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Gordon Monson: Against USC, Utah football faces down tragedy in the greatest possible way

The Utes honored slain defensive back Aaron Lowe with a win over USC at the Coliseum

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Utah players celebrate a win over Southern California in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.

“Prosperity tries the fortunate, adversity the great.”

— Rose Kennedy

Taking the measure of a college football team usually begins and ends with numerical notation and evaluation — the final score, the win-loss record. And maybe in most instances that’s the way it should be, pushing aside all the other stuff, pro or con, positive or negative, just circling the end result and letting that speak for itself.

In the case of the 2021 iteration of the Utah Utes, there’s more, a whole lot more to factor into the equation. In time, climbing over and past the adversity, the tragedy that has struck this team is more important than anything else inside or outside of it. The hell with numbers, with wins and losses, or touchdowns thrown or yards gained or tackles made.

Breathing, being is great enough.

For the first time since the Utes lost one of their own by way of a senseless killing, as though there were any other kind, the hurtful, infuriating feeling that has enveloped them ever since their brother Aaron Lowe was gunned down at a party, they took the field on Saturday evening to play a game.

His game. Their game. A football game.

And there had to be all kinds of thoughts and emotions in that endeavor, finding a balance between honoring their friend and focusing on the business at hand — what most of them had pursued and practiced for most of their young lives — blocking, tackling, running, passing, catching.

Standing across the field, across the line of scrimmage from them were the USC Trojans, a team that had faced its own version of trouble this season, but not of the overwhelming order of the Utes.

So, what were those Utes supposed to do on this occasion? Focus entirely on football? Play their hearts out for their fallen teammate (teammates, when you include the lasting memory of Ty Jordan, another friend taken far too early by the blast of a gun)? Channel their sorrow, their pain into beating the Trojans to honor those they still mourn?

Or was that last one just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo taken from some Hollywood production, scripted lines that people say over and over when what they really want to do, maybe even what they should do, is sit down and cry?

Would winning a game really make any difference in memorializing, in paying tribute to a great kid, Lowe, who wore the number he wore to honor another great kid, Jordan?

Hustling, playing hard, playing with focus and purpose, giving every bit of effort possible all have their own rewards. But does any of that help better remember a lost family member?

The Utes went ahead and played with their heavy hearts on Saturday night, fittingly enough at a place called the Memorial Coliseum. And they won in impressive fashion, 42-26.

Did the angels in heaven — foremost among them, a departed defensive back from Texas — leap and blow their triumphant celestial horns at that score?

Certainly, the Utes down on this terrestrial orb did, having gotten proper permission from Lowe’s mother to forge ahead, and then doing exactly that, beating USC for the first time ever inside that aforementioned venue.

Good for them.

What they should know is this — they would not have diminished or betrayed their brother’s memory even in defeat. If anyone used that notion in the run-up to get the most out of the guys in crimson hats and pads, to rally them, to bump them from their despair, that was likely well-intentioned, but they can leave that on the back of some old, dusty sound stage.

Life goes on for the now even more tightly-formed fellows on the 2021 Utah team, and winning surely was preferable to the alternative.

But as the adversity they face tries them, as the death of their friends burdens them, if winning bolsters them or defeat distracts them, come what may in the weeks ahead, whatever happens on the field will not compliment nor condemn them. Not really. It will say only that they are human and that they are trying, that they are hurting.

Perhaps Saturday’s victory indicates other things, that the Utes are molding themselves into a pretty fine football team after a less-than-stellar start.

You saw what they did to the Trojans.

A touchdown run by Brant Kuithe. … A Cam Rising touchdown throw to Money Parks, the freshman receiver’s first college catch. … Rising’s 37-yard touchdown dart to Devaughn Vele. … The way the Utes poured it on USC from there, as the Trojans burped and lurched.

Were the Utes inspired? Were they playing for their guys in the great beyond?

Real or imagined, it looked like it.

As for adversity trying the great … yeah, it does. But whether it has anything to do with who blocks and tackles the best, who runs and passes and catches the best, who wins a freaking game on a Saturday evening two weeks after a friend is shot and killed, I dunno.

Either way, on occasions like these, those who care the most, who mourn the most, who remember the most profoundly, those are the real greats. The ones who deeply care. They’ll honor Aaron Lowe on their own schedule, in their own way.

The Utes just being the Utes was great enough on Saturday night.

Even as their favorable digits on the scoreboard beamed into the dark L.A. sky, the only number that really mattered, the number to be remembered, the number to remain unforgotten, was this one — 22.

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