Utah coach Kyle Whittingham entered the interview room at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center Monday morning with a fresh haircut — his long locks that he had been sporting for months were shorn.
His clean-shaven face, meanwhile, was etched with the pain that he’s been coping with since he learned of the shooting death of sophomore defensive back Aaron Lowe on Sept. 26.
Soon after sitting down in his seat at the podium, in his opening statement, Whittingham paid tribute to Lowe.
“The tragic, devastating loss of Aaron Lowe is still weighing heavy on our hearts here in our program,” he said. “We miss Aaron. It’s a senseless loss. … That’s the first thing I want to make sure we address — how much we miss him.”
During the 18-minute session with reporters — it marked the first time he answered questions from the media in nine days because the Utes had a bye last week — Whittingham’s eyes frequently filled with tears as he discussed Lowe and how his program is dealing with the void in the program.
It’s unimaginable, considering just nine months earlier, star running back Ty Jordan died and the program was still processing that loss. Losing Lowe has compounded that grief.
“For our team to experience the losses that we have in less than a year’s period of time has been a challenge. It’s been a struggle,” Whittingham said. “But we’ll get through it. … It’s something that’s very difficult to go through, obviously.”
It’s difficult to fathom what the 61-year-old Whittingham, who is in his 17th season as the Utes’ head coach, is experiencing himself.
“A million things go through your head that you keep going over and over. Essentially the same thoughts,” he said. “It’s really brought back Ty’s passing. It’s all kind of wrapped into one now. It’s been the most challenging year of my coaching career, hands down, without any question.”
As the leader of the program, Whittingham’s responsibility is to ensure the well-being of his players and help them navigate these tragic circumstances.
“When you’re a head coach, you’ve got 120 players. You treat them all and you feel about them all like you do your own children,” he said. “It’s like losing one of your own. Coaches feel the same way, particularly about their position group. The coaches that recruited the particular players, it impacts them tremendously. It’s tough.”
Of course, football takes a back seat to these heartbreaking life events. Whittingham acknowledged that it is difficult to focus on football.
But the season goes on. Perhaps playing football can help the players and coaching staff during their collective and individual grieving process.
The Utes are 2-2 this season and 1-0 in Pac-12 play. They visit USC Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, Fox).
“Fortunately, we had a bye week last week to regroup, I guess you could say, and come to terms with the tragedy,” Whittingham said. “It’s challenging. We have a lot of football left, and we’ve got to move forward and carry on.”
‘Appropriate time to mourn’
Monday afternoon, the Utes held their first practice after the bye week.
Assistant coach Jim Harding was pleased with the way the players responded after they had the weekend off.
“Certainly, these kids have gone through way too much over the last 10 months or so. They came out and practiced well,” he said. “That gives them an opportunity, an hour or two, to kind of forget what’s going on outside.”
Center Nick Ford grew up in Los Angeles and has faced the loss of loved ones, including his brother. Was it hard for him to think about football after Lowe’s death?
“Yes and no. I didn’t grow up with the easiest life. I lost a lot of people in my life, both friends and family. I kind of take it with a grain of salt,” Ford said. “One of the bad parts about growing up in L.A., it’s something you’re exposed to very early.
“With my brother passing away, it’s something I’m used to at 21, going on 22 when I should be 50, going on 51. It sucked the day of. It was kind of bad the next day. Then after that, I reset. You have to have your appropriate time to mourn and then you have to have your time to lock in as well.”
Wide receiver Britain Covey said Monday’s practice had “a good feel” to it.
“Things like this do one of two things. They make it harder and make people distance themselves or bring people together,” he said. “That’s the approach we’re taking. We think that it’s important to be together as much as possible; carry on and do practice, everything like that. That helps people come together more. It helps to be together a lot.”
‘Time is the ultimate healer’
On the day after Christmas last year, Whittingham received a phone call at about 5:30 a.m., alerting him that Jordan had died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot.
When he got another phone call, around 6 a.m., on Sept. 26, it gave Whittingham a “surreal,” similar feeling.
“When you get those (early morning) phone calls, it’s never a good thing,” he said. “It was almost the exact scenario when I got the Ty Jordan phone call. … The first thing on your mind is, ‘Oh no, what’s happened?’ It’s the worst possible news. It’s challenging. It takes everything you’ve got to overcome it.”
“When you get those (early morning) phone calls, it’s never a good thing. It was almost the exact scenario when I got the Ty Jordan phone call. … The first thing on your mind is, ‘Oh no, what’s happened?’ It’s the worst possible news. It’s challenging. It takes everything you’ve got to overcome it.” — Kyle Whittingham
For Covey, the times when he learned of Lowe’s death and Jordan’s death are both cemented in his mind.
“Those are two moments in my life that I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I was and what I was thinking when I heard,” he said. “Everybody has moments like that.”
The Utes held two team meetings last week to address Lowe’s death. The first was on Sunday night with the team’s leadership council.
“I wanted to get feedback from the leaders as far as how we were going to move forward and making sure that the coaches and players were all on the same page,” said Whittingham, who reiterated that the school has plenty of resources on campus for players that may be struggling emotionally.
There was another meeting held a week ago Monday for the entire team, which included psychologists from the school “to make sure and let everybody know that it’s a resource and they’re there for the support of the team. Don’t try to do deal with it on your own. If you’re struggling, reach out. That was the message.”
It was also an opportunity for players to express themselves.
“I think that was helpful. It was the start of the healing process. The only thing that will heal (it) is time,” Whittingham said. “You can do whatever you want to do but time is the thing that is the ultimate healer.”
For Monday’s practice, the school’s mental health team was on hand, offering their services to anyone that needed their professional assistance.
“They’ve been around all this past week. As coaches, we do our best to maybe see a kid that might be drifting a little bit, not only talk to him ourselves but also notify our mental health team,” Harding said.
“There’s no playbook for it. You just try to let the kids know you love them and make sure they’re around each other and supporting one another. That’s the best you can do. Our kids are hurting for sure, but I do think practice is a normal feeling for them. I think that helps a little bit.”
Covey said he, and others, have been encouraging those players that were at the party where Lowe’s death occurred to seek counseling.
“It’s especially hard for a lot of the guys that were there. That’s a trauma that they’ll have for a long time,” he said. “Some people on this team grew up around stuff like that, but a lot of guys didn’t. It was pretty traumatic for them to be present. It’s important that they especially utilize those things.”
Unity and normalcy
When Jordan died, it was a week after the 2020 season had ended and all the players had already gone home from the holidays.
This time, with Lowe’s death, the players are, of course, on campus. And it’s the middle of the season. Might it be easier for players to deal with their grief being together?
“I think there is some therapeutic value to that, yes, to help everyone lean on each other and support each other,” Whittingham said.
“This one was difficult in a different way. Ty’s was so difficult because we had just come off the season and we weren’t together. Nobody was with each other,” Covey said. “This one was difficult because we were with each other. The day after it happened, when we came together as a team, I don’t think I have ever been part of a more difficult and emotional meeting with everybody. But at the same time, it helped a lot. You find strength in the guys next to you.
“You just realize that everybody grieves and mourns in different ways. It’s one of those things that you have a reverence for. It almost makes you not want to talk football for a little bit. You have to because you have to get through it and you have to move on and that’s what he would want. We loved Aaron. I loved Aaron. You want to give that respect and that reverence to him in what he stood for and what he did. I find strength in my other teammates because it is pretty difficult.”
On Wednesday, Lowe’s mother, Donna Lowe-Sterns, spoke to the team.
“Having Aaron’s mom come and talk to us and tell us to continue on because that’s what he would want is kind of the last thing we needed before we could really do it,” Covey said. “That’s what helped us the most, was having his mom to tell us to go on and dominate the rest of the season. That helped because now you feel like you’re going out here with a bigger purpose. We’ve got a couple of tributes that we do during practice to Ty and Aaron that helps you play for something bigger than you.”
With a game just days away, there’s hope that playing again will play a role in the healing process.
When members of the leadership council met, Whittingham said, the consensus was that it would be important to return to the game they love.
“The best way to heal and the best way to get through this together is to get back to do what they love,” Whittingham said. “Getting back to some sense of normalcy. You never put it out of your mind. It’s a therapy in and of itself to get back on the field.”
Whittingham said nobody on the team has said that they won’t be playing due to the circumstances.
An arrest and funeral arrangements
Buk M. Buk, 22, was arrested in Draper and later booked into Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated murder, attempted murder and felony discharge of a firearm.
Lowe’s older brother, Christopher E. Jackson, provided a statement on behalf of the family to the Deseret News: “The Lowe family wishes to express sincere appreciation to the Salt Lake City Police Department, especially the detectives who worked the case. While we feel as though some justice will be served with arrest and eventual prosecution of the young man, it does not make our hearts any less hurt, as we have lost a critical thread in our family fabric.”
Said Whittingham of the arrest, “It was a very positive thing. It gave you some sense of justice, I guess you can say. We’ll see how things transpire and what happens from here. It’s progress.”
Funeral arrangements are scheduled for Oct. 11 at 1 p.m. CDT at Family Cathedral of Praise, 790 Windbell Circle, Mesquite, Texas. A public viewing will be held Oct. 10 from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. CDT at Precious Memories Mortuary in Duncanville, Texas.
Retiring No. 22?
Whittingham said Monday he wants the school to retire No. 22.
That’s the number Lowe wore this season after he decided to switch from No. 2 to No. 22 in honor of running back Ty Jordan, who died last December.
Whittingham said the school is formulating a plan to honor Lowe, like it honored Jordan. He wants to ensure that the lives of both players are “celebrated” this season and beyond.
“No. 22, you won’t see anyone wear No. 22 in this program again, at least as long as I’m the head coach,” Whittingham said. “We’d like to see that retired permanently. That’s our wish. We’d like to see it happen.”
Quarterback Cam Rising applauds the effort to have the school retire No. 22.
“It means the world. Ty and ALowe meant the world to me. I loved those guys,” he said. “They will always hold a special spot in my heart. I’m glad to see that they’ll hold a special spot at this university as well.”
What will Whittingham remember most about Lowe?
“A lot of the same things that I remember about Ty. He’s a guy that had a smile on his face all the time,” he said. “He’s walk into a room and lit up the room. The same comments and description of Ty fits Aaron. I think that’s probably why they were so close. They’re very similar in their personalities. They played different positions but as far as who they were as people, there’s a lot of common ground there.”
Ford, the team’s resident chef, reflected on his relationship with Lowe.
“ALowe was my guy. He came over to my place all the time. Everybody sees me cooking food on social media and anytime he saw me, he’d be like, ‘Hey, can I come?’” Ford said. “Almost every weekend he was at my house, eating something. He always had the same spot on my couch, eating my food. I love ALowe. He’s a good dude.”
Drawing upon experience
No doubt, having two active players die in a matter of months has taken a toll on Whittingham and the entire team.
“This challenges us all, particularly me as the leader of the program. I’ve had very difficult things happen to me in my life and losses of loved ones,” he said. “I would say your entire body of your life is the preparation, going through life’s ups and downs. It prepares you and helps you. But each situation is so unique. It’s so difficult to deal with but you draw from your experience.”
But Whittingham’s ability to draw upon his experience, and strength, has certainly buoyed up his players.
“He gives us the time to mourn and appreciate life. He also helps us separate when it’s time to go to football,” Ford said. “Outside of that, if we’re struggling, he’s there for us and with us, helping us with counseling or talking to him one-on-one. All our coaches are really good about that. He hasn’t forced anything upon anyone in terms of, ‘Hurry up and get over it and get back to work.’ He’s been really good at that.”
Harding praised Whittingham’s leadership, which has been magnified throughout this ordeal of losing two beloved players.
“It’s a tough situation. There is no manual on how to deal with it,” he said. “Coach is doing a great job with it. And the kids are managing as best as you can expect them to.”