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MESQUITE, Texas – Four buses slowed along the carpet of yellow grass with goalposts at each end and a single blocking sled in the center, and stopped outside the Family Cathedral of Praise.
The buses emptied, and after a few minutes in the warm autumn sun, the University of Utah football players, coaches, and staff formed two lines and entered the church in twos. They crossed a foyer and walked slowly down the aisle to where Aaron Lowe, her teammate – actually her brother – was lying in a coffin, clad in his number 22 white uniform and crimson studs, with a soccer ball on his stomach.
This trip, which began on Monday morning in Salt Lake City and ended that night with a return flight, was well known.
In January, many of those who were here had a similar tearful and tragic trip to North Texas after Ty Jordan – Lowe’s teammate in Utah and West Mesquite High School – died in what the police called an accidental, self-inflicted shootout was night.
“Been down here too often for the wrong reasons,” said Kiel McDonald, the Utes’ running backs coach.
Shorter lives are almost senseless deaths by definition, but the deaths of Jordan and now Lowe – who was shot and killed by an uninvited guest two weeks ago at a house party – has confronted two communities with the cruelty of losing two young men who had a dreary one Upbringing survived and was prepared for a future as bright as her bright smile. “You won in life,” said Jeff Neill, her high school coach. “Not everyone in his or her environment has the chance to do so.”
Jordan, 19, was a stocky, fast running back who was the Pac-12 Conference offensive freshman of the year in last year’s shortened season. In the eyes of many, he was a future professional. If Lowe, 21, a defensive back who played mostly specialty teams, was less likely to go to the NFL, he seemed destined to go where empathy, enthusiasm, and a tireless work ethic led him.
“He changed the world and he wanted to do more,” said Melissa Harvey, who met Lowe as an administrator at West Mesquite High School, east of Dallas.
The school with a football stadium with 20,000 seats is located in a district where poverty is omnipresent and trouble has as many corners as grill bars and churches. It was harder for Lowe than most. As Sharrieff Shah, the cornerbacks coach in Utah, told the mourners in a moving, spontaneous tribute, “Many of us see these athletes on Saturday but don’t know what it takes to become one.”
When Lowe moved to the high school district at the end of his freshman year, his grades were in tatters. His two triplet brothers dropped out of high school and his mother was jailed for 11 months during his last two high school football seasons after being arrested in Louisiana for possession of 30 pounds of marijuana. He spent some of his teenage years hopping between the homes of coaches, teammates, and relatives.
Lowe joined a kindred spirit in another transplant, Dylan Wright, one of the top high school recipients in the country, now a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. The two boys, who learned they were distant cousins, boiled water for a warm bath and turned on the stove in winter to heat Wright’s grandmother’s house when the power went out. Their friendship grew to the point where they finished each other’s sentences.
They also shared a determination to use football to get out.
“We always felt like we were different from everyone else,” Wright said. “That is what we are made for. We knew that football was our key to what we wanted to achieve in our lives. “
It was easier for Wright, a sinewy, fast receiver with sticky fingers. It took Lowe longer to find his way. Corey Jordan, an assistant coach unrelated to Ty Jordan, kept telling Lowe that he was a Division I defensive back. But Lowe repeatedly resisted, telling the coach he wanted to score touchdowns. But after being stuck in a reserve role as a high school junior, Lowe finally made the move in the months leading up to his senior season.
Lowe worked tirelessly learning to cornerback the spring before his senior year. That summer, Corey Jordan and another assistant, Corey McDonald, loaded several boys into a van and took them to college camps across the state in hopes of showing them to recruiters. Utah’s coaches were irritated by Lowe after running a dazzling 40-yard run at a camp in south Texas. The more they learned about him, the more they liked him – and so did Jordan, who was a year behind.
But then they looked at Lowe’s transcripts.
Morgan Scalley, the Utah Defense Coordinator, called Harvey, West Mesquite’s assistant director, to deliver the bad news: It would be almost impossible for Lowe to graduate academically for college. She asked what it took. Scaley’s answer: Straight A’s.
Harvey had seen the effort Lowe had put into summer school a year earlier to catch up on his credits, so she called him and Corey Jordan over to explain what it took. She also emailed his tutors – Miss Brown for Science and Miss Honey for English – telling them to let them know if Lowe didn’t show up. It was not necessary.
“His grades were perfect,” said Harvey, who watched Lowe fuel his academic curiosity in Utah, where he had a B-Average as a communications major and was on the honor roll in three semesters. One of the rewards was getting his mother, Donna Lowe-Stern, released from prison in time to accompany him on his recruiting visit to Utah.
Salt Lake City seemed like the perfect place. Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s head coach, told Lowe’s mother – as he does with all parents of his players – that her son would be a family, with a coaching staff full of fathers and a locker room full of brothers. It would be a refuge in every possible way – and one where Lowe thrived until trouble found him.
However, there was only so much comfort to offer on Monday. Whittingham announced that the # 22 uniform Lowe wore this season in honor of Jordan, who wore it last season, will be withdrawn. He also said he would make the first contribution to fund a grant that would be named in Lowe’s honor, corresponding to the one that Utes had set up for Jordan.
As Whittingham stood outside the church, Lowe’s mother hugged him – dappled with tears – and thanked him for everything he had done for her son and for her family over the past two weeks. He assured her that they would always be family.
A few minutes earlier, the two-hour Baptist homecoming full of laughter, tears, applause, music, singing and a few amens was concluded with a procession. A man held up a soccer ball and stomped methodically and theatrically up to the door. Shah and Scalley, the coaches and a handful of players followed as they carried the coffin. Earlier this year, Lowe was among those who wore Jordan for the last time.
As they stepped out into the late afternoon sun, the coffin was placed in a black Cadillac hearse. When it was in place, the players and coaches resigned and Whittingham was called on one last duty. He was asked to close the door.
Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.