Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Combo for Jazz

For better or for worse, I have buried a lot of people I love - both family and friends. By the time I was fourteen, all four grandparents (including my mother's mother who died while visiting us), Mom's brother John and sister Ann and, for good measure, my own father. And in recent years as death has come for those in Margaret's family, her great-aunt, her grandmother and, most recently, her Mom. Not surprisingly, none of the funerals associated with any of those deaths was a joyous occasion.

Yet the saddest, most singularly heart wrenching funeral I have ever attended was that of my childhood friend Brian Clare. He died the summer between high school and college. Whether it was the tragic circumstances regarding his death, the trying circumstances that had bird-dogged him his entire life or the fact that he was just a boy of 17 or 18 - or a combination thereof - that made it so I knew not. It was what it was, for whatever reason, and twenty-five years later the memory remains emblazoned in my mind's eye.

I know now what it was because I am now what I was not then: a father. And as my children grew, and I watched them do so, I developed a better appreciation for why the underlying current at his funeral was one of profound sadness. It is because a parent is not supposed to outlive a child. A child predeceasing a parent is a disturbance in the natural order of things. A disturbance in the force if you will. It is instantly recognizable to one and all as an anomaly, whether the audience is comprised of parents or not. Death is supposed to be an "old man's game". Young people are not supposed to die.

Yesterday afternoon in Connecticut a couple of unranked teams from the Big East Conference played football against one another. As recently as two weeks ago, one would have presumed that a featured match-up in yesterday's game would have been Rutgers senior wide receiver Tim Brown and Connecticut junior cornerback Jasper Howard - two guys who were lifelong, very close friends who used football as their ticket to college and to what each hoped would be something better. It was to have been the final collegiate combat these two waged against one another and it was something that each was looking forward to very much.

Two weeks ago, after helping lead his team to a home victory against Louisville, Jasper Howard was murdered at an on-campus function at U. Conn. - stabbed to death for no apparent reason. The irony of one of the two friends encountering violence several hundred miles from the mean streets where they both grew up - at a place called Storrs for crying out loud - was palpable. It was also of little solace to Howard's family, friends and loved ones, including his girlfriend who is expecting the couple's first child.

Yesterday afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut there was a public outpouring of love and affection for Jasper Howard - known better by his nickname "Jazz". The Connecticut players and coaches all wore his #6 jersey under their own jerseys or shirts and the Rutgers players wore #6 stickers honoring him on their helmets. And then, once the pre-game ceremonies wrapped up, the young men on both teams did what young fellas who play football do -they played a bit of football.

Whether the game film ends up at the John Heisman Teaching Academy is an open question (I'd wager no) but it was a dramatic affair replete with huge plays being made both ways. Rutgers led 21-10 at the half, with each team's scoring including a kickoff return for a touchdown, and nursed its two-score lead deep into the fourth quarter. Connecticut scored a touchdown to reduce the margin to 21-17 and then - with less than a minute to go in the game, scored the go-ahead (and apparent winning) touchdown on short run.

Trailing by three points and eighty-one yards away from the end zone, with a timeout in his back pocket, RU's precocious freshman quarterback Tom Savage threw a pass. He threw the ball to his most reliable receiving option - his senior wide receiver. Brown caught the ball in stride and then - in spite of being easily recognizable as the only white-jerseyed player in a veritable sea of Huskie blue - found a gear that no one else on the field possessed. He outran the entire U. Conn. secondary to the end zone for what proved to be the winning score.

Upon reaching the end zone, Brown tossed the ball to the official and glided towards one corner, holding six fingers aloft in a tribute to his friend. An improbable ending to what had been an emotional afternoon.

But an ending that any true fan of Jazz could not have helped but enjoy.


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