Jasper Howard was a cornerback for the UConn football team from 2007-2009, but he was not just a jersey or statistic. Jazz was a son, a friend, a fiancee and a future father. He was fun, down to earth and above all, kind.
“He was very kind,” Daneisha Freeman, Jazz’s fiancee, said. “He had a big heart. Honestly, I didn’t like that about him at times, I’m like ‘Why are you so nice to people, everyone doesn’t deserve it.’ He was just always nice to everyone.”
On Oct. 18, 2009, Howard, who was 20 years old, was killed outside the UConn Student Union following a dance to celebrate the team’s homecoming win over Louisville.
Freeman was pregnant at the time, and five months later gave birth to their daughter, Ja’Miya Tia Howard. She has since raised their daughter as a single mother, but said she could not have done so alone.
“It was made possible with the help of my family and my friends,” Freeman said. “It took a village, literally. Without that support system, there’s no way I could have accomplished as much as I have.”
Freeman has released a book titled “Miya’s Guardian Angel” to help other families who are dealing with loss to communicate and understand what she described as an “angel concept” that she was trying to teach Ja’Miya.
After searching for books online to help her convey what she was trying to teach Ja’Miya and finding nothing, she decided to write one of her own.
“It was important for me not just to help [Ja’Miya] but also to keep Jazz’s memory, his legacy going,” Freeman said. “We all know he had a bright future ahead of him. He had so many great things that he was going to do but he just didn’t get a chance to do it. So I saw this as an opportunity to create something that is going to be around forever.”
Ever since Jazz’s death, Daneisha and Ja’Miya have maintained a relationship with the program and coach Edsall.
“They actually fly myself and Ja’Miya up every year for a game,” Freeman said. “Even when coach Edsall went to coach at Maryland they still flew us there too, so we remained in contact throughout this whole time.
To head coach Randy Edsall, it is something that has stuck with him to this day.
“That’s something that just never goes away for the people that were here,” Edsall said. “You just look back on it, and how senseless it really was, that a young man’s life was taken here on campus in the prime of his life.”
He has always made a point of keeping Jazz’s memory alive in the program, and it is a lesson he teaches his team.
“Every day, we learn from a young man who got his life taken from him way too soon, Jasper … and I remind them all the time, men, when you come in to the Burton Family Football Complex, it hits you right in the eye, play each play like it’s the last play you’re ever gonna play,” Edsall said. “If you do that, you can walk off the field knowing whether it was good enough or not, but at least you did that.”
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who was a redshirt freshman at the time of Jazz’s death, wore No. 5, so his locker was right next to Howard’s, who wore No. 6.
He said Edsall was great through that time, understanding there was something on their minds bigger than football. He said he also likes how Jazz is still remembered and celebrated by the program and its fans.
“It’s cool to see that after all these years, I went back a couple of years ago for homecoming and there’s a statue of six, he’s in the complex,” Wreh-Wilson said. “It’s good that his name is still here and he is still known and acknowledged because he put in a lot for the university, he put in a lot for himself and his family, and he was one of those guys that everyone really related to. He would joke, he would be the DJ, he put us on to Miami music, he put us on to just a lot of cool stuff. He was just a really cool guy, down to earth person.”
He said he remembered the day after Jazz’s death, how it did not feel right and how it was hard to comprehend.
“Being at that point of life, young in college, you think everything is so great and then something like that happens and its really senseless,” Wreh-Wilson said. “Especially now looking 10 years back, and everything that he was trying to accomplish, and just for something like that to happen to take his life, it was hard to really stomach.”
After Jazz’s death, Wreh-Wilson was thrust into a much larger role, starting each of the remaining seven games of the season. The team lost their first three games by a combined 10 points until they finally got a win, a 33-30 double-overtime victory over Notre Dame, which too this day has been the biggest win in program history.
Wreh-Wilson said all he remembers about that game is the fight they had to bring to get the job done, and then Andre Dixon throwing the ball in the air after scoring the game-winning touchdown. He said he and some of his teammates had to go through a big maturation process as a result of Jazz’s death, just learning how to deal with the loss of a friend they valued so much.
“There’s a difference when you earn a spot or someone’s playing bad and you get a spot, but someone literally died, and that’s why you’re on the field,” Wreh-Wilson said. “It was tough to cope with, and I remember myself and Dwayne Gratz, he went through a lot of maturation during that time, so we really had to lean on each other because we knew we lost a key piece of the defense, we lost a great person, we lost someone that we would look up to.”
Jazz may be remembered by most as a 5-foot-9 guy who wasn’t afraid of anyone lined up against him. But for Daneisha, Ja’Miya, Edsall and his teammates, he is so much more.
Jorge Eckardt is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at Jorge.firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @jorge_eckardt31