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Guided by No. 22, Utes turned tragedies into triumph

Utah Utes players and fans honor Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan during the Pac-12 championship game against the Oregon Ducks at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

Utah Utes players and fans honor Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan during the Pac-12 championship game against the Oregon Ducks at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

LAS VEGAS — As Donna Lowe-Sterns, the mother of Aaron Lowe, made her way to the middle of the field at Allegiant Stadium before the game, it was a fitting beginning for Utah.

And though the Utes, who were in their third conference championship game in four seasons, didn't need any extra momentum, Lowe-Stern's presence set the tone for the Pac-12 championship game.

As the honorary captain for Utah, she embodied an entire team's collective push for greatness. The Utes weren't going to be denied this time; this time it was personal — not this year.

The Pac-12 title was for Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. Nothing else mattered, and no team was going to stand in their way.

"I don't think it would have mattered who we were playing," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "These guys were were absolutely locked in and on a mission, and they were not going to be denied. And as talented and as good a football team as Oregon is — I mean, they beat Ohio State at Ohio State; they were third in the nation at one time — I mean they're a talented crew. But our guys, they were very determined, very motivated."

That motivation shifted over the years — back-to-back losses in the Pac-12 championship game serving as a leading factor — until it became one solitary focus. The actual game was just a mechanism to lift a Utah team that has been through immense adversity all season long.

In the aftermath of Utah's 38-10 win over Oregon Friday night to claim the program's first Pac-12 title and first Rose Bowl appearance, Whittingham got emotional as the actuality of the moment hit him as he spoke to ESPN's sideline reporter Holly Rowe, a graduate of the University of Utah.

"It's tough to describe. What we've been through — just so proud of these guys," he said as he paused to keep his emotions in check. "We have great leadership on this football team. They hung in there; they went through incredible adversity. We love our boys Ty and Aaron. We miss them, but they were here with us tonight.

"I can't remember a time when I've had more fun coaching a football team."

As the realization of winning the title and earning a berth to the Rose Bowl set in, it was natural for the emotions to follow — for Whittingham and everyone who had a hand in Utah breaking through the adversity. Not only was it the first time Utah was crowned champion, it was the realization of a year's trying and heartbreaking season.

Donna Lowe-Sterns, mother of the late Utah player Aaron Lowe, serves as honorary captain during the coin toss before the Utah Utes play the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Donna Lowe-Sterns, mother of the late Utah player Aaron Lowe, serves as honorary captain during the coin toss before the Utah Utes play the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

As the red and white confetti rang down from the sky, Jordan and Lowe were watching from above. And any adversity in a football game was nothing compared to what the team experience over the last year.

"They were able to help us create things that I don't think we ever would have done without them," star linebacker Devin Lloyd, who was named the game's MVP, said. "Just them being there with us throughout the season just helped us tremendously, but also the resiliency of everyone on the team to endure something like that and to still find a way to fight back and get to this point is just incredible."

As important as it was to win and finish out the season with a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl appearance, the players only wanted one thing: to etch their brothers' names in history.

"Those are our brothers, for real," defensive end Mika Tafua said. "We had a lot of motivation going into the season, but losing Aaron in the middle of the season, that was tough, especially someone that was around us and was really close with Ty. And for something tragic like that to happen definitely motivated everyone — like we say 22% better every day — this was for them.

"This really was for Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan so that we could etch their name in history. If we didn't win tonight, it would have just been like a cool story. Now, though, when they look at the 2021 Pac-12 champions, they'll always remember 22 and Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan."

Lloyd said the moment is "as satisfying as it gets."

"Just to know that we did honor them the right way," he added. "I mean, up to this point we did everything we can just for them."

Utah's success after starting the season 1-2 takes a footnote to who the season was played for and for what it meant to the team as tragedy galvanized the players in a way nothing else could. And while the story now written is one of triumph, it's not the end.

The bowl game Utah just qualified for — the Granddaddy of Them All — will be played on the first day of the 2022 season. The No. 22 continues to be the guiding force to a Utah team that will go down in program history as the first to ever do it.

Nothing can replace the life of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, but winning can go a long way in honoring the lives of two players who wore the No. 22 for Utah.

"I think this is a great storybook ending to the season," Tafua said.

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