They rose as Randy Edsall and the Connecticut football team marched onto Mountaineer Field, thousands of West Virginia faithful, clad in yellow and blue, standing in unison and clapping together as the visiting team entered enemy territory. Edsall saw signs proclaiming West Virginia’s love for the Huskies, banners autographed by schoolchildren taped to the wall, fans of all ages blanketing Connecticut with cheers and warmth and love.
Days earlier, in the dark of an early Sunday morning in 2009, Huskies junior cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death following a party at the U-Conn. student union. The tragedy rocked the campus and shook the football team to its very foundation.
Connecticut made the trip to Morgantown, W.Va., the following Saturday, carrying Howard’s helmet and jersey onto the field before kickoff. And when the Huskies entered the stadium, they were greeted with a standing ovation.
“It’s very moving, very touching,” Edsall said. “To see those fans do that, that’s one thing I’ll always remember about the West Virginia fans. People might criticize them for their passion sometimes, but I saw something that day that I’ve never seen in sports before, and something that moved me and moved our team quite a bit that day. It’s something that will always stick with me.”
Much has been made about West Virginia’s hostile crowd. Not so that late October afternoon. According to an Associated Press story, West Virginia fans held signs that read, “Today we are all Huskies,” and donned “hundreds of foam, heart-shaped pins and armbands with Howard’s number.” For what it’s worth, Connecticut lost 28-24.
“Everybody’s passionate about their teams, and they root and try to make it tough on the visiting teams,” Edsall said. “But when you get down to it, and you know it’s just a game you’re playing, this was more than a game. This was somebody’s life that was lost. Young men were going out there to represent Jasper and the university and the state. The people from West Virginia recognized that and wanted to show their gratitude, appreciation and support for what their kids went through.”
Saturday will mark Edsall’s first trip back to Mountaineer Field since that day. Entering the stadium through the same tunnel, for a different reason, with a different team, the memories will always be there. He still thinks about Howard plenty these days.
“I’ll always be grateful to those fans for making people going through some tough times feel better,” Edsall said. “I’ll always be appreciative of their hospitality, their concern, their genuine care and thoughts for the players and for Jasper’s family.
Howard’s killer was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2011.
At the time of his death, Howard was an expecting father, which only heightened the tragedy. Six months later, Daneisha Freeman, Howard’s girlfriend, gave birth to a daughter, Ja’Miya Tia Howard. Edsall spoke to Howard’s stepfather the other day.
He learned the family will travel to Byrd Stadium in mid-November to see Edsall and watch the Terps face Florida State.
He heard Ja’Miya’s getting big, too.