, negative. We can just take the positive out it and be glad that we were blessed to know such a good person."

It wasn't that easy at first for Wreh-Wilson. Two years later, Wreh-Wilson was UConn's best defensive back until a knee injury sidelined him three weeks ago. But after the initial shock of the event, the players immersed themselves in the candlelight vigil and other memorials that honored Howard. At the same time, they had to prepare for an Oct. 24 game at West Virginia – an almost impossible task given the circumstances. And no one had a more difficult chore than Wreh-Wilson.

"I had to fill the footsteps of a great corner, a great person," said Wreh-Wilson, now a redshirt junior. "It's almost like a void in the locker room that we had because he was missing. It just . . . it was a lot to deal with as a young corner, almost feeling like I didn't deserve this spot. I hadn't really earned it."

Wreh-Wilson wore No. 5. His mentor wore that No. 6. During that 2009 fall camp, Wreh-Wilson had been named the nickel corner and Howard took him under his wing. They sat together and talked. Wreh-Wilson watched Howard closely to learn his ways.

Even though Wreh-Wilson was injured and did not play against West Virginia this Oct. 8, the return to Morgantown brought back a flood of memories.

"I mean, I was the next guy,' Wreh-Wilson said. "We had talked about it. If somebody goes down, [Howard] said, ‘We need you to step up.' It's a hard spot to fill, to come in for somebody on short notice. You're uncomfortable. And the circumstances . . . he got murdered. My mind was racing everywhere and I still had to focus on playing football. It was a tough time.

"It was a lot of emotion and I was almost emotionless because of it. I had so much stuff pent up in my head. If I had let it out, the only thing I could have done was vent for a day and just cry. That's the only thing I could have done."

Two days after losing that almost surreal game at West Virginia 28-24, then-coach Randy Edsall and the entire team attended Howard's funeral in Miami. The Huskies dropped their next two games as well and observers wondered how the UConn team was supposed to deal with so much adversity.

Then on Nov. 21, UConn won 33-30 in double overtime at Notre Dame. Edsall credited Howard on national television after the game. The Huskies won their next two games and advanced to the Bowl where they shocked South Carolina 20-7.

Last season, after observing the first anniversary of Howard's death, UConn won its last five regular season games and advanced to the school's first ever BCS bowl game, against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. They advanced there on the leg of kicker Dave Teggart, whose 52-yard field goal in the closing seconds against South Florida gave UConn the win and the BCS bid. Teggart had been one of Howard's roommates.

Before the Fiesta Bowl, Edsall offered Moore a chance to wear Howard's No. 6 against Oklahoma. He pulled Moore aside during practice and asked the UConn receiver if he would be comfortable doing so.

Moore caught four passes (best on the team) for 62 yards against the Sooners. The jersey has belonged to Moore ever since.

"It means a lot," Moore said of wearing No. 6 in Howard's memory. "I feel like it brings a lot of inspiration to the whole team seeing that number out there. It's another reminder to play every play like it's your last. It's an honor to be able to honor him by wearing that number."

Play every play like it's your last. That was Howard's lasting message.

"You have to play each play like it's the last play you'll every play," he said after his last game, that victory over Louisville. The quote is featured in a tribute to Howard in the lobby of UConn's Burton Family Football Complex. There is a bigger than life photo of Howard in his UConn uniform, with the quote directly below his left hand.

Under the photo, there is a plaque that tells Howard's story.

"Jasper Howard loved life, his family, football and the University of Connecticut," it begins. The conclusion recalls that, "Tears fell hard from the October sky as Jazz lost his life. This tribute to Jasper stands as a reminder that he came to play and practice with an energy that made him the consummate teammate … forever."

Not that any of those teammates would ever forget, but they are reminded every day as they walk past that tribute on the way to the practice or meetings.

"Seeing him smile makes you realize what a great person he was," Wreh-Wilson said of the photo. "I'm glad he's still around. Sometimes when I walk in, I'll just look at it for a little bit. Man. … I think more about the positives he brought than the negatives. He brought a lot to this program, a lot to a lot of people.

"[In my first start] I was thinking how much this man lost, his family lost, he had a kid on the way. And he had so much going for him. He was the first person in his family to go to college and he was making the most of his opportunity. There was so much taken from him. It made football seem like, well, there's a lot more going on than just football.

"We play with his spirit and his passion. We'll just keep trying to play for him. I know he's going to stay with me for a long time."

Before the Fiesta Bowl game, defensive tackle Twyon Martin told reporters that Howard was a big part of UConn's success. He said there were times he didn't know where the team's strength came from, but "I feel like Jazz has something to do with it."

Moore says he knew from the minute he met Howard that he "was going to be my buddy." Wearing his friend's No. 6 certainly keeps the memory alive this season, but he wants that to continue long after Howard's teammates have departed Storrs.

"I just want him to be remembered," Moore said. "I just want his story told."

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