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Gorman: Football is an escape for UConn

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Kashif Moore held teammate Jasper Howard while he was bleeding to death early last Sunday morning. But reality did not set in until Saturday's bus ride to Mountaineer Field.

"It was kind of hard," Moore said, "looking back there and ... an empty seat."

Howard, a 20-year-old junior from Miami, was stabbed at an on-campus dance less than 12 hours after recording 11 tackles and forcing and recovering a fumble in the Huskies' homecoming victory over Louisville.

Connecticut honored his memory against West Virginia on Saturday afternoon, in a three-hour, 10-minute diversion from the emotionally draining week.

The schools held a moment of silence for Howard and exchanged embraces in a heartfelt show of sportsmanship at a time of tragedy. It carried over to the usually hostile Mountaineers fans, as the 58,106 in attendance were gracious throughout a 28-24 West Virginia victory.

You couldn't help but have your heart in your throat.

A football team didn't just lose a player to a senseless crime.

A family lost a brother, a mother her son, an unborn child his father.

This game was all the Huskies could look forward to.

"It helped us escape the reality of what was going on," Moore said. "It helped us to get away from everything and play football, something fun for us to do."

While Moore held Howard, receiver Michael Smith applied pressure to the wound. Howard was airlifted to a hospital in Hartford, where Connecticut coach Randy Edsall was asked to identify the body.

A powerful lesson was learned.

"Life is a precious thing," said tailback Andre Dixon, who carried Howard's helmet onto the field, where it was displayed next to his game jersey. "Every day, you've got to live like it might be your last day. You never know when the Head Man is going to call your name and have you come to Him."

A parent's worst nightmare was realized. Joangila Howard entrusted her son to the University of Connecticut, the first in his family to go to college. He was supposed to come home with a degree. Not in a casket.

Connecticut players, who were hoping to capture Howard's spirit against West Virginia, wore reminders of him, from stickers bearing his No. 6 on the back of their helmets and eye black to messages written on their biceps.

Even West Virginia fans were thinking about Howard when they posted a banner at the end of the visitors' tunnel that read: Today we are all HUSKIES.

"You think that he's up there helping us," Dixon said. "You feel like he's right there with us on every play, every drive and everything that we do. We definitely felt 'Jazz' was out there with us, trying to help us out, trying to will us through and trying to get a win."

The Huskies rode the emotional roller coaster of a game that saw seven lead changes — including Marcus Easley's 88-yard touchdown reception to give UConn the lead with 3:50 remaining — only to watch WVU's Noel Devine race 56 yards along the right sideline for the deciding points with 2:10 left.

Connecticut badly wanted to win this game for Howard, and the Huskies couldn't hold back their tears when it was over. They know what lies ahead, as they will fly a charter to Miami Monday to bury their teammate.

Win or lose, there was no escaping that reality.

Jasper Howard is gone, leaving behind broken hearts and an empty seat.

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