DiMAURO: With heavy heart, Susquehannock's Randy Edsall coaches UConn to inspiring effort

The (London) Day (TNS)
Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall walks the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Randy Edsall’s voice teetered during parts of his postgame news conference Saturday night, a man whose emotions ping-ponged between the contrasting tugs of hope and finality.

Life and death.

The somber reality of the moment — yet still flirting with the wonder of the future.

Hours before UConn arrived at Rentschler Field to play Illinois, the Susquehannock High School graduate learned that his mother, Barbara, who had been ill, passed away. And so Randy Edsall coached a game of emotion with emotions he hadn’t felt in a while, perhaps the reason he referred to Jasper Howard frequently in his postgame oratory.

Howard, 21, died Oct. 18, 2009, hours after UConn defeated Louisville in a football game. After the game, he told the media his mantra: “play each play like it's the last play you'll ever play.”

This is how Edsall opened his remarks:

“I’m really proud of our guys,” he said. “They played hard. They played every play like the last play they’re ever going to play. And by doing that …”

Edsall had to stop and gather himself, lest he get overcome. Life, death and a football game, all whizzing around his mind indiscriminately.

“By doing that,” he said, “it gave them an opportunity to win. That’s all you can ask as a coach.”

Potential turning point: And so while Edsall was processing his personal emotions, he also knew this was a potential turning point for his program. UConn played well in its 31-23 loss to Illinois, not merely having the ball with a chance to tie late in the fourth quarter, but discovering a true freshman quarterback named Jack Zergiotis, who certainly isn’t lacking in moxie.

The yin and yang of the day continued to tug at the coach. Hope and finality. Finality and hope.

“You hate losing, but I thought we made improvements,” he said. “I think we found out about our team a little bit more. Hopefully, they understand that if we do this, we’ve got a chance — we’ve got a chance — to be a good football team.”

True freshman QB shines: Zergiotis just Wally Pipped last week’s starter Mike Beaudry, who sustained an undisclosed injury and couldn’t play. Turns out this true freshman from Montreal has plenty of ooh la la. He finished 21 for 31 with 275 yards. He was sacked five times and threw two interceptions, but kept his poise among the noise. He threaded a few throws to Jay Rose and Ardell Brown, among others, that will make the highlight shows.

“I thought Jack did a hell of a job. There’s something about that young man,” Edsall said. “He’s kind of got a little bit of the ‘it’ factor. There are some things we’ll do to help him be better. I saw something out of him in the preseason. … (Last) Sunday we went to practice and I saw something and I said ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ There is no quarterback controversy. He’s our guy.”

He said later, “I’ve been around the game for 40 years and I think I’ve got a pretty decent eye for judging talent and what you need to get it done. It’s just something I’ve seen out of the kid. How he handles himself. He’s like one of the guys. ‘Gimme a Molson and let’s sit down with the offensive linemen.’ There’s just something. You can just see it and feel it.”

Beacon through melancholy: So much has changed in the program since Wagner. And that was but 10 days ago.

Jack Zergiotis was an unwitting lifeline for his coach as Saturday afternoon became early Saturday night. A beacon through the melancholy. A symbol of what’s to come in the program if everyone here commits to getting better, all while honoring the memory of Jasper Howard.

Again, the theme permeated the room: how death can give us all a new respect for life.

“Every day, we learn from a young man who got his life taken from him way too soon,” Edsall said, alluding to how Howard’s words have been immortalized within the practice facility. “It’s there every day. I remind them all the time: ‘men, when you come into the Burton Family Football Complex, it hits you right in the eye: play each play like it’s the last play you’re ever going to play.’ I think we’re starting to understand that.”