‘We accomplished it for 22′: How Utah football united through the grief of two players’ deaths

  • Covers the Pac-12.
  • Joined ESPN in 2014.
  • Attended Washington State University.

SALT LAKE CITY — Donna Lowe-Stern didn’t know exactly what she would say. The day before, Sept. 26, her son Aaron Lowe had been killed. Now she was looking out at a room full of his mourning Utah football teammates. Coach Kyle Whittingham had asked her whether she would like to speak with the team, and she felt it was important for them to hear from her — for her to express what she thought Aaron’s message would have been.

“I would love y’all to stay focused and keep playing because that’s what Aaron would want,” Lowe-Stern told them.

Her message was short and powerful, but it would stick with the players and coaches for the rest of the season.

“She was so strong,” said running back Micah Bernard, a close friend of Lowe’s. “It’s her child. To see a woman strong like that and address us, it motivated us to do right by him. It was powerful just for even talking to us about it. Just to do that, it helped the whole team get through it.”

Football hadn’t been a priority up to that moment, but Lowe-Stern was calling on her son’s teammates to use the sport for a higher purpose.

In a players’ meeting days later, the team discussed what its next steps should be. It was in a bye week after beating Washington State to open Pac-12 play, and everything was on the table. Should the players take time off? Should they resume football?

“We all said we got to get right back into it,” Bernard said. “The world doesn’t stop, and we have to do this for our fallen brother. Her being there helped us decide what to do.”

Lowe’s death came roughly nine months after his close friend and Utah teammate Ty Jordan died after an accidental self-inflicted gunshot. Faced with yet another tragedy, the season could have easily been lost.

Instead, the opposite happened.

“It brought us together in a way that I don’t know what could have been more powerful,” Whittingham said. “It unified us and gave us all a cause. Not that you need that to have a good football team, but that really sparked us and really gave everybody a common denominator to play for.”

A mantra within the team was born — “Be 22% better” — a tribute to the number both Jordan and Lowe wore.

With their memories front of mind, the team rededicated itself on the field. Utah, which started the season 2-2, won eight of its final nine games, including a rout of Oregon to secure its first Pac-12 championship and book its first appearance in the Rose Bowl Game Pres. by Capital One Venture X, where it’ll face Ohio State (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App).

“I felt like I was playing for them, and I felt like I owed the season to them,” said Clark Phillips III, a close friend of both players’. “If I wasn’t giving my all every play, then I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

LOWE AND JORDAN shared a special bond. They were high school teammates in Mesquite, Texas, and after Jordan’s death, Lowe switched his number to No. 22 to honor his friend. In August, the team voted Lowe as the first recipient of the Ty Jordan Memorial Scholarship.

“Ty made everyone around him better,” Lowe said upon receiving the scholarship. “He made me better. My friendship with Ty means a lot because he was always pushing me to be my best. He never let me settle for less. I want to make sure his legacy lives on through me.”

At Jordan’s funeral in January, Phillips remembers looking over the casket, sobbing, completely distraught, only to have Lowe put his arm around his shoulder and tell him, “It’s going to be all right, bro. We’re gonna be straight. He wouldn’t want us to be sad.'”

“That’s what Aaron told me,” Phillips said. “I was like, ‘Man, this is your best friend. This is your dog. This is your little brother.'”

In private, though, Lowe struggled to cope with the loss of his friend.

He had trouble eating, difficulty sleeping. When he returned to Utah after Jordan’s death, he saw a doctor to help deal with the mental and physical toll on him, according to his mom.

But somehow Lowe’s outward positivity remained infectious.

Quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson didn’t know Lowe before he arrived at Utah. His decision to transfer from Texas in December 2020 had a lot to do with his desire to play with Jordan, a friend since the eighth grade. A long phone conversation with Jordan only about a week before his death helped persuade Jackson to head to Salt Lake City.

In Lowe, Jackson found a kindred spirit.

“As time went on, we got closer and closer,” Jackson said. “He actually turned out to be one of my best friends — my big brother, basically.”

They bonded over their similar backgrounds, their devotion to football and the loss of Jordan. They did their best to keep each other motivated. When they parted ways, they would usually tell each other “I love you” and share a hug.

“We didn’t do that the last time, and that broke me,” Jackson said. “Now, I always tell people I love them. You never know when it’s that person that you love’s last day on Earth.”

In the early-morning hours on Sept. 26, Lowe-Stern received a call from one of Lowe’s friends in Texas.

“Mama, A-Lowe got shot.”

Lowe-Stern didn’t want to believe it and immediately called Utah assistant coach Sharrieff Shah to verify what she had been told. The call woke him up.

“I said, ‘I just heard that Aaron got shot,’ and he was like, ‘OK, let me get on it and call you right back,'” Lowe-Stern said. “And then when he called me back, I could hear it in his voice when he said, ‘Mama.’ I knew that Aaron was dead.”

Around the same time, Whittingham received a phone call from Jeff Rudy, Utah’s associate athletic director for football administration. He delivered the news that Lowe had been shot and killed at a house party in Salt Lake City.

“It was like reliving the nightmare all over again,” Whittingham said. “It was the same devastating, gut-wrenching feeling and obviously a this-can’t-be-happening-again type of a moment. It was like reliving Ty’s death, except times two, because now here’s another young man that’s gone. It was just complete devastation.”

Word quickly circulated around the team. Multiple Utah football players were at the party where the shooting took place and were interviewed by police, according to court records.

A probable cause warrant used by the Salt Lake City police department in the arrest of Buk Buk, 22, described a verbal altercation between Lowe and a group of men outside a house party about 2 miles from the Utah campus. Buk is alleged to have walked down a driveway toward the altercation and fired “two or three shots” at Lowe and his girlfriend. “Witnesses then observed Buk Buk walk up to the victims and shoot them five or six more times while they were on ground,” the warrant said.

Lowe was pronounced dead at the scene, and his girlfriend, whom ESPN has chosen not to name, was rushed to the hospital and survived. In an interview with police at the hospital later that day, Lowe’s girlfriend was unable to communicate by speaking but told police through typing on her phone that Lowe was “trying to move his vehicle, but four males would not move out of the way,” according to the warrant.

Buk was arrested on Oct. 3 and remains in jail on charges of aggravated murder, attempted murder and felony discharge of a firearm.

IN THE UTES’ first game after Lowe’s death, they dominated USC in Los Angeles. The 42-26 win was Utah’s first in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Trojans in Los Angeles that dated back to 1916.

Two days later, the team attended Lowe’s funeral in his hometown of Mesquite, during which Lowe was laid out in his full Utes uniform — right down to his cleats — in an open casket. A large Utah logo was on display behind his body, flanked by the No. 22 on both sides.

“Don’t just be better,” Shah said during the funeral. “Be 22% better. If you tell your mom you love her 10 times, tell her two more times. If you do 10 reps, do two more.”

Utah president Taylor Randall, athletic director Mark Harlan and Whittingham were among several people who spoke to the crowd at the Family Cathedral of Praise in a service that lasted roughly two hours.

“We won’t get over it, but we will get through it,” Whittingham told the crowd.

If Utah didn’t have a bye the week of Lowe’s death, Whittingham isn’t sure his team would have been ready to play. It took several days for the shock to wear off, and when it began to subside, the team emerged with a renewed sense of focus.

“When Ty passed, I think the team got a lot closer, and when Aaron passed, I felt like it was even more so,” Phillips said. “It was a pulling effect for everybody. You know what? We’re all we got. And that was the mentality we took into every game. No one was going to defeat us.”

Lowe and Jordan’s memories were honored in several ways throughout the rest of the season. In October, No. 22 became the first in program history to be retired. Their lockers were preserved. The 22-yard hashmarks were painted red at Rice-Eccles Stadium. “Be 22% Better” was plastered around the locker room.

“We were definitely playing for something bigger,” Phillips said. “We felt like we owed it to those guys, to both men that wore 22. We felt like we had to put on for them and we had to do it in their names because that’s all they would have wanted.”

EVEN AFTER HER son’s death, Lowe-Stern watched every game from her home in Texas.

It helped, she said, as watching the Utes has provided her a connection to her son, even if there have also been times when she just sat and cried.

“I want to see my baby out there,” she said. “I have those moments, but it helps. … I’ve never experienced the loss of a child, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. I walk around daily with a sick feeling that I don’t know will ever leave.”

As the team rallied behind the memories of Lowe and Jordan, its play took a leap. Utah took control of the Pac-12 South with a convincing 35-21 win against Arizona State on Oct. 16, and after an upset loss at Oregon State the next week, the Utes couldn’t be stopped.

At the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas on Dec. 3, a tribute video — one that had also been played in Rice-Eccles Stadium during the season — played inside the venue. On the field, Phillips felt himself start to tear up and needed a moment to collect himself. He and Lowe talked about winning the Pac-12, and here he was about to turn that dream into a reality, while being reminded that Lowe wasn’t there to share it with him.

After the game went final and confetti flew in the air, a wave of emotion hit Phillips. He shared a long embrace with Shah, his and Lowe’s position coach, and a wave of emotion washed over him.

“I could just feel it, and it was painful,” Phillips said. “It was a bittersweet feeling because we knew that we did it. We accomplished it for 22. They weren’t here, but we knew that they were here in spirit.”

As the team prepares for the Rose Bowl, with Lowe-Stern in attendance for what is expected to be a massive turnout of Utes fans, it has another opportunity to create a lasting tribute to Jordan and Lowe.

“We basically motivated ourselves to push through everything we’ve been through in the last couple of months. We leaned on each other as family and brothers and as a team — and we did it,” Jackson said.

“We got through it, and we’re going to the Rose Bowl and trying to do the same thing.”

Source: Read Full Article