Football Writers Association of America 2010 BEST WRITING CONTEST

John F. Silver, Manchester (Conn.) Journal Inquirer

STORRS – Jasper Howard loved the UConn football team. He loved Connecticut. He loved life.

That it was taken away at a place of refuge such as Storrs is a tragedy none of us can fully comprehend.

Howard was murdered in front of the Student Union, steps away from the football team's campus home, the Burton Family Complex, and across the street from Gampel Pavilion. It is a world away from where he grew up in Little Haiti, a violent area of Miami that is filled with despair and discouragement. Storrs was supposed to be Jazz's place to be free. Free from violence, free of oppression, and constant crime. Free to be himself, as God intended.

John F. Silver
Manchester (Conn.) Journal Inquirer
Age: 33
College: Connecticut
Background: Starting my fifth year covering the UConn football team for the Journal Inquirer and have spent a decade covering sports in Connecticut including the last seven years at the Journal Inquirer. I have covered nearly everything in Connecticut including a PGA Tour stop and an ATP-WTA tournament that is a week before the U.S. Open. I started my career at the New Britain Herald where I did the most important job at the paper – the baseball agate page. Several months later, I escaped from the desk and started covering the Central Connecticut State University men's basketball team just in time for its run to the NCAA tournament for the 2001-02 season. At the Journal Inquirer, I have done nearly everything at the newspaper from covering Little League to world title fights at local casinos. In addition to covering UConn, I help out as a layout editor and put out the section twice a week in the off-season. I have won a handful of regional SPJ awards for feature writing on college football and basketball as well as spot news. I am married to my lovely wife, Shannon, and we have two children, 3-year old Julia and 9-month old John Jr.

It was supposed to be his place to live, not to die.

"He was a special young man," a teary-eyed UConn coach Randy Edsall said Sunday. "He made you smile, and made you love life. A guy you loved to be around. He enjoyed life."

Growing up in Miami, Howard saw the brutal side of life far too many times. Little Haiti is the kind of place people don't like to talk about. Violence, drugs, street crime, and death are daily occurrences. It is Miami, but the glitz and glamour of South Beach are also a world away. Its lack of hope even made the coaching staff of UConn cringe when talking about it.

Howard's tale isn't new or unique. His story of a hard life is playing out in our cities daily. It would almost be a clichι if wasn't so sad. Howard was the product of a single- parent home, raised by his mother, Joangila. He had two younger sisters who adored him, and until he learned how to play football, he wasn't likely to go anywhere. That's the life Howard was destined to live. He didn't ask for it and it wasn't his fault. He was just born into it.

But Howard wanted something different. He had enough of the violence in Miami. That was not the way he wanted to live. He was a beautiful athlete to watch – quick, agile, and explosive. Those gifts were his ticket out of his situation, and he made sure he took advantage of them.

When the time came to play football, Howard went as far away as he could. The 5-foot-9 cornerback from the inner city came to a "cow college" in Storrs. Howard found something here. He found a reason to live and hope.

When Howard came to Connecticut, he didn't trust a single person here. It was hard on the coaching staff and his teammates. They didn't know how to reach him. The inner city had hardened him. He didn't smile, had little hope in his eyes, and he was soft-spoken and reserved.

That was Howard as a freshman. Soon, he latched on to a couple of teammates, Darius Butler and Tyvon Branch. He became their little brother and he came out of his shell. Once shy and distrustful around the media, Howard soon became confident and charismatic. It was the same around the team.

The Jasper Howard who arrived in Storrs three years ago was a scared boy, unsure of his place in the world. The Howard who had developed into a defensive leader for the Huskies was a man. Butler and Branch are now in the NFL. Howard could very well had been on his way there as well.

"Jazz is a young man who grew so much in the three years he has been here so far," Edsall said. "The strides this young man has made not only as a player, but as a person, it's just incredible. You could see a big difference this year in him as far as his growth, maturity and development."

Howard was the first in his family to go to college. He was proving that good people doing good things have a chance to improve their families' lives. That's why Jazz was in Storrs.

"There was a time I can remember him coming into my office, He was thinking he wanted to go home his freshman year because things at home weren't that good," Edsall said. "He thought he could help his family by going home and going to work so he could make money to help his mom and sisters out. He was always concerned about other people and what he could do help others."

Howard didn't like to talk about what he had seen in his life. It was just too painful to talk about, and best left unsaid.

We got a glimpse of that last year at the International Bowl in Toronto. Rev. Jesse Jackson gave a speech at a luncheon, and Howard was fixated on Jackson's talk. It was about making life better in the inner city. Howard's eyes were focused on Jackson throughout the speech. When Jackson asked the participants if they knew someone who was taking drugs, Jazz nodded and raised his hand.

Jackson asked if they knew anyone who was in jail over drugs.

Jazz's hand rose.

Lastly, Jackson asked if anyone there knew someone who was killed over drugs.

Jazz's hand went up yet again.

He came here to get away from that. Storrs is a haven for people to experiment with their lives. College is a time to live, learn, and grow. Jasper Howard did that for the two-plus years he was in Storrs. He was becoming a top-flight cornerback, an educated student, and was an expectant father. His girlfriend is pregnant with Howard's child.

Tragically, the place he thought was paradise was the place of his death. Edsall talked to Jazz's devastated teammates about how many times life isn't fair Life wasn't only unfair to Jasper Howard. It was cruel.

He had so much to offer, but despite his best efforts, he was never given the chance.


Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This was an example of passion and great human understanding of a young man's plight in life cut short. Now you might say it's easy to write a column about a "sick cat," and you guys know what I mean. But this was more than just a great subject to write about. This writer did a very balanced job of portraying and making me feel why Jasper Howard's death was so unfair and cruel, outdistancing the next two columns which did a great job of taking a stance with well-written opinions.

• Second place: Gene Wojciechowski,
• Third place: Jason King, Yahoo! Sports
• Honorable mention: Bud Withers, Seattle Times; Peter Kerasotis, Florida Today; Herb Gould, Chicago Sun Times