Jaxon Turner remembers the moment he met his best friend. It was the first day of peewee football practice for the Mesquite Hornets, and he was new to the team. He wondered how quickly he could turn his teammates into friends. But before those fears could even fully form, a boy bounded across the field toward him, beaming ear to ear with a bright smile. The boy held out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Jordan Edwards, one of the fastest boys on the team."
Sometimes an extended hand can start a friendship. Although Jaxon and Jordan weren't always teammates—Jaxon was a year older—it came to be that they rarely went a week without being together. They'd go over to each other's houses, run and bike around each other's neighborhoods and battle in Madden and NBA 2K. They'd rip on each other, with Jaxon calling Jordan "Peanut Head" because, Jaxon says, he looked kind of like the Planters mascot, Mr. Peanut. Jordan would respond by calling Jaxon, a defensive lineman, fat. Then they'd double over laughing and get right back to playing.
Tonight, they were supposed to play together again here, 20 minutes east of Dallas, at Mesquite High School's spring football game. Instead, as Jaxon sits in his locker and slips his pads onto his shoulders, a stall in the freshman locker room down the hall is vacant but for the notes and poems and pictures left behind in the days after his best friend died. A month ago, a police officer shot and killed Jordan as he was leaving a party. Sometimes an extended hand can end a life.
After Jaxon finishes dressing, he joins his teammates on a grassy plain behind the field. As they huddle together, trying to psych themselves up for kickoff, the Skeeters pledge to play for Jordan. They break the scrum to the sound of his name and hope that, for the next two hours, a game can silence their grief.
Jordan Edwards was 15 years old, and he had only been to one party in his life. So he begged his father, Odell, to let him attend one on Saturday night, April 29. Odell agreed only because Jordan's brother, 17-year-old Kevon, and stepbrother, 16-year-old Vidal Allen, were going as well. Vidal drove, and he told Odell they'd leave at any sign of trouble.
They left their house around 9 p.m. and arrived at the party 15 minutes later. They each paid $2 at the door. Kevon and Vidal spent most of the next hour in the backyard, but Jordan, a social butterfly, bounced around from clique to clique. None of them drank, but they got hungry after about an hour and left for a convenience store to eat hot fries and drink red soda.
By the time they returned, more than 300 people had crammed into the house and were spilling out onto the front lawn. A little before 11 p.m., two police officers pulled up in a squad car. They began breaking up the party. Kevon, Vidal and Jordan met at their Chevy Impala. Jordan kissed his girlfriend goodbye and climbed into the front passenger seat. As Vidal began to drive away, he believed he heard an officer swear at them to stop the car. Before he could put it in park, though, he heard something else: Officer Tyler Gross hit their rear window with his gun, shattering the glass.
Jeff Fleener remembers his second day at Mesquite High more than his first. After being hired away from Brandeis High in San Antonio, Fleener started at Mesquite on Presidents Day and spent most of it shaking hands with the staff because students had the holiday off. The next morning, he assembled his players for the first time and pledged to learn their names and positions as soon as possible. "Don't be afraid to introduce yourselves," he told them.
That afternoon, as the new coach toured the weight room, a player jumped off the bench and stretched out his hand. "Hi, I'm Jordan Edwards," he said, "a freshman wide receiver and defensive back."
"Are you going to be good enough to make varsity next year?" Fleener asked him.
"Yes, sir," he said.
Fleener, the 37-year-old son of a high school football coach, has coached football himself since the summer after he graduated from Texas A&M. He could pick out a future varsity starter on a Friday night without the stadium lights on. Fleener glanced at Jordan, felt the grip of his handshake and knew he had a star defensive back in the making on his freshman team. "He had everything you'd look for in a player who was going to have a chance to play college football," Fleener says.
Jordan's father, Odell, saw the natural athletic abilities in each of his boys and started developing them when they started walking. Odell had them try everything from boxing to football just to see what would stick. Jordan couldn't quite spar with his big brothers, but they freely admitted he was the best football player. And Jordan, never lacking in confidence, set a goal to get recruited by Nick Saban. He slept underneath an Alabama blanket and had a Crimson Tide poster on his wall.
What Fleener saw from Jordan this March and April confirmed his initial assessment. Jordan attacked any weakness in his game mercilessly. Eager to improve his vertical, he researched shoes designed to increase calf strength and watched countless YouTube videos. Eager to heed his coaches' admonition to get stronger, he spent every weekday afternoon in the weight room.
Fleener's only concern was that Jordan might be too kind to play defense. Among Jordan's many nicknames was "Smiley." One afternoon in the gym, Fleener spotted Jordan as he tried to max out on the bench press. While straining his upper body and still barely able to lift the bar an inch off his chest, Jordan was, nonetheless, smiling at full strength. It took Fleener longer than he'd care to admit to realize that Jordan was struggling to push the bar. "He almost got crushed because we were all crying laughing, looking at him just killing himself with a smile on his face," Fleener says.
Another time this spring, Jordan spotted his friend Jaxon, who had two 45-pound plates on each side of the bar. Jaxon asked for help, so Jordan bent over the bar and smiled at him, their faces separate only by inches. They both started laughing so much they struggled to lift the bar back up. "I'd say it's my favorite memory of him, but there are so many," Jaxon says. "He made every moment better."
Then Fleener watched Jordan on the field. On one of their first days of practice, during a seven-on-seven session in T-shirts and shorts, Jordan watched a pass completed in front of him and popped the wide receiver. The wideout snapped back up and started screaming. Jordan stared him down silently. "Look out!" Fleener said. "Mr. Smiles Edwards can hit somebody!"
Jordan had a spot on varsity all but sealed up for his sophomore year. He had teammates and coaches who adored him. He had an Honors GPA. He had, he had, he had.
"What happened to Jordan, how it happened, this isn't going to go away a week or a month or a year from now," Fleener says. "This is a hot-button topic in the country. The thought had crossed my mind when I'd seen police shootings in the past that it could have been one of my kids. I've never put anything on Twitter. I've never picked up a picket sign and protested. But I want an explanation here.
"No one in a million years will find a fault with Jordan. He was from an amazing family. He was involved in church. He was great in the classroom. He was a pleasure to coach. And he was still shot. There is no storyline that makes sense of his death."
That was Jordan’s last word. Vidal believes Jordan saw Officer Roy Oliver pointing the rifle. His first instinct was to warn everyone. His second instinct was to save them. Vidal hasn't shared this part of the story with many people, but he told Jaxon: After Jordan cried out, he lunged forward, shielding his brother's body with his own.
The force of the gunfire threw Jordan's body into Vidal's shoulder. Vidal sped away in horror. In the back seat, Kevon shook his brother's slumped shoulders and begged him to say something. Vidal called their father. Odell told them to do whatever the police said.
Vidal remembers the police asking him to throw his phone out the window, and so he threw. He remembers being asked to walk out of the car backward, and so he walked. He remembers being told to move left, but he moved right by mistake. He remembers hearing, "This nigger doesn't know his fucking left from his right."
He remembers being handcuffed. He remembers arriving at the sheriff's station. He remembers answering questions. And finally, he remembers being free to feel. He remembers his brother's final act: "He took a bullet for me."
Ja'Darion Smith left the party about 30 minutes before the police arrived because it was too crowded. Ja'Darion and Jordan had met in middle school, when they were battling to become the Agnew Trojans' starting quarterback. Jordan won out, but he was so nice about the competition that Ja'Darion couldn't help but come to like him.
"He taught me how to be a teammate," Ja'Darion says. When he got home from the party, he couldn't sleep, so he stayed up flipping through channels on TV and through Snapchat on his phone. Around 3 a.m., a friend called him to deliver the news. He burst into tears and into his mother's bedroom, where they lay awake all night. "I left and he stayed," Ja'Darion says. "That's the only difference between us. That could have been me."
Coaches and players awoke to tragedy on April 30. Injustice can be difficult to recognize from a distance, but you know it when it knocks on your front door. Around 7 a.m., Fleener began scrolling through his phone when he saw a Twitter message that stunned him: Jordan Edwards had been shot. He told his wife, Katy, as she was preparing to drive their two sons back to San Antonio, where they were wrapping up the school year before relocating to Mesquite. "All I wanted to do that whole day was to hug her and my boys," Fleener says. Instead, he drove to the Mesquite superintendent's office for an emergency 9 a.m. meeting.
Around the time of that meeting, Jaxon received the news from his cousin. At first, he thought she was talking about another Jordan. Then he assumed she was playing a twisted joke on him. When he realized she was serious, he threw his phone and screamed. He didn't know what to do or where to go, so his family decided to stick to the normal Sunday routine and go to church. Jaxon doesn't really remember the sermon. "I went from crying to sad to mad," he says. "Now I want justice."
That Sunday afternoon, Jaxon, Ja'Darion and Fleener were among a small group of family and friends who visited the Edwards' home to offer their condolences. Odell and Jordan's stepmother, Charmaine, were in tears. Kevon and Vidal, who had been witnesses and then had spent much of the night in the sheriff's station, were in a stunned silence. They walked into Jordan's room, where time seemed frozen—on their brother's unmade bed were other outfits he had tried on for the last party of his life. It looked as though he'd walk back in to tidy up at any moment.
The first Monday of May was supposed to be the first day of spring football practice, but Fleener canceled it. And then he called a team meeting at the field house for 8 a.m. instead. He woke up early that morning to try to jot down a speech on a notepad, but he couldn't find the words. He decided he'd speak from the heart, but what he didn't expect was that Odell and Charmaine and Kevon and Vidal would join them. Through tears, he spoke for just a few moments, ending with the words: "Life is too short to live any other way than with a big-ass smile on your face."
After a team prayer, the more than 100 Skeeters stood up and, to a man, hugged Jordan's loved ones until the bell for first period sounded at 8:45. Throughout the day, the grieving continued. Jaxon took a Sharpie and two pens, walked into the freshman locker room and scrawled a message on the name card above Jordan's locker. Fleener got a six-by-10-foot sheet of brown butcher paper from the art room and laid it down along with a handful of pens and markers on a long table in the field house. Students added so many notes that Fleener had to get a second sheet.
"This has made our team so much closer," Ja'Darion says. “People who didn't used to talk to each other talk now. We're all a family."
After canceling the first spring practice to mourn, Fleener was adamant that his team start its football season that Tuesday. He had watched as a kind of paralysis struck his players, who had not yet begun to understand that they were part of an ongoing national story.
Even with camera crews from CNN and local news recording the practice, Fleener instructed his staff to treat it like any other. After all, they had been tasked with improving a team that hadn't recorded a winning season since 2012. So he and the assistants blasted music—and they went after players who made boneheaded mistakes. Even Vidal took the field, and the coaches didn't hesitate to chew him out on a couple of occasions.
"That was one of the ugliest practices I've ever seen," Fleener says, "but we won that day because we went out on the field. I told the players after: For two hours every day, you can lose yourself in football. We're still going to be sad and angry about Jordan when we walk off the field. But when we're on the field, we can play in a way that honors him."
When they walked off the field, many of the black teenagers on the team—like Jaxon and Ja'Darion—wrestled with new questions they never thought they'd have to confront up close. "You see these things on TV," Jaxon says. "Trayvon Martin. Mike Brown. Tamir Rice. They keep taking our young men. I've been taught police are here to protect, and I believe that. But you think to yourself, 'Could this have been me?'"
After initially declaring on the day after the party that Vidal had backed the Impala toward the officers "aggressively," Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber reversed course the Monday of the canceled practice, saying that the body-camera footage contradicted that account. He said the shooting was inconsistent with the department's core values. On Tuesday night, when the players got home from their rescheduled workout, they learned Haber had fired Officer Oliver.
For Lee Merritt, an attorney serving as the Edwards family spokesperson, this case will test how much the criminal justice system is willing to do to protect police officers. (Two additional attorneys are representing the family in its pending civil suit against Oliver and the Balch Springs Police Department.)
"I compare it to Sandy Hook," Merritt says of the Connecticut school shooting. "After Sandy Hook, America had to say to itself sort of soberly, 'Look, no matter what happens, we're not going to undermine gun rights. It's just not going to happen. You can kill a room full of kids. It doesn't matter.' The right to have access to guns, no matter the kind of weapon and regardless of the outcome, is something that we put over the value of human life. This is one of those cases again where America is going to face a question: Do we put law enforcement's freedom and sense of security over the value of black life?"
Oliver's attorney and the Balch Springs police did not respond to requests for comment. But in the mind of Bryan Stevenson, a prominent criminal justice and civil rights activist and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, police violence is a symptom of a larger disease.
"For centuries in this country, we characterized black people as less than fully human," he says. "I've said before that the great evil of American slavery was not the involuntary servitude or forced labor, but the narrative of white supremacy. The reason why we have this abuse of black people has to do with that narrative. We never actually did anything to address the notion that a person is more dangerous because of his skin color, and that presumption of danger we place on black people makes them more vulnerable in police encounters."
By Friday, six days after the party, an arrest warrant had been issued for Oliver. That same afternoon, Fleener and his staff held their first scrimmage of the spring session. Afterward, as the officer prepared to turn himself in on a charge of murder at the Parker County jail (he was released on bail and has not entered a plea), the coaches returned to their meeting room at Mesquite High. On a classroom-sized white board by the door, their depth chart features players' names printed on magnets, with colors assigned by class. Fleener stood next to it and began discussing how the day had affected their starting lineups for the season ahead, and then he paused. A silence fell over the room. Fleener blinked.
"All right, guys," he said. "I'll be the one to do it."
He reached out his hand and detached a gray magnet from the board: EDWARDS. But Fleener couldn't bring himself to throw the name tag away, so he stuffed it in his pocket. After the meeting ended, he walked the 15 paces back to his office, sat down in his chair and delicately placed Jordan's magnet in one of his drawers. He hasn't taken it out since. He's not ready to look at it again. But he knows that Jordan is in there, and that is enough.
The Skeeters will remember Jordan this fall with helmet decals and memorials. Vidal is switching his jersey to his stepbrother's No. 11. But they wanted the spring game to be about football. The first week had been impossibly painful. And the weeks since had been filled with wakes and memorials and reporters and uncomfortable questions about what justice looks like after an inexplicable tragedy.
So tonight, nearly a month after Jordan was killed, Mesquite forgoes a moment of silence. No one in the stands holds a sign. Instead, the community—like the team—allows itself just to enjoy the game.
Students alternate between cheering from the stands and sipping sodas while talking out by the concession stand. A couple gets into a heated argument in the parking lot, and the police pull the guy into a cruiser to calm him down, but no one seems to pay the interruption much mind. On the field, the biggest source of excitement is a late hit a backup safety puts on a backup quarterback near the end of the game.
After a final flurry of offensive activity with the starters, the game is called. The players take a knee in a semicircle around Fleener at midfield. He tells them they're so much better now than what he watched on video from a year ago. He warns the starters that their positions can be overtaken during the summer. He tells them all they need to get stronger. Then he has one more message.
"Last thing," he says, "and this is the last thing I'll say. A lot of people questioned what we would do this spring because of how it started. And you all know what I'm talking about. And I'll tell you that every day I say a little prayer, and I ask for Jordan's strength. You all know him. You know his big-ass smile he always had. Well, I know that he was watching us tonight with that big-ass smile spread across his face.
"Jordan is going to be with us all season. And beyond that, too. Three weeks, three months, three years from now, remember what you're playing for. Remember who you're playing for. Remember what we talked about that first Monday when we were all lost. We said we were going to make Jordan proud of us. We're still going to do that. We're going to keep making Jordan proud of us."
After the game, Jaxon heads home. As he does every night now, he walks to the corner of his room and bends down to look at the piece of paper he's perched atop the shoeboxes and the blue-and-black binder on the floor. It's Jordan's obituary. Designed like an issue of a magazine called Heavenly Times, Jordan beams on the cover above the words:
A LOVING SON
A DEVOTED BROTHER
A BELOVED GRANDSON
A GREAT ATHLETE
It's here in the silence that Jaxon needs his best friend the most. Classes can be a distraction, and football practice is all-consuming, but here in his room alone at night, Jaxon's thoughts drift back to Jordan's death. Alone, he wonders how safe this world really is for him anymore. Alone, the violence infiltrates his imagination. When the shooting starts, he picks up the paper and holds his friend in his hands. He tries to forget how he died. He tries instead to remember how Jordan Edwards lived.