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Panthers rookie CB McClain honors slain UConn teammate at training camp

The silver No. 6 pendant dangles at the end of a chain around Robert McClain's neck. The tattoo honoring his slain college teammate covers the left side of his rib cage.

The seventh-round pick is busy these days trying to stick with the Carolina Panthers. But the former Connecticut star still thinks about Jasper Howard every day, about how in a year the fellow cornerback was supposed to be in an NFL training camp, too.

"He was a playmaker, a playmaker. He was on his way, man," McClain said Friday of the close friend he called Jazz. "He definitely would have had an outstanding year his senior year."

Howard's life ended in October. Less than 12 hours after he had starred in a Huskies' victory, he was fatally stabbed during a fight outside a university-sanctioned dance.

McClain, who had let Howard borrow his car earlier that week to pick up his girlfriend, had decided not to attend the dance. He instead stayed in a hotel room with his parents, who had watched UConn beat Louisville 38-25 on homecoming.

"I had my phone on silent the whole night. I woke up the next morning around 8 o'clock and I saw all the different phone calls," McClain said. "I couldn't believe it. I remember there was a cold rain that morning. I was sick and crying that whole day. It was just devastating."

Those memories remain fresh with McClain, even as he surprises many with his play at training camp with a couple interceptions and diving pass breakups.

"That kid has really come on," Panthers coach John Fox said.

McClain is playing a lot like he did at UConn, when he paired with Howard to make the Huskies a factor in the Big East.

The 5-foot-9 McClain was the speedy, undersized cornerback and kick returner capable of big plays on both sides of the ball. The second-team all-Big East selection had four interceptions and returned a punt for a touchdown last season.

The 5-foot-10 Howard returned kicks, too, and had made 11 tackles and forced a third-quarter fumble to help the Huskies maintain the lead against the Cardinals in his final game.

His death left a void McClain still shudders to think about. How they had to play again so soon. How they tried so hard, perhaps too hard, to win for him.

After three consecutive losses following his death, Connecticut tasted victory in emotional fashion at Notre Dame. After the game, coach Randy Edsall took out the pendant with the No. 6, the number Howard wore.

"Coach had said after we won he was going to give it to somebody," McClain said. "He gave it to me."

McClain immediately attached it to a chain in which he carries his grandfather's dog tags.

"I wear these every day," McClain said, clutching the chain.

Later, McClain was one of several UConn players to get a tattoo. It's a No. 6 with rosary beads and a cross. It also lists his birthday and the date of his death, Oct. 18, 2009.

"Me and Jazz were the last two leave the locker room that day," McClain recalled. "We were talking about how the season was going and (I kidded him) that he didn't have any picks yet."

McClain hopes he can continue to honor Howard by making Carolina's final roster. The 249th pick in the draft has intercepted Jimmy Clausen twice this week as he works with the third-team defense.

"Coach said in the first team meeting, 'If you want to be recognized, if you want to be noticed, you've got to make some plays out there,'" McClain said. "The best way for a cornerback to make plays is interceptions, pass breakups and (tackles for a loss). That really sets yourself apart from other members of the team."

The No. 6 around his neck sets McClain apart, too. And that's not going anywhere, no matter where he ends up.

"He's my boy," McClain said.