Jerry Howard Jr.’s most meaningful run may have been the one he never took.
Howard, a graduate student running back for the Towson football team, lost his sister in a car accident in 2015 and then his father in a shooting less than two years later. But rather than wallow in his pain and leave behind football and college, he fortified his commitment to try to support his grieving family.
“I knew that if I would have done what most people did and chosen to quit and give up, I would have made the situation worse because I wouldn’t have been able to contribute and help my family out,” he said. “So it was really me keeping my family on my mind. And my sister and dad gave me the motivation to do the right things and do what I had to do.”
Howard is poised to make his fifth consecutive start when the Tigers (1-3 overall and 0-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association) welcome Stony Brook (1-4, 0-2) to Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson in a conference home opener. As much as he would enjoy watching Howard run all over the Seawolves, Tigers coach Rob Ambrose has developed an appreciation for what the 22-year-old Georgia Tech transfer has brought to his teammates and coaches.
“He is a light for some of our players on what being a man is,” Ambrose said. “Bad things happen all the time, and the world keeps spinning, and you have to take care of the people and responsibilities which you claim to love. That’s a man, and he’s a good one.”
One of six children raised by La’Kisha Shantel Howard and Jerry Howard Sr. in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Jerry Howard Jr. participated in wrestling and track growing up, but football was his passion. It also became one for his eldest sister, La’Quasha Martin, a cosmetologist who was known for briefly halting clients’ hair-styling sessions to take her brother to football practice and bragging about his accomplishments on social media.
But in the early-morning hours of Jan. 25, 2015, the family was awakened by a friend of Martin’s, who urged them to follow her to the scene of a multiple-vehicle accident. Martin, a passenger, died in the accident at the age of 22.
Howard said his sister’s death rocked the family. Within months, his parents had lost their jobs and their home, and Howard lived with friends that summer before the family reconvened to live in what he described as a “two-bedroom shack.”
“It took a big toll on our family,” he said. “It impacted me a lot because we shared a room even though she was rarely at the house. … If my mom wasn’t my biggest fan, it would definitely be her.”
Just as the family seemed to overcome its grief, tragedy struck again on Dec. 2, 2016, when Jerry Howard Sr., 37, was shot in the middle of a street after an argument. A neighbor pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2018 to 15 years in prison on manslaughter and weapons charges.
Jerry Howard Jr. said his sister’s death prepared him for dealing with his father’s.
“We were still grieving over her,” he said. “So when [my father’s death] happened, it was like, boom, and everything came back to that day. The day that it happened, I didn’t know what to do, but the next day, I was like, ‘OK, time to step up. Time to keep everybody together and keep everybody focused.’”
Three days later, Howard chose Georgia Tech over Towson, Appalachian State and East Carolina, and soon after he played in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, a game pitting some of the top players from North and South Carolina. Tigers linebacker Darien Reynolds, who represented Vance High School (North Carolina) in that game, said he was surprised to see Howard there.
“That showed me that he was strong about it,” said Reynolds, a transfer from Gardner-Webb. “He knew his dad still wanted him to participate in that game because that is a goal down there in the Carolinas. And the way he played in the Shrine Bowl, I would’ve thought he was there just to be there, but Jerry did everything despite what was going on.”
Howard had best season with the Yellow Jackets as a sophomore in 2018 when he rushed for 564 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games, including seven starts. That September, he also welcomed the birth of his son Braxton, who lives with his mother in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“At first, I was freaking out, I’m not going to lie,” he said with a chuckle. “But then just like my dad always said, anything I create here, I’ve got to take care of it. So I was just ready to be a great father and support my son.”
Last spring, Howard achieved his objective of graduating from Georgia Tech, earning a bachelor’s in business administration with a concentration in operations.
“It felt like I hit the lottery,” he said. “With that degree, it’s not NFL money, but I know that I can still support my family.”
Howard leads Towson in rushing with 206 yards and a touchdown and has caught seven passes for 66 yards and another score but insisted he can perform better. Regardless of his performance, however, Howard is one of the most well-liked players on the team with his ever-present smile and ability to encourage others.
Still, Howard admitted that he does have bad days.
“Just one wrong thought and I can ruin my whole day like if I think about my dad or my sister or how far away my son is,” he said. “But I don’t like to show that when I’m around others. So I always keep a smile on my face and try to laugh and try to get other people to laugh because you should be having fun.”
To honor his family members, Howard has “Howard Sr.” and the dates of his birth and death tattooed on his right biceps. He also has his sister’s name and the dates of her birth and death under praying hands and doves tattooed above his heart.
Howard said he thinks he has a good idea of what his father and sister would say of his journey.
“I know my sister would be proud. She would probably cry with excitement over all the things that I did,” he said. “My dad, he would tell me, ‘I’m proud of you,’ but he would always remind me, ‘It’s not over yet. Keep going. The mission isn’t done. If you’re satisfied with this, then why did you go through all of that?’”
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