Heartbreak in Newtown feels too close to home

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 em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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