Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald likes to consider his team a “family.” Scroll through his Facebook once, and you’ll see the words “NU football family” time after time, be it in upbeat status updates or the titles of photo albums showing his players helping out in the community.
On Sunday, October 18, his status read in a much more somber tone: “Our thoughts and prayers are with Jasper Howard’s family and the UCONN football family!” He was referring to the tragic stabbing death of 20-year-old Jasper Howard, a starting defensive back for the University of Connecticut football team. Early that morning, a fire alarm was pulled at an on-campus dance, only a short while after the Huskies’ homecoming victory over Big East rival Louisville. In the ensuing confusion, a fight erupted, and two students, one of them Howard, were stabbed.
As expected, Howard’s death rocked not only the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, Connecticut, but the entire college football world. The football community was still reeling from when Sean Taylor, a safety for the Washington Redskins, was shot to death in his own home just two years earlier. After all, the family sentiment expressed by Fitzgerald doesn’t just exist within the Northwestern football culture, but with every team. But how safe can a college athlete feel when they are constantly being put out in the spotlight, when their names appear in headlines, their pictures on posters, and everyone on campus knows who they are?
Northwestern football players consider themselves lucky in this regard, mostly thanks to the culture of the university itself.
“I feel very comfortable,” senior safety Brendan Smith, one of the leaders of the Cats’ defense, says. “The university is one of a kind.”
Fellow senior defensive back Sherrick McManis echoes that sentiment, saying he too feels safe around campus. Compared to some other schools, Northwestern players enjoy some relative anonymity around campus compared to their counterparts. At various state schools, anybody and everybody on the team is a well-know face around campus, as Smith can vouch for.
“[Quarterback] Mike Kafka and I were at a concert at [the University of Illinois] with some players from the [Illinois] basketball team,” he remembers. “Even the backup players had people coming up to them.”
Still, despite any feeling of security at Northwestern, Smith understands the importance of always being safe when he goes out, and as one of the leaders of the team, reminds his teammates to do the same.
“The key is to always be wise, to put yourself in the right situation,” he says. Smith adds that he and other players are being constantly reminded by Fitzgerald to avoid situations where “you have to be constantly looking over your left and your right [shoulders].”
The family sentiment extends to younger players on the team as well. Smith, for his part, is always willing to help out his younger teammates. Being one of the older guys, he knows that it is part of his responsibility now to be there to help out his teammates when they need it, even if he goes out in a more relaxed setting.
“All it takes is one person to make a day end badly,” Smith acknowledges.