At the end of the Saturday’s Bayou Classic, Dray Joseph sought out Austin Howard for an extra-long, tear-filled hug.
And for the first time in two weeks, they could smile, even celebrate.
Joseph, Southern’s record-setting quarterback of the previous four seasons, and Howard, the freshman who threw three touchdown passes to lead the Jaguars to their 52-45 victory against Grambling on Saturday, have been united in grief over the Nov. 17 shooting death of Juan Joseph, Dray’s older brother and Howard’s quarterbacks coach at West St. John High School, the trio’s prep alma mater.
“I know my brother’s proud of Austin today,” said Dray, now a volunteer assistant coach at Southern. “He’s probably got a big old smile like he usually did.”
At the same time, Dray couldn’t escape his sorrow.
“I know that God has a purpose and a greater way than we can know for everything, including what happened to my brother,” he said. “So everything we go through in life should have prepared us for that moment. But I never expected it to happen to him.
“We’re all just making it though living day to day.”
That includes Juan’s widow, Kayla, who Friday gave birth to their second child, a daughter, Nyla. The couple also has a 4-year-old daughter, Ariya.
And you can include the close-knit community of Edgard, where West St. John is located. The cane field-dominated side of St. John the Baptist Parish is one where poverty is a fact of life for many families.
But it still produces people like Juan, who quarterbacked West St. John to a pair of state championships and then went on to Millsaps College, where he led the Majors to three conference titles and in 2009 was named Mississippi’s college player of the year.
On top of that, Juan earned both his bachelor’s degree and master’s in business from Millsaps. But instead of immediately going into business, he returned to WSJ to coach and teach.
Among the many condolences for Juan on his newspaper guestbook was one thanking him for being such a positive force in the Journey to Careers course he taught.
He was also a rising young coach. On Friday, West St. John advanced to the Class 1A semifinals.
“My brother wasn’t just taken away from his family,” Dray said. “It took away a great leader for our community now and in the future. Everywhere he went, he made people smile, no matter what the circumstances were. He certainly didn’t deserve to be killed.”
But he was, as far, far too many young black men are these days.
The reasons and the circumstances vary. Sometimes they put themselves in situations where bad things happen. That wasn’t the case with Juan.
He was leaving a nightclub in Baton Rouge with two friends when, by all accounts, his friends got into an argument with two strangers in the parking lot.
Juan was trying to play the peacemaker, but instead he was shot to death. The strangers have been arrested.
“Juan and I have never gotten in any trouble more serious than a speeding ticket or not wearing a seat belt,” Dray said. “His killers don’t know what kind of young man they’ve taken away from us.”
Juan and Dray, born four years apart, grew up so close that they slept in the same bed until Juan went off to college, even though they had their own rooms.
Because of their age difference, Dray was able to see every one of Juan’s home games at Millsaps, and then Juan was able to see all of Dray’s games at Southern.
He also hadn’t missed a game played this season by Howard, whom the duo considered an honorary younger brother.
Until the Bayou Classic, when Howard completed 14 of 23 passes for 258 yards. Most of his passing yards came in the first half, when he had only 11 attempts but completed seven for 175 yards and three TD passes to stake the Jaguars to a 31-17 lead.
And although in the fourth quarter Howard, who was not allowed to speak to the media by Jaguars coach Dawson Odoms because he is a true freshman, had a costly interception that Grambling converted into a quick touchdown to make it a one-possession game, he later had a 23-yard scramble to the Grambling 24 that appeared to set up a game-clinching field goal attempt.
Instead, the Tigers blocked it and drove the Southern 1, where Grambling quarterback Johnathan Williams was stopped for no gain as time expired.
The late heroics prevented Dray from getting from the press box to the field to share their immediate joy over the victory. But it didn’t prevent them from making up for lost time afterward.
“We’ve got three quarterbacks, so I can’t play favorites,” Dray said. “But I was so happy when Austin signed with Southern, and I told him he’s going to break all of my records. He’s already making throws I couldn’t do until I was a junior or a senior.”
Dray is finishing up his degree in electrical engineering but, like his late brother, isn’t sure whether he wants to go into coaching or the business world.
Either way now, more than ever, he wants to be a positive force in the lives of whoever he touches.
“I want to encourage all young black men to do well in school,” Dray said. “The more intelligent we get, the more degrees we’re capable of getting, (that) leads to more great jobs and great careers and great futures.”
Sounds like something straight from the Juan Joseph playbook.
And it also sounds like there’s at least one person who will be carrying it forward. Maybe two. Maybe more.