‘It’s really exponential’: What mental health experts say about how Utah football might be grieving Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe

The Utes are leaning on football and each other to help process the deaths of two teammates in less than a year.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah football team walks together on campus to the A Ray Olpin Student Union southwest lawn to remember and honor the life of fellow student-athlete Aaron Lowe during a candlelight vigil, Sept. 29, 2021.

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Nick Ford knows all too well what grief is like.

Growing up in Los Angeles, the junior offensive lineman at the University of Utah experienced the death of several friends. His older brother, Michael, had congenital heart disease and died in 2019.

He lost his teammate Ty Jordan last Christmas. Then Aaron Lowe just nine months later.

Ford learned to process tragedy through helping others, a lesson he learned while taking care of his sick older brother. In the weeks since Lowe’s death by way of a gunshot wound to the abdomen at a Sugar House party last month, he’s opened his home to his teammates — giving them a place to sleep, reminding them to eat, trying to be the home away from home.

“I derive happiness in making others happy,” Ford said.

But not every player on the Utes can say they’ve had similar experiences to Ford. Not every player will process the loss of Jordan and Lowe the same way.

Experts in trauma, grief and sports psychology say the grieving process is unique to every individual, can manifest in myriad ways and has no timetable.

“People are going to find themselves kind of in chaos for a little while, and that’s OK. That is part of the process,” said Bryan Rieben, a licensed clinical social worker who graduated from the University of Utah. “That can last a long time. We say in the grief and loss community that there is no time frame and it’s OK to still be feeling grief months later, years later.”

And the Utes are dealing with all of that in real-time.

The ‘exponential’ nature of losing Jordan and Lowe

Utes veteran Britain Covey will never forget where he was, what he was doing, what he was thinking, when he first heard about the deaths of Jordan and Lowe.

Memories of Lowe and Jordan have been intertwined in Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham’s thoughts over the past week.

“It kind of all is wrapped into one now,” he said.

Both deaths came by way of a gunshot wound. Both were young, successful Black men, the world at their feet. Both attended the same high school in Texas. Lowe was the first recipient of a scholarship in Jordan’s name. Lowe changed his number to 22 to honor his friend.

The deaths of both players within nine months have a compounding nature when it comes to grief, experts say. So instead of having to process the impact of losing two people, it’s like processing the loss of multiple, especially when the death of track athlete Lauren McCluskey in 2018 is factored into the equation.

“When we think about deaths like this — violent, unnecessary deaths — we don’t really think of them as one plus one plus one is three,” said Katherine Supiano, a grief counselor and professor in the University of Utah’s college of nursing. “It’s really exponential. One plus one plus one is like the agony of a 40 on a 1-10 scale.”

Covey said Jordan’s and Lowe’s deaths, which came under different circumstances, are difficult to process because of when they occurred.

“Ty’s was so difficult because we had just come off the season and we weren’t together. Nobody was with each other,” Covey said. “This one was difficult because we were with each other. The day after it happened, when we came together as a team, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a more difficult meeting, a more emotional meeting with everybody.”

What’s more, the deaths of Lowe and Jordan came via gunshot wound, which brings forth a different intensity of emotions compared with when someone dies by another sudden means.

Chad Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma specialist in Salt Lake City, said when a person loses someone to a car crash or heart attack, for example, there’s shock but also room to potentially find peace with it because the event was out of someone’s control.

“But when it’s a suicide or an act of violence, it’s a different type of grief,” Anderson said. “There’s a senselessness to it almost.”

The team is trying to make sense of the senselessness.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Aaron Lowe waves a Ty Jordan memorial flag before the Utes play the Brigham Young Cougars in football, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 in Provo. Lowe was shot and killed at a Salt Lake City party Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.

How Utah football is dealing

The locker of junior wide receiver Solomon Enis was right by Lowe’s. He recently recalled that many weeks before traveling for road games, Lowe would borrow Enis’ charging cord to revive his Beats headphones.

“It’s different not seeing him in there,” Enis said. “It’s different not seeing him smiling and be able to joke with him. But I know he’s watching over us and we’re going to do everything we can to make him proud.”

Enis said the tone of team meetings after Lowe died was palpable sadness and grief. But the overarching takeaways from those sessions were leaning on each other, taking care of each other, loving each other.

The Utes are finding comfort in being around each other during this time, whether it’s staying at Ford’s house or going through practices that bring back a sense of normalcy.

“You’d rather be around your teammates than be at home because idle time in this situation isn’t the best thing,” freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III said. He added that when he’s not around others, he takes care of his mental health with prayer, meditation, studying the Bible, calling family and focusing on homework.

The team has counselors and therapists, provided through the university, at its disposal. Those mental health professionals have been present at several practices, coaches said.

Some players offered that they have plans to take advantage of those services. Covey said some players in particular — like those at the party where Lowe was shot — are being nudged to use those services.

“A lot of us have tried to encourage them to go talk with someone about that because some people here on this team grew up around stuff like that, but a lot of guys didn’t, and it was pretty traumatic for them to be present,” Covey said.

A suspect was arrested on suspicion of murdering Lowe, a 22-year-old named Buk Mawut Buk who has been charged with several crimes in recent years. Whittingham called the arrest “progress,” while linebacker Devin Lloyd expressed a desire for a resolution.

“You want justice more than anything,” Lloyd said. “Obviously it’s a tragic event. You never want to see anything like that happen. But when it does, you want to see justice. You want to see the person who is responsible for it get caught.”

Whittingham and a handful of players used the vigil to tell stories about much Lowe loved being a Ute and how his smile lit up a room, much like Jordan’s did. They delivered a message that everyone should be “22% better” in all aspects of life and to not take anything for granted.

Whittingham said he wants the No. 22 retired at the University of Utah. Furthermore, he said any player, coach or staff member is welcome to take the charter plane and attend Lowe’s funeral, which is Monday.

“Rituals will help in the grieving process,” Rieben said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flowers, balloons, and messages memorialize Utah Utes cornerback Aaron Lowe (22) at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

Can football help or hurt?

LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson spoke in the middle of the circle of men, many of whom had tears streaming down their faces moments earlier as they remembered Lowe’s life in a candlelight vigil.

Pleasant-Johnson’s words conveyed a competitive sentiment, one any high-level athlete is accustomed to: Adversity isn’t to be dwelled upon, it’s to be overcome.

“Y’all continue to put that work in for Aaron, bro, results gonna come, man,” the redshirt freshman cornerback said a few minutes after the vigil officially concluded.

Whittingham said three meetings took place after Lowe’s death became public. One of those meetings was with the team’s 15-member leadership council. The substance of that meeting, he said, was to determine how the players wanted to move forward in the aftermath of Lowe’s death.

The players wanted to keep playing.

“Just being on the field will take your mind away from it,” Lloyd said. “It’s a blessing to be out here.”

For players and coaches, playing football is therapeutic in itself. And playing for Jordan and Lowe’s memory could bring an added sense of meaning to their season, especially when the team talked to Lowe’s mother, who told them to dominate the rest of their games.

“That helped because now you feel like you’re going out here with a bigger purpose,” Covey said. “We’ve got a couple of tributes that we do during practice … to Ty and Aaron. I think that it helps you play for something bigger than you.”

From a mental health perspective, finding that purpose can help with the grieving process.

“That transcends wins,” said Nicole Detling, a certified mental performance consultant who has worked with athletes and teams in Utah and beyond since 1998. “They’re not playing to win anymore. They’d be playing for their brothers. And that’s a much deeper, meaningful connection to each other and to the game.”

But a return to football won’t be a panacea for every player. That’s why, experts say, it’s important that individual players and the team as a whole to navigate grief in ways that make sense for them and them alone, and to remember that it won’t just be football that is affected by their trauma.

“This is going to not only impact their playing on the field,” Rieben said. “It’s going to impact their schooling, their focus, their attention. All of that is going to be impacted in some way, shape or form.”

Some fans on social media have already voiced support for the Utes and said their win-loss record shouldn’t matter this year. But what happens if a couple of months go by and the team is struggling? Will fans continue to think that way, or will they go back to demanding better play on the field? Detling said that is a legitimate question.

One of the ways athletes process grief, especially in sports like football, Detling said, is to channel anger and use it on the field against an opponent.

“They can direct that toward the opponents because that’s what’s accepted in this sport is really being very physically rough-and-tumble with the other team,” Detling said. “So that’s something that could potentially help them in a way.”

But taking the field so soon after a tragedy could have ramifications. Chad Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma specialist in Salt Lake City, said what frustrates him about sports is the expectation that players should recover quickly. He worries about the consequences of a trauma response during a game.

“In a sport like football, if this is on your mind, you’re going to get crushed on the field,” Detling added.

The team, however, thinks differently.

“When you get in a football game, you go into game mode and you go into a different state of mind,” Whittingham said. “I guess there’s a possibility of that [a trauma response]. But I would say that when a football player is in game mode, he blocks everything else out and just focuses on what’s going on.”