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Utes endured terrible tragedies, but together found the strength to carry on

On the field, the Utes honored the memories of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe by capturing their first Pac-12 championship and earning their first Rose Bowl appearance

Donna Lowe-Sterns, mother of the late Utah player Aaron Lowe, serves as honorary captain at Pac-12 championship game.
Donna Lowe-Sterns, mother of the late Utah player Aaron Lowe, serves as honorary captain during the coin toss before the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

No doubt, Utah has been playing for something bigger than football this season.

On Christmas night a year ago, Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, running back Ty Jordan, died in Texas. Nine months later, almost to the day, defensive back Aaron Lowe was killed.

Since those tragic deaths, both the program and the university have honored their memories in a variety of ways, including retiring the No. 22.

On the field, the Utes have honored their memories by capturing their first Pac-12 championship and earning their first Rose Bowl appearance.

No. 11 Utah faces No. 6 Ohio State on New Year’s Day.

Throughout the season, the Utes have had Jordan and Lowe on the forefront of their minds.

“We play for them, play in their memory in everything we do. I know they’re out there with us,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “I know they’re the reason why we have been as successful as we’ve been. We’ve got to continue to play for them and we will remember them forever and we’ll miss them forever.”

Wide receiver Britain Covey said the program has made the best of a horrific situation.

“I think that we’ve taken probably the hardest thing that can happen and we’ve turned it into something beautiful,” he said. “We’ll always miss those guys but we have great memories of them.

“There’s a sort of reverence whenever you talk about them, but I think that we’re getting to the point now where we just celebrate them and we honor what they represent. Because it’s more than just two guys, it’s the whole entire team, it’s the whole entire university. I think I’m at the point now that when I’m asked about them, I don’t get sad. I just celebrate it.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham concurred with Covey.

“I agree with that 100%. Our players deserve so much credit for how they’ve gotten through this and the way they’ve handled it,” he said. “The leadership on this team are really the ones that are responsible for that — Britain Covey, the captains and the other upperclassmen.”

Whittingham expounded on his team’s response to the ultimate trial.

“First of all, I couldn’t be more proud of our leaders on our football team. We couldn’t have gotten through it without those guys. The ownership that they took,” he said, explaining that when Jordan died, the season was already over so they weren’t with each other. “Aaron Lowe, it was during the season. As a football team, we banded together. We had a mantra, ‘We’ll never get over it but we’ll get through it.’

“Our leaders and upperclassmen kept things together. The chemistry on this team kept getting better and better as the year went on. We became closer and closer. It was tough. As a coach, there’s no blueprint for an event like that. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through as a football coach, hands down. For us to get through it and continue to play at a high level, that’s a credit to our guys.”

Whittingham also credited Lowe’s mother, Donna Lowe-Sterns, who was Utah’s honorary captain during the Pac-12 championship game.

“The biggest fact to that was Aaron’s mom came and talked to the team, the Monday after the incident,” he said. “She gave our team the blessing to carry on and that’s what Aaron would have wanted and that’s what she wanted. That was a real inspiration to our team when she spoke to us and we heard it right from her that she and Aaron expected us to carry on and continue to compete for a conference championship.”

The Utes accomplished that goal and now they’re looking to continue honoring Jordan and Lowe by winning the Rose Bowl.

For the Utes, No. 22 has become a hallowed number, and it’s fitting that their first Rose Bowl appearance will happen on Jan. 1, 2022.