How Ty Jordan’s death impacted Ute student athletes: ‘Overwhelming to consider’

Ute athletic director says the grief over the freshman has almost been overwhelming at times, complicated by the fact that everyone was scattered for the holidays

Ty Jordan’s death has marked a profound loss, but those feelings have not been confined to one place or one group of people.

The fact that Jordan’s family is grieving his death is compounded by the fact that his mother died in August after battling lung and bone cancer. His Dallas-area youth football coaches and mentors lacked answers in the days after his death from what authorities are calling an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen.

The University of Utah fan base, rabid, loyal, and excited for Jordan’s future after he was named Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year less than a week before his death, has collectively expressed its grief on social media since the incident.

Inside the Utah athletic department, that grief is going to be a little more intimate. Department staff members, football coach Kyle Whittingham, his coaching staff and his players all interacted with Jordan on a level no one else was able to do during his short time in Salt Lake City. There were no fans allowed inside Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall, which means no one saw Jordan’s late-season brilliance in the flesh. The media spoke with Jordan for a total of approximately 15 minutes during his freshman season, all of it on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, yes, someone like Utah athletic director Mark Harlan is going to have a different perspective on the matter than someone paying even the closest of attention from outside the inner circle.

“It’s been an emotional journey for myself, for our coaches, for our students,” Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune this past week. “I think we can all agree that the tragedy has just been, at times, overwhelming to consider what we lost here, an incredible young man, who folks saw on the field, but who didn’t have the joy to get to know off the field like we were fortunate enough to be able to do.

“He was just positive all the time, a smile as big as one can imagine and, frankly, very outgoing to all, including student-athletes on our other teams, who are also devastated.”

Harlan has shepherded his athletic department through 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, littered with a fiscal budget crisis, a department-wide furlough, the prospect of no 2020 football season, and canceled games once the season actually began in November among the various factors.

None of that has been easy, not on Harlan, not on his senior staff, not on his coaching staffs, not on his student-athletes. News of Jordan’s Christmas-night death breaking early on the morning of Dec. 26 made an already-trying 2020 harder still.

The day before playing Washington State on Dec. 19, Utah announced it would not seek out a bowl opportunity, making that game the season finale. The Utes won, 45-28, Jordan registering one more tour de force with 157 rushing yards and three touchdowns. School was not in session, there was no bowl game coming, so everyone scattered for semester break.

Jordan’s death, with everyone away from campus, meant this grieving process has had to begin virtually on Zoom. There have been full-team meetings, position-group meetings, and mental-health professionals have been made available for any players wishing to take advantage.

“As the news came down, the inability to gather as a group, and hold and hug one another, was not something we were able to do,” Harlan said. “They have questions you try to answer. Many of them, you can’t answer because it can just never be. Why is he gone? You just can’t answer that question, you just have to really be great listeners and great support staff for them.”

The lone opportunity to be together since Jordan’s death came on Jan. 6, when Jordan’s memorial service was held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. A significant Utah contingent made the trip to Texas, including Harlan, Whittingham, and what one athletic department spokesman termed a “large number” of players. Whittingham gave an inspired short speech that day, as did Harlan, who later presented Jordan’s family with a certificate of academic achievement.

That day, those moments were not so much for grief, but more a celebration of Jordan’s life. That trip was in and out for the Utes contingent, everyone scattering back home to Salt Lake City or elsewhere for the remainder of semester break.

That break is nearly over with classes starting on Monday, so the football program — players, coaches, and all — will reconvene on campus next week. To finally be together, to express themselves face-to-face, to try and move forward individually and collectively will hopefully be therapeutic for everyone.

“The grief will be ongoing and when we gather as a team in the next week or so when they come back, we’ll continue to work and support the guys and the coaches, because it’s been a brutal period of time,” Harlan said. “You don’t ever get over it, but we all know we have to move forward and that’s what we’re going to do.”