- Associated Press - Saturday, May 13, 2017

ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) - Late on the night of Dec. 1 last year, Jerry Howard shared a long conversation with his father, Jerry Howard Sr. Among other topics, father and son talked about the younger Howard’s commitment to Georgia Tech, which he had made a week and a half earlier, the achievement of a dream to play major college football.

“He was just telling me how proud he was of me for committing and sticking with it and not giving up,” Howard said.

Less than 24 hours later, Jerry Howard Sr. was gone, the victim of a shooting in broad daylight outside the family’s home in Rock Hill. The father, who liked to take his son fishing for catfish in nearby Brattonsville and helped mold his son’s goal for a better life, was dead.

“He was always with me and supported me,” Howard said. “He took care of me when I was feeling sick. If I needed anything, I knew he’d be right there for it.”

Howard will graduate from Northwestern High in Rock Hill on June 3. A candidate to play B-back for coach Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets, Howard will enroll at Tech having known deep loss, but he has approached it with determination and perspective.

“I know that I have every reason in the world to just stop doing stuff and just drop everything,” he said. “But I realize that it’s life. Things happen. I realize I can’t stop because I know he’ll be disappointed and my mom, especially, she’d be like, ‘Come on, you know your dad wouldn’t want that for you.’”

Sadly, it is not the only tragedy that Howard has known. In January 2015, his sister Ja’Quasha Martin died in a car accident at the age of 22.

“She was the most energetic person that I’ve probably ever met,” Jerry Howard said. “Always looked out for me.”

Ja’Quasha came home from work to take him to football practice in the summer. She bought him football gear. When she died, Howard said, “I just shut down.”

Less than two years later, Howard was mourning the loss of his father. Jerry Howard Sr. sought to instill in his only son a sense of responsibility and self-reliance. Howard recalled that he was cutting the grass by the time he was 6 years old. He heard a message repeatedly from his father to keep his eyes focused beyond the present.

“He always told me, ‘Think about your family in the future,’” Howard said. “‘Do you want them to go through what you had to go through, or do you want them to have whatever they want to and have a great life and never have to go through things?’”

Jerry Howard Sr. grew up in Rock Hill and was a wrestler at Northwestern. Late in his teens, though, he served an 11-month prison term for selling drugs, his wife La’Kisha Howard said.

He returned home, and Jerry was born about a year later.

“When he had me, that’s when he completely changed his life and everything, so I won’t go down the same path as him,” Howard said.

Howard’s father, a delivery-truck driver for a furniture store, never returned to jail, La’Kisha said. Despite losing the man she called her best friend, La’Kisha acknowledged that not every son gets 18 years with his father. She saw a man invested in his children’s lives. He took him fishing. He oversaw workouts at a nearby park. He was a voice Jerry could recognize from the stands.

“He had always had that relationship and time with his dad, and I’m thankful for that, too,” said La’Kisha, a day-care center worker who is contemplating returning to college for her bachelor’s degree.

At the time of his death, the Howards had been married 17 years, together for 23. They had two children together, Jerry and his older sister Bre’Toria. Jerry has four half-sisters, the late Ja’Quasha Martin, Quazenia Weaver, A’Lyssues Mance and Jada Howard.

Jerry Sr.’s instructions soaked into Jerry Jr.

“You know how a lot of kids, you have to worry about them?” asked his grandfather, Jerry Stevenson, Jerry Sr.’s father. “You don’t have to worry about him.”

La’Kisha recalls the evenings when her son, his studies done at 9 or 10 p.m., headed out for a run to improve his conditioning for football or to drop weight for wrestling.

“I’m like, ‘Run a block for your mommy,’” La’Kisha said. “He comes back pouring sweat.”

Northwestern coach David Pierce has seen the same sort of dedication.

“He’s always been a guy that knew where he is and what he’s doing and what his goal is,” Pierce said.

That determination revealed itself after his father’s death. Jerry Howard Sr. died on a Friday; Jerry Jr. had a math exam the following Monday, one that would factor in his semester grade and ultimately his acceptance to Tech.

He was told that he could wait to take the test, but he declined and took it on the scheduled day. Pierce asked him why.

“He goes, ‘Well, that’s what my pops wanted me to do,’” Pierce said.

In late January of this year, days before Howard was to sign his letter of intent with Tech, Rock Hill police arrested a Rock Hill man, charging him with murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime. Detectives do not yet know the motive, police spokesman Capt. Mark Bollinger said. Dwayne Sims awaits trial.

La’Kisha was glad, at least, that Jerry Sr. died knowing where his son would attend college. For reasons both academic and athletic, both parents were in favor of Tech after their son went to a camp there last summer. They were delighted when coaches made a scholarship offer in November, leading Howard to withdraw his commitment to East Carolina. He will compete for the backup spot behind B-back Dedrick Mills when he arrives in June.

“I was afraid by him losing his dad that he could go one of two ways,” La’Kisha said. “It could have went bad or it could have went positive, and it went positive.”

Rock Hill, a city of about 72,000 about 25 miles south of Charlotte, N.C., boasts far more than its share of football stars. The city celebrated NFL first-round draft picks in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 drafts. The last was first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.

“Growing up in Rock Hill, you always hear about football,” Howard said.

La’Kisha said he slept with a football from the time he was 2 years old. Only time will reveal whether Howard might join the list of Rock Hill stars to reach the NFL. It’s his ambition, but he recognizes his mindset is different than others. He plans to enroll in Tech’s management school and foresees a post-football career in banking or business.

“Like, I know where I want to go in life and what I want to do,” he said. “I always have backup plans, so I know I have to do things I might not want to sometimes, but it’s going to be the best for me.”

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