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Red confetti danced in the air. University of Utah football players and coaches put on Pac-12 championship T-shirts and hats. They bit down on rose stems and celebrated a landmark accomplishment for the program.
And in those moments of untamed exuberance, somewhere in the back of his mind, Utah quarterback Cam Rising’s thoughts turned to his former teammate. He knew he had kept a promise he made to the late Ty Jordan more than two years prior.
The Utes were going to their first Rose Bowl.
“That’s what he wanted and that’s why I loved him,” Rising said this week. “Everything we talked about is coming to fruition now.”
Rising made that promise to Jordan when the two young men first met.
When Jordan walked into Rising’s Salt Lake City apartment on Nov. 29, 2019, he had been verbally committed to the University of Texas for two-and-a-half months.
In spite of the verbal commitment, Jordan’s primary recruiter at the University of Utah, running backs coach Kiel McDonald, remained persistent as the early signing period approached on Dec. 18. Jordan’s mother, Tiffany, was taken with McDonald and the Utes football program to the point she insisted her son at least take a visit.
In hindsight, Rising was a smart choice to host Jordan the night before Utah demolished Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium to clinch the Pac-12 South. Jordan was a Texas kid from the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, starring for West Mesquite High School, committed to the football-crazed state’s flagship program. Rising spent his freshman season at Texas before transferring to Utah, so there was at least one connection between him and Jordan, who had just turned 18 years old.
“He came over and we just talked about football and what we wanted to get accomplished,” Rising told The Salt Lake Tribune following practice on Monday. “We really focused on what we wanted to get accomplished, what we wanted to do together.”
In November 2019, Jordan was still in high school and Rising was sitting out during a year in residency following the transfer from Texas. Rising was still a year away from taking his first snap as a Ute, but this conversation with Jordan included visions of grandeur anyway.
The two veered into talking about winning the Pac-12 and delivering Utah its first Rose Bowl berth. Rising and Jordan agreed that was the main goal, both feeling strongly about the possibility of getting the program to the summit for the first time.
By the time the night ended, Rising and Jordan promised each other they would get to a Rose Bowl.
“Right when I said that, he said, ‘Let’s go, I’m ready for this,’” Rising recalled. “He spoke beyond his years, you couldn’t tell he was a kid in high school who was a top-level recruit. He was humble and you knew he was something special as a person. He bonded with people that night, and he just spoke and carried himself at a higher level than other people.
“He knew what he wanted to accomplish, he knew what he wanted to do, and he was on a mission to make those things happen.”
Jordan flipped his commitment to Utah on Dec 10, signing his National Letter of Intent on Dec. 18. In a COVID-shortened five-game season, he was a force of nature, rushing for 597 yards and six touchdowns on just 83 carries. All six of the touchdowns came across Utah’s final three games, all wins, when Jordan rushed for 468 yards on his way to Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors.
Early on the morning of Dec. 26, 2020, Nicko Rising received a phone call that Jordan died late the previous night near his home in Denton, Texas, the victim of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Nicko walked into his youngest son’s bedroom, woke him up and delivered the news.
The shock of that was understandable, but as the 1-year anniversary of Jordan’s death approaches, Rising still has to take a beat or two to collect himself when talking about Jordan.
Rising says he texted Jordan on Christmas Day. He told him he loved him and that he couldn’t wait to keep grinding on what they always thought would be the road to Pasadena.
Jordan did not answer Rising’s text.
“It didn’t feel real and then you go to Twitter, you start seeing it, it hurt,” Rising said. “It really did hurt, and it still bothers me to this day. It’s crazy.”
Rising’s grief over Jordan, and the grief of his teammates and coaches, has been compounded this fall following the death of Jordan’s close friend, and high school and college teammate Aaron Lowe on Sept. 26. Lowe had taken on Jordan’s No. 22 while acting as the first recipient of the Ty Jordan Memorial Scholarship.
The lives of Jordan and Lowe have been celebrated throughout this season, whether it be at Rice-Eccles Stadium or on the road. There have been moments of silence, “moments of loudness,” flowers left at the 22-yard line by opponents during pregame warmups, and the No. 22 being retired. All the while, hashtags of #LLTJ, #LLAL, and the like have become fanbase-wide rallying cries as Utah spent October and November marching to its third outright South Division title in as many non-COVID seasons.
For Rising and the Utes, much of this season has been keeping those legacies alive.
“It’s nice to know he’s still here in a different type of way,” Rising said, “still helping us out.”
Rising, personally, can’t leave this season thinking he did any different. No matter what happens on Jan. 1 against Ohio State, he kept the promise he made to Jordan.