I'll always remember the morning of Oct. 18, 2009 as one of the most surreal of my life, how weird it was to wake up that morning to dozens of panicked text messages and a Facebook newsfeed filled with "RIP Jasper Howard," and then to turn on the TV and see my own dorm building in the background with police tape and lights flashing everywhere.
It's hard to believe that it's already been four years since Jasper Howard was killed outside the Student Union, just hours after having one of the best games of his career and months before he was due to become a father. Howard's death was a tragedy that rocked the school and still deeply resonates even to this day, despite the fact that a full college generation has now passed since his death.
For most fans, the lasting memory of Howard was his electric 11 tackle performance against Louisville in UConn's 38-25 homecoming victory, punctuated by a key fumble recovery. After the game, Howard addressed the media, and when asked about his effort, he said "You have to play each play like its the last play you'll ever play."
Those words turned out to be prophetic, as less than 12 hours later, a fight broke out between a group of football players and some thugs from out of town, and one of the men pulled a knife on Howard. Howard suffered a single stab wound to the abdomen, and minutes later he was gone. He was 20 years old.
In the immediate aftermath, the school was left in a state of disbelief. Candlelight vigils were held, players consoled one another and tributes poured in from across the country. In UConn's first game following Howard's death at West Virginia, the Mountaineer fans held a moment of silence, and a week later Rentschler Field hosted without question the most emotional game in UConn football history, with Howard's No. 6 filling every corner of the stadium when UConn faced Rutgers in their first home game since Homecoming.
UConn lost both of those games, along with the next one against Cincinnati, in heartbreaking fashion. The game against Rutgers in particular was like a kick in the groin, because just after taking the lead on a last minute touchdown, UConn wound up losing in the final seconds after giving up an 81-yard touchdown pass to Rutgers wide receiver Tim Brown, who was, ironically, a close friend of Howard's himself.
After that, UConn channeled its emotions and won arguably its biggest game in program history, beating Notre Dame in South Bend and then running the table, finishing the season with a dominating 20-7 win over South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl. The team brought Howard's No. 6 jersey with them to every game, and his locker remained untouched until after the next season, when Howard would have graduated.
UConn went on a similar late-season run the next year, and in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, which would have been Howard's last game, wide receiver Kashif Moore honored Howard by donning his No. 6 jersey, starting a tradition that has carried on to this day.
Meanwhile, the men responsible for Howard's death were eventually tracked down, arrested, and sentenced to prison.
John Lomax III, the man who stabbed Howard, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in March of 2011. Lomax had originally been charged with murder, but ultimately pleaded no contest to first degree manslaughter.
Hakim Muhammad, who stabbed UConn football player Brian Parker during the fight, plead guilty to second degree assault and hindering prosecution and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison himself. In a sad twist, Muhammad was later shot and wounded by Lomax's cousin, who blamed Muhammad for sending Lomax to prison.
Though justice may have been served, there's nothing that can be done to bring Howard back, or change the fact that his now three-year-old daughter Ja'Miya will grow up without ever knowing her father. But while Howard may be gone, his legacy remains strong, and his No. 6 still carries as much weight today as it did this time four years ago.
Rest in peace Jazz, Live 365.