Dec 13 9:00 PM

Dedicating season to Sandy Hook victims, Newtown High football helps heal

After running back Cooper Gold ran in a touchdown from two yards out, the perfect season was still alive in Newtown, Conn. With 16 seconds left in last week’s state quarterfinals, the top-ranked Newtown High School Nighthawks’ football team, once down by 22 points, had rallied and was now a two-point conversion away from tying Ridgefield High School.

Less than a minute later, a Ridgefield defender batted down the two-point conversion attempt. Final score: Ridgefield 35, Newtown 33. The season was over.

“This loss hurts a lot,” Nighthawks Coach Steve George told the Connecticut Post after the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Class LL quarterfinals. “I feel bad for our seniors, who are a great group of players.”

But what the team was able to accomplish was inspiring. Before last week, it had been a dream season for the Nighthawks, going 12-0 in the regular season and beating their opponents by an average of 25 points. The team’s success also offered Newtown residents a distraction from the lingering effects of the nightmare of a year ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Dedicating their season to the 26 students and school employees killed in an attack last year, the team’s hope was to play for the state title on the first anniversary of the shootings. Instead, they helped give the town a much-needed distraction.

“No one will ever forget what happened,” Gold told the Hartford Courant last month. “We wanted the community to look on more positive things, if even for a little while. Every time we’ve played a game, our motto has been: ‘Try to put a smile on someone’s face.’”

'Football is their bond'

The town’s focus remained on football, but reminders of Sandy Hook were constant this season. The players wore a decal with the number 26 on their helmets, representing the people killed in the school shooting. For the first home game, the team, whose colors are blue and gold, sported green and white Sandy Hook jerseys, each of them reading “Stay Strong” on the back.

The sense that the team was trying its best to offer Newtown residents an escape from last year's tragedy was evident to Bo Prescott, the uncle of Drew Tarantino, the team’s starting quarterback. Prescott, who attended almost all of the games this season, said interest from residents in the sports-crazy town in Southwest Connecticut swelled to even greater heights during the undefeated run.

"Some people were going to the games who didn't even like football just to look at the turnout and be around the team," Prescott said.

Nighthawk fever attracted standing-room-only crowds, sometimes reaching 5,000 people. Before Newtown became known on the national stage, the town had built a reputation in the last decade for high school sports excellence. Since moving to Newtown in 1999, Mike McNamara has seen town camaraderie generated from the youth leagues all the way through high school. McNamara, who ran Newtown’s youth football program for six years, said the town’s “one community, one program” mindset in developing the town’s young athletes was crucial in helping the Nighthawks take on the emotional burden that went along with this season.

"It gave them a reason to come together," said McNamara, president of the Newtown Nighthawks Football Association booster club. "The beauty of it is you have kids who have played together for so long. Football is their bond, it's their network and it’s their friendship. It gave them the ability to focus on something they're very good at."

Helping a community move on

To honor the victims of last year's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Newtown High School's football team, which dedicated the season to the victims, wore a "26" decal on their helmets.
Courtesy: Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant

The response to the town’s high school football team is looked at as the latest example for how, in recent history, sports has played a role in helping Americans heal following tragedies. The New York Yankees and Mets captured the hearts of grieving New Yorkers in the weeks following 9/11. Thirteen months after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Saints returned to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which sheltered thousands of displaced residents after the storm, to a raucous homecoming. Earlier this year, Bostonians rallied around the Bruins and the Red Sox following the Boston Marathon bombings.

But the Nighthawks’ season and the circumstances strike a different chord. Newtown is not a major city, and it does not have a professional sports team to help act as the face of the town. Instead, it’s a team of teenagers, which is a dynamic that has deviated from recent instances of sporting accomplishments following national tragedies, said Michael Gavin, author of “Sports in the Aftermath of Tragedy: From Kennedy to Katrina.”

“More than any other recent tragedy, you have people who are younger athletes that have taken to heart the need to help their community heal, whether it’s through football or other acts,” said Gavin, a senior academic administrator at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md.

Harry Edwards has been considered one of the foremost experts on the intersection of sports and culture for more than 40 years. The lasting and indelible statement left by the team this season, he said, goes far beyond wins and losses.

“It is not so relevant that the Newtown football team won or lost, but that the team fought the good fight and finished the season strong, not despite the burden of that horrific tragedy, but precisely because of it,” said Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Newtown's 'positive' exposure

Newtown's high-school football team's undefeated regular season would eventually attract the attention of national media. The town, however, has asked that no media broadcast from Newtown this weekend.
Courtesy: Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant

Each win garnered more national attention, eventually turning the team into a point of fascination. With the team clinching a perfect regular season and the No. 1 seed in the state playoffs, speculation began to circulate that, if the team completed its run to the title game, it would play on the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings.

In the days leading up to the team’s opening-round playoff game against Ridgefield, the school took preemptive measures to prevent the football team’s success from becoming part of the Sandy Hook narrative one year later. The school prohibited national media from covering the Dec. 3 game. Before the playoffs even started, the school requested that, if the team had made the state title game, the team not play on the Sandy Hook anniversary. Athletic director Gregg Simon and Principal Charles Dumais declined to make George, the team’s head coach, available for interviews following the regular season.

The decision on the part of the school to limit media access to the team was part of a  “semiofficial” town request to respect its wishes and not descend on Newtown for Saturday’s anniversary. (America Tonight heeded the appeal of the school to not participate in an interview with George before the anniversary.)

The role that high-school sports have had Newtown before, and after, Sandy Hook has given First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, Newtown's top elected official, hope that the Nighthawks' season was an important step in the healing process.

"It is good for the community to have positive things to focus on during these difficult weeks," Llodra said. "There are many, many good and exciting things happening in Newtown and the success of the football team adds to that sense that we will be well again."

What impact has the murder of 20 children and six Sandy Hook Elementary school staff members one year ago had on the Newtown community and the country? Watch America Tonight this evening at 9 p.m. ET for Sarah Hoye's report .

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