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Utah Blaze tribute to Justin Skaggs: 'We just miss him'
Fallen player's family in town for ceremony
By Jay Drew
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published March 29, 2008 1:44 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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Jacob Skaggs, who turned 6 on Tuesday, was on his way to an indoor soccer game last fall when he got a stomachache. He asked his mother if they could go home, but before Tara Skaggs could get the car turned around, the son of deceased Utah Blaze receiver Justin Skaggs had a change of heart.

"Daddy played even when he wasn't feeling good, didn't he?" Jake asked. "He played even when he had an injury, didn't he?"

Yes, his mother answered.

"Well, then I am going to play," he said. "Let's keep going."

A little more than nine months after Skaggs was taken from them at the height of his professional football career by a cancerous brain tumor, his family keeps going.

Sure, they have good days and bad days, but not a single one goes by when they don't think about their husband and father and what he would have wanted them to do.

"We just have that sadness. We just miss him," she said. "But we are able to go forward. Everybody is just progressing right along just like if he was here. And I think Justin wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

Coming back

Having returned home a few days after the memorial service in June to the duplex Skaggs built with his own hands in Springfield, Mo., the family visited Utah this week for the first time since last summer.

Because Skaggs wore No. 3 and this is the Blaze's third home game of 2008, team officials will memorialize the former player prior to the game against the Georgia Force and family members will participate in the pregame coin toss and other ceremonies.

Tara said the Blaze organization and the Arena Football League have been "wonderful" to her family since her husband was first diagnosed with the brain tumor on June 1, and have "done more than enough" to help her and her children cope with the loss, emotionally and financially.

Still, she was hesitant about returning to the place where her husband died so soon after the tragedy.

"At first, I was really nervous," she said. "I pictured getting off the airplane and falling apart, because Justin always came and got me there. I pictured it just being really difficult, but it has not been anything like that at all. . . . I love this city and I love coming here. Everyone here [with the Blaze] is like a second family."

Blaze quarterback Jason Gesser was one of Skaggs' best friends on the team, and he and his wife have spent a lot of time with Tara and her children. Kali Gesser flew into town this week to be with the family, and Gesser and lineman Rob Gatrell took them to the Utah Jazz game Tuesday night.

They've stayed in the home of another former teammate, kicker Steve Videtich, and his wife, Carolyn.

"Tara is doing better," Gesser said. "A lot better. She feels like [the Blaze] don't owe her anything, like nobody owes her anything. She's appreciative of everything the Garff family [which owns the Blaze] has done and the whole organization has done, from the top all the way down. She feels like she can't say thank you enough."

Learning to cope

The family is doing as well as could be expected, Tara said.

Jacob started kindergarten shortly after moving back to Springfield - where Justin and Tara went to college at Evangel University and began raising their family. He recently lost a tooth and is already reading at a first-grade level. Abbie, 3, can already write her name.

Jacob remembers everything about his father, right down to specific turf burns and injuries the 28-year-old suffered the season before he died, while Abbie recalls just a few things, but usually finishes recollections with the statement that her daddy is in heaven now.

"Abbie made the choice from the start: 'I don't want to be sad. I want to be happy.' " Tara said. "So that's kind of how Abbie is."

Not surprisingly, the loss has been especially hard on Jake.

"Justin hung the moon and the stars for that boy, for sure, so that's been the most difficult thing," Tara said. "You can catch him just stopping and staring off into space, and you know that's where he is at, just thinking about and remembering his dad."

Their home is exactly how it was when they left it in February 2007 to join their father in Utah, with pictures of No. 3 and his family everywhere and Jake's room decked out in everything Blaze. His room now includes the helmet, shoulder pads and jersey his father used, plus all the belongings that were in Skaggs' locker at ESA on that early-summer day when the family's world was rocked with news that he had inoperable brain cancer.

"It is constantly on your brain, that he's not here. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it," Tara said. "The kids and I talk about him constantly all day long. 'Daddy used to do that, or daddy did this.' And we normally do have happy memories.

"Sometimes Jacob will ask questions about the tumor or things like that. We answer them openly and honestly. It's just how we do things. The three of us, we are a really good team."

Promising future

In 2006, Skaggs' first year with the Blaze, the family stayed in Missouri so Tara could finish her schooling. She recently became a certified medical assistant, and plans to go back to work eventually, perhaps when Abbie starts kindergarten.

"I just want to be sure I don't miss anything emotionally from Jake, so that we don't have to pay for this forever," Tara said. "I don't think Justin would want that. I think he would want us to go forward and for Jake to capitalize on it more than struggle with it forever."

The family is doing OK financially, renting out the other side of the duplex, and because the couple was fortunate enough to take out a life insurance policy less than a year before Skaggs died. There's also the memorial fund set up by the Blaze, "which had an enormous response," Tara said.

She received a phone call from AFL commissioner David Baker shortly after Justin died, and has been told the league has funds available if she ever has any pressing financial needs.

Three forever

The Blaze have not disclosed all they have planned for this evening, but Tara is hoping they retire the No. 3 jersey that her husband wore since the Blaze acquired his rights from Orlando in the 2006 expansion draft. Justin was also a member of the NFL's Washington Redskins - although he never played in a regular-season game - and played in NFL Europe for a time.

"To see somebody else run around with that number, I think would be difficult to see," she said. "I would like to see them [retire] it, yes."

Certainly, nobody will ever get the number while the current Blaze management is in place, team president Jason Jones allowed.

Maybe that will change in about 16 years.

Jacob Skaggs has started playing flag football back home, and his coach has said he is as fast as his dad was and has made him a running back.

"It is almost like Justin started all over again in my 6-year-old son, in his appetite, in his personality," Tara said. "Jake is a carbon-copy of Justin Skaggs, for sure. He's identical to him."

And he would never stop playing - stomachache or not.

drew@sltrib.com

Where: EnergySolutions Arena

Kickoff: Today, 7 p.m.

TV: KJZZ

Radio: 1320 AM

Records: Utah 0-4, Georgia 1-3

Series: First meeting

Line: Blaze by 3

About the Force: They are coached by Doug Plank, one of Blaze coach Danny White's assistants when he was in Arizona. . . . Their 50-45 loss last week to Orlando was controversial. They seemingly scored the go-ahead touchdown as time expired, but officials ruled the ballcarrier was out of bounds before crossing the goal line.

About the Blaze: DB Eddie Canonico was acquired from Los Angeles on Thursday and will likely start tonight for the Blaze. . . . DB Reggie Doster played for the Force the majority of the 2007 season, recording 65 tackles and five interceptions before moving on.



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