Saturday marked seven years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that left 20 students and six educators dead. And, as a town came together to remember and to pray in the morning, it also came together to celebrate an unlikely football victory by night’s end.
The day began as a somber one, with memorial services like Newtown Congregational Church’s interfaith remembrance. A few dozen people trickled into the sanctuary, seating themselves in clusters within the wooden pews. For the next hour, a series of prayers, words of encouragement and songs were shared by Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders. Rabbi Shaul Praver noted the significance of seven-year cycles across the Abrahamic religions.
“We don’t want to be remembered as a town of tragedy but as a town that gave birth to a new type of world, a culture of peace, kindness, and of love,” he said.
Newtown resident Lee Shull came to the vigil.
“Not being a religious person, it still offers some comfort being in community with everybody of different faiths,” Shull said. “We are all truly in this together.”
As the name of each victim was read aloud, some began to cry.
“It still feels pretty raw to be honest with you,” said Shull, who’s lived in Newtown for 15 years. “I don’t think there’s a day that at least for me, where I don’t think about the events. There are constant reminders, every day.”
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, wearing a green peacoat, slipped into the sanctuary with a couple of members of her team. Green is one of Sandy Hook’s school colors, and it has become a symbol of unity and hope within the community.
Also in attendance was Monte Frank, the Sandy Hook attorney who founded Team 26, a group of cyclists committed to raising awareness about and connecting with communities harmed by gun violence. Frank sat in a pew wearing his vibrant green cycling jacket.
“Seven years later and it still hurts. But, engaging in prayer with people of all faiths is so powerful and comforting,” Frank said. “It motivates me to continue the work that so many of us in Newtown are doing to drive cultural change away from violence and towards peace, hope, and love.”
From 2013 to 2018, Team 26 rode with its message of “peace, hope, and love” from Newtown to Washington, D.C., to support reducing gun violence. Earlier this year, the group chose to ride from Newtown to Pittsburgh, where 11 Jewish worshippers were killed in a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.
Frank, who’s Jewish, said he’s grown frustrated by “congressional paralysis” when it comes to combating gun violence.
“We turned away from Washington, D.C., and instead rode south to Baltimore and then west to Pittsburgh,” Frank said, “uniting Sandy Hook with Squirrel Hill and all the communities in between that have been impacted from gun violence to drive the cultural change needed to save lives.”
John Woodall, a member of the Baha’i faith, stood at the door collecting candles at the end of the service. He said Newtown’s recovery is a lesson for the nation.
“We have a choice when we suffer. We can become smaller and more rigid and angry and create an other that we blame everything on, or we can become bigger,” Woodall said. “And in Newtown, that’s what we’re seeing. People, their hearts, have become bigger, they’ve become better human beings.”
Newtown’s football team prepares for Saturday’s game.
A few hours later, those bigger hearts seemed to nearly burst. As rain fell, hundreds of Newtown High School fans crowded the stands of Trumbull High School to see the undefeated Nighthawks take on Darien High School’s Blue Wave in the state football championship.
While Newtown’s school colors are blue and gold, many chose to wear green: the cheerleaders’ sparkly jumbo bows, the student section’s custom T-shirts, the awareness ribbons pinned to jackets, a scarf, a hat. Some of the football players went with green tape on their cleats or a green layer underneath their jerseys.
Some in the stadium had direct ties to the tragedy. News outlets have reported that linebacker Ben Pinto’s little brother Jack was one of those killed at Sandy Hook. Before the national anthem, Newtown’s principal Kimberly Longobucco asked for a moment of silence. Afterward, cheers of “Let’s go Newtown!” erupted from the crowd. They’d come ready to cheer and eager for a win.
The Blue Wave scored first during the second quarter. That seven stuck until the fourth quarter when Newtown quarterback Jack Street threw a game-tying pass into the thick fog to wide receiver Riley Ward for a touchdown, making it 7-7. The student section began chanting, “I — I believe! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
Many fans in Newtown’s student section wore green, one of Sandy Hook Elementary School’s colors.
Then, with fewer than three seconds left on the clock and more than 30 yards between them, Street found Ward in the fog again, and Newtown found its joy.
As soon as Ward made it to the end zone, he threw his helmet toward the sky and bolted across the field into a flood of fans. The team followed.
“This championship is for the town. I think everyone here knows that this is for the whole community,” said Street, a junior. “It feels so good for the whole community, the whole town. I mean, we really needed this, especially on a day like today, just an unbelievable win for an unbelievable time.”
“That was surreal. We came out here expecting to dominate the game and that’s not how it started,” said Ward, also a senior. “After that first touchdown, we kind of just broke the barrier, we were able to just take off from there. “I’m just so proud of all of my guys, it was such a good team effort. I’m crazy excited.”
The quarterback-receiver duo is a special combination for more reasons than one. Street wears No. 2 and Ward, No. 13 If you multiply the two, that equals what the team calls its “26 angels.”
Correction: The article originally referred to Darian High School’s mascot as both the Blue Jays and the Blue Waves. The article has been corrected to Blue Wave throughout. Jack Street is a junior and wears jersey No. 2; the article originally said Street is a senior and wears No. 13. Riley Ward wears jersey No. 13; the article originally said Ward wore No. 2. We regret the errors.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.