When Jordan Love is on the field, he thinks about his many blessings. He thinks about his mom, Anna, and especially about his dad. Not all the time, but enough of it to remind him that if it hadn’t been for the influence of Orbin Love, he might not be playing football at all.
First, Jordan has his father’s athleticism. Orbin was a running back and quarterback that made it to the JC level before moving on to other important pursuits, such as becoming a police officer, a sergeant in the Bakersfield (Calif.) Police Department for 27 years.
Second, his dad encouraged his scrawny, gangly kid to play quarterback. Early on, Jordan played other positions, too, including wide receiver. But he longed to be on the other end of the passes because that’s where all the offensive action initiates. Orbin wanted his son to be an initiator.
He had no clue how good an initiator his son would become. Neither did Jordan himself.
They would be happily surprised together, smiling in combination at the younger Love’s remarkable success this season at Utah State had Orbin Love not died, not taken his own life, when Jordan was 14 years old. Even now, when Anna attends Jordan’s games in Logan and wherever else the Aggies play, she sits in the stands, alone, unable to suppress the thought: “Damn you, Orbin, for not being here. This is such an amazing thing. You would be so proud, so, so proud.”
The tragic event of that horrible day, July 13, 2013, is frozen in Jordan Love’s consciousness, pushed deep, where it causes as little pain as possible, where it now just kind of exists. Love was playing in a basketball tournament on that Saturday morning. Anna was there, in a high school gym, waiting for Orbin and one of the couple’s three daughters to arrive.
When the daughter walked in and said Dad had dropped her off, having forgotten something at home and was going back to retrieve it, Anna, a veteran officer of the California Highway Patrol, had an impression that something wasn’t right. She immediately tried calling her husband. No answer. She bolted home.
That’s where Anna found Orbin, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It was the second time he had attempted to take his life, the first unsuccessful try coming the previous year. The elder Love, who was a gregarious man, an officer who often stopped and chatted with strangers on the street, who sometimes subbed in at his church as a fill-in pastor, had been under stress and duress only he understood, struggling to get certain medications balanced, working with a psychiatrist, at one juncture having stayed for a week in a mental hospital for treatment.
Whatever worked under that care did not last.
When Jordan Love arrived at his aunt’s house from his basketball game, Anna sat her children down and explained, as best she could, what had happened: “I told them the truth,” she said. “I remember Jordan sitting on the couch, crying. It was tough. He broke down so bad.”
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever faced,” Love said. “It was a hard day, the hardest day of my life. I loved my dad.”
Jordan subsequently went into a shell. He didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t even want to go outside. And he wanted to quit football because it hurt too much to be reminded of his father. Now, he plays it, at least in some measure, to remember and honor and connect with him.
“He’s the reason I play quarterback,” Love said. “He was a huge influence in my life.”
After the initial shock and sorrow, that pivotal moment, along with the support of his tight-knit family — “We hold onto each other,” he said, hurtled Love forward through his high school years as an accomplished athlete and student straight through to college. The memory of his father stays with him, on off days and on game days, in quiet moments and in loud ones, in times of struggle and in times of great achievement.
Of late, there have been a whole lot more of the latter — games, loud moments, achievements.
Love is the absolute centerpiece of the 7-1 Aggies, a team that has thrown shock and awe at the Mountain West Conference this season, after being picked to finish fourth in their division, and caught the attention of observers of college football around the country. A program that had lurched a bit in recent seasons had energy and optimism breathed back into it a year ago, when the Aggies ascended to a 6-6 regular season, led by a redshirt freshman quarterback out of Bakersfield’s Liberty High School, a player no other Division I school wanted.
The only D1 offer he got was from Utah State. “I got overlooked,” Love said.
NO. 18 UTAH STATE AT HAWAII
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He came to Logan for a football camp the summer before his senior year, and committed a week later. “I liked it here,” he said.
After sitting out a season, building up a body that at 180 pounds needed building, and studying film, learning how to play college football, Love took over, never having taken a live snap, bumping and skidding as he went. There were games in which Love’s promise was apparent, others when it was buried a couple of layers deep.
He did not play well in the Aggies’ bowl game, a loss to New Mexico State that easily could have been a victory — but, looking back, it was a win for the lessons it taught Love, the effect it had on him.
Through the offseason, the youthful Love — he just turns 20 on Friday — dove into the quarterback position, having had his first real taste — both bitter and sweet — and driving himself to absorb every detail, every nuance of playing it the right way.
He went back and reviewed every play from his freshman season, some of them easy to watch, some of them hard, making notes as to what worked and what needed adjustment. That exercise sparked improvement.
“He’s accumulated his data base of information,” said David Yost, USU’s offensive coordinator. “He’s absorbed it and that helps him now spit out the right answer quicker, more accurately, in a highly efficient way. He’s to the point now where when we call a play, he’s already mastered it.”
Yost said if you watch Love’s head, as a play unfolds, he sweeps through progressions in an almost casual, relaxed manner. When Love threw a fourth-down-and-goal touchdown pass against BYU, the receiver was his fourth option.
“When he first got here, his head was in a blender,” Yost said. “Now, he’s processed it. We’ve got something here that’s going to be special. Jordan’s an NFL-type quarterback.”
Said USU head coach Matt Wells: “Jordan’s collected, calm and smart in our offense. And he’s got some swag, some mojo, and the other 10 guys sense that and they raise their game because of it. He’s leading with his production.”
There were hints of such advancement, but nobody expected what has unfolded in 2018. Love’s personal stats are proper ridiculous, throwing for 2,058 yards, 18 touchdowns, and leading an offense that averages nearly 500 yards and 50 points.
And those numbers would stack even higher if it weren’t for the fact that Love hasn’t played much in some of the games, once USU was up by an insurmountable number of touchdowns.
He’s now being mentioned as one of the nation’s top QBs.
“That’s cool and all,” he said, “but I just want to stay focused. It’s not just me, it’s the whole team.”
There have been times in the middle of games when Love has taken in what was going on around him, been congratulated by coaches and teammates, and thought about Orbin, finding solace and satisfaction in knowing how proud his father would be.
When Jordan was 12 years old, Orbin and Anna took their kids to a USC football game. As the plays transpired on the expanse of green at the Coliseum, Orbin leaned over to his son and said: “If you work hard, that could be you one day down on that field.”
And so, it is.
“Jordan has worked and worked,” said former USU quarterback great Chuckie Keeton. “He takes his job very seriously. He has a lot of arm talent, but it is the head on top of the shoulders that makes him what he is. He trusts his guys and lets the ball fly.”
ABOUT JORDAN LOVE
Age • 20.
Height/weight • 6-4, 225.
Hometown • Bakersfield, Calif.
Class • Sophomore.
By the numbers • Redshirt freshman season (2017): Set the Utah State record for passing yards for a freshman quarterback (1,631). ... Sophomore season (2018): Has completed 160 of 248 pass attempts for 2,058 yards, 18 touchdowns, four interceptions in eight games. ... 300-yard games this season: 4. ... Biggest half: Love threw for 448 yards in the first half against New Mexico.
There are similarities between the two QBs, although Keeton was a bit more mobile before suffering injuries to his knees. Love has a sweet delivery, a strong, accurate arm, extending out of a frame that has grown to 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. As mentioned, that’s just a part of it, along with his firm understanding not just of what he’s supposed to do as a quarterback, but of what and where every other player at every other position on the field is supposed to do and be.
Love doesn’t shout it to the mountaintops around the Cache Valley, but he is willing to whisper that he dreams of one day, after his work and winning is done with the Aggies, playing in the NFL. There was a time, like in the case of darn near every other kid with big ambitions, when that would have seemed preposterous.
Turns out, Love is one of the foremost revelations of the 2018 college football season. He’s won numerous player-of-the-week awards, leads a team that could win a league title, is now on watch lists for major postseason awards and on the radar of pro scouts. Yost, who has worked with quarterbacks — Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel — who went on to pro careers, said his current pupil does have NFL potential.
And the way Jordan Love sees it, as his mom cheers him on from the stands, somewhere, in some hidden place, his dad, all healed up and happy, his big heart full, is smiling, too. He’d like, just one more time, to hear his voice, take in his counsel, feel his embrace.
But he can imagine it when he’s out on the field, the place where Orbin Love saw his son thriving, with a little hard work, all those years ago.
“I know he’s looking down on me, guiding me,” the son said. “He’s always there. And I’m grateful for that.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.