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Players, coaches will never forget Howard's death

Connecticut players remember his smile, his good-natured trash-talking, and his skills - on the football field and basketball court.

They remember him by wearing a helmet decal of his No. 6, by hanging his jersey on the sideline, and preserving his locker as it was Oct. 18, when Huskies cornerback Jasper Howard died hours after one of the best games of his career.

Howard, 20, a junior from Miami, was stabbed in the stomach during an altercation following an on-campus party after UConn's 38-25 victory against Louisville. The next week UConn's players flew to Florida to bury a teammate they knew as "Jazz."

They will not forget.

"We've dealt with it. We haven't gotten over it," UConn coach Randy Edsall said Wednesday at a Bowl press conference. "But we've dealt with it, and we just continue to move forward."

Edsall lived through every coach's worst nightmare, which began with an early-morning phone call from his football operations director. Howard, who was to become a father, had been stabbed after a party at the student union.

The next call was from safety Jerome Junior, who told Edsall that Howard was being transported by helicopter to a hospital in Hartford. As he spoke with Junior, Edsall said he heard the helicopter above his home in Storrs.

Edsall arrived at the hospital to find a group of players and students already keeping vigil. The emergency room personnel did not tell Edsall much because he was not related to Howard.

After moving his car to a parking lot adjacent to the hospital, Edsall was met by a campus police officer.

"He said to me, 'You're going on the longest walk of your life. You've got identify Jazz's body,'" Edsall said.

That was just the beginning. The 51-year-old Edsall, who steered UConn's program from the Division I-AA to I-A ranks in 2002, had to break the news to Howard's mother, as well as the students and players at the hospital.

Edsall said Howard's death is the toughest thing he has endured as a coach.

"When you're the head coach and really the parent away from home for 105 young men, you've got to step up," he said "You've got to be strong and you've got to be a leader, and go do things that maybe aren't written in your job description but go with the territory."

The Huskies played at West Virginia six days after Howard's death, losing 28-24. The next day they boarded a plane for Miami to attend the funeral, the first many of the players had ever been to.

"It was a crazy experience. Probably one of the craziest days of my life," tailback Andre Dixon said. "I wasn't prepared to see somebody I was just playing football with a few days ago in a casket."

Eight months before Howard was killed, Edsall's 73-year-old father died following a lengthy illness. He drew on that experience to help comfort his grieving players in the difficult days following Howard's death.

UConn lost three in a row after the tragedy, by a total of 10 points. During an open week in mid-November, Edsall told his players to get away from football for a few days and think about something else.

They returned to post one of the biggest wins in school history - a 33-30, double-overtime victory at Notre Dame. UConn won its final three games to finish the regular season 7-5 and earn the school's fourth bowl bid.

A weight was lifted.

"It was something that wore on us as a team," Edsall said. "To get that (Notre Dame win), it was like 'We got this, now we can move forward.'"

Quarterback Zach Frazer said players put pressure on themselves to win for Howard.

"It felt like it was just hovering over us, especially because they were such close games," he said. "We were trying everything to win."

In his final game against Louisville, Howard made 11 tackles and forced a fumble that he recovered. He remains among UConn's leaders in tackles and punt returns.

The school's postseason media guide lists "RIP" next to Howard's name for the final six games in the categories of tackles and punt returns.

"Every time he played, he always had a smile on his face," Frazer said. "That's probably the number one thing I'll take away."

Police have arrested two Connecticut men in connection with the stabbing. Both have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Meanwhile, Edsall has noticed a much closer team since Howard died. Players are hanging out more often, and Edsall encourages them to express their feelings for each other.

"Don't hold anything in," he said. "Don't be ashamed to tell people you love them or that you really care for them because as we've all found, life can be taken at any given time."