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Escape on the pitch
How a game can mend a broken town
I spent much of my car ride to Newtown, Conn., Monday afternoon listening to music, but once I got near the town, I turned it off. Less than a month ago, the town was filled with grief and I wanted to do my best to observe how the town remembered the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Flags were at half staff. I passed a roadside memorial with 26 angels pitched in the ground. I got chills. When I got to the Newtown Youth Academy Sports & Fitness Center, the top of the building was lined with 26 ribbons. I couldn’t help but stare in awe.
Nothing will ever erase the horrors of what happened, but the only thing we can do is try to help them heal.
That’s where sports come in. Sports serve as an escape from the world, and that’s why “Soccer Night in Newtown” was the perfect event; it wasn’t supposed to be a time for grieving, but a time for recreation.
This is a town that needs to heal, and some of the most famous soccer players in the country took the time to give it much-needed compassion. Landon Donovan, Alexi Lalas, Mia Hamm and dozens of other players came to Soccer Night in Newtown, thanks to the planning of Chris Canetti, the Houston Dynamo president who helped organize the event, but it wasn’t about the professional players there; it was about the town coming together.
Everywhere I looked, players signed jerseys, soccer balls and photographs. They took pictures with the people. Fans got a chance to see some of their favorite athletes who they looked up to. One girl wearing a U.S. women’s national team jersey took a picture with Mia Hamm, holding a sign she made that read “Mia your my idol.”
Players talked about how they got into soccer and their college days. Kids asked the players questions about everything, from why they stuck with soccer to how they liked their steak cooked. The kids got their face painted, portraits taken and enjoyed a bouncy house.
But the most heartwarming sight of all was watching little kids play a pick-up game of soccer with Lalas, MLS players and other Quinnipiac and Connecticut Football Club Azul players. Without another care in the world, the kids played soccer, calling for the ball and yelling whenever they scored. Their parents were watching from the side, taking pictures and videos with their phones.
It was what the town needed. It was a time for the kids to let free and have fun. It allowed parents to get their minds off what happened and watch their children enjoy themselves. It allowed the players and volunteers to see how a game can mend a broken town.
All sports, not just soccer, have a way of unity. In troubled times, we turn to sports as a distraction, as a getaway. They allow us to put everything aside for a minute. It may be a game to some, but it is a symbol for many. It’s what we need sometimes. It’s exactly what Newtown got.