Shortly after noon on Friday, the news alerts began to appear on my cell phone.
Words like “shooting” and “elementary school” were present in all of them. Details were scarce, but it was clear something horrific had occurred in Newtown, Conn.
Immediately, I sent a text message to one of my closest friends, Doug, a lifelong resident of the seemingly idyllic community that astonishingly became the scene for one of the worst school shootings in American history.
My first concern was for the well being of my friend, whom I had met while we were both sports journalists for our college newspaper.
“I’m OK,” he assured me. “But it’s bad … terrible. Helicopters have been circling above my house all day.”
Once I knew he was safe, my mind began to unsuccessfully process the aftermath of the events that left 26 victims — including 20 first-graders — massacred inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
This is not a sports story. In fact, it has no real ties to sports at all, other than the fact that these events served as a cruel reminder that as much as we all love sports, wins and losses on the field seem so unimportant when you think of the 20 precious children who will never get to realize their full potential.
But at the same time, I am a sports writer. It’s in my blood, and in tragic circumstances such as these, I tend to turn to sports for perspective — perspective that serves as a cold, brutal reminder how sacred human life is.
Like me, Doug is a sports writer. We bonded immediately over our shared love of sports and telling stories. When we graduated from Hofstra University in 2008, we often lamented to each other about being unable to find jobs in the field we so desperately wanted to be a part of.
Eventually, we both got our chances. Doug’s came first, covering high school sports in Newtown on a freelance basis until he was given an opportunity to helm the sports section of a small weekly newspaper several towns over. Then, after more than two years of freelancing my own stories for the Northeast Times, I was handed my own chance to oversee this publication’s sports section.
Both of us have thrived in these roles. How could we not? Armed with a passion for writing about the triumphs of young athletes in the neighborhoods we grew up in, this was the best of both worlds for Doug and me. After years of being raised in communities that had come to define us, it was now our turn to give back.
We aren’t doctors or scientists or movie stars. What Doug and I do might not matter to many who live outside our communities, but we both understand how much it means to our neighbors. That, and that alone, makes it worth it.
And that is also why the tragedy in Newtown hurts so badly.
For the most part, Doug and I write about kids. Sure, most of them are in high school and a decade older than the children who died on Friday, but they are kids nonetheless. It is so brilliantly innocent and thrilling to watch a child excel athletically. We write about them in their best days, before all semblances of purity vanish and sports — much like life in general past the age of 18 — become a full-time job.
As we get older, we long for those simpler times, when winning that youth soccer or basketball game was the only thing that mattered. Many of the kids who died in Newtown had started to play sports themselves. One of them — 6-year-old Jack Pinto — was already a budding athlete; according to published reports, Jack had just received a medal for winning his first wrestling match, and when he was buried on Monday, he was wearing the jersey of his favorite football player, New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz.
I didn’t know any of the children that died, nor their families, but I feel like I did, mainly because my job requires me to speak to so many parents who love their children as much as these families loved theirs. I am not a parent myself, but I feel the love and devotion, as well as the exultation, from the parents when their eyes light up seeing their son or daughter’s name in the paper.
It’s why so many parents steer their own children toward sports, because even as kids, the lessons we learn on the field have the power to positively shape the person we become later in life. In essence, sports help teach us the things parents cannot.
As I watched Robbie Parker, father of 6-year-old victim Emilie, discuss his daughter on CNN Saturday night, I was suddenly besieged by tears. I was devastated by his loss, but also empowered by his strength. I looked at Parker and I saw Frank Skirpan and Joe Smeck and Joe Steward and Joe DeMayo and Mark Guckin and every other father who I’ve spoken to this year about his son or daughter’s athletic endeavors. All of them are memorable based on the simple fact that they love their children with all of their hearts. Nothing makes parents prouder than when they get to boast about their child’s accomplishments; I should know, as mine still do to this day at 26 the same way they did when I was 6.
Throughout the weekend, I kept in touch with Doug, who, like the rest of Newtown, is putting on a brave face in the wake of tragedy. He was relieved he and his loved ones were safe, but also grief-stricken for the lost. Before Friday, there had been just one homicide in Newtown in the past 10 years. Last Friday morning brought 27 of them in a matter of minutes.
Suddenly, the only town my friend had ever called home had been changed forever, with its once quiet streets littered with news media trucks and makeshift memorials for the dead on seemingly every corner.
“From now on, whenever I tell someone I’m from Newtown, this is what they’ll think of,” he said. “It’s so sad.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org