As Sandy Hook anniversary nears, Newtown finds joy through its special football team
NOV 27, 2013 3:35a ET
The siren goes off and the cheers go up. Many of the voices are high-pitched, others deeper but unmistakably youthful — kids; their joyful noise fills the air. This is the sound every parent wants to hear: carefree, happy children.
“We like to think we put a smile on someone’s face every time we get a win”
This is what’s going on now in Newtown, Conn., a town that’s ready to change the focus from last December, if only everyone would let it.
The town that will be forever known as home to one of the nation’s worst mass shootings, when a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly one year ago, is currently home to another story — one that is helping to lift the spirits of the people of the picturesque, All-American town and perhaps write a new history.
Newtown High School’s football team stands a perfect 12-0 after a rain-soaked, run-fueled 42-7 drubbing of rival Masuk in its regular-season finale on Tuesday night.
It gets better. Newtown High is ranked No. 1 in Class LL, the division where the state’s biggest schools reside. The Nighthawks are in the top 10 in the state in passing yards, having outscored their opposition 439-138. And Newtown will be the top seed in the state playoffs when they kick off next Tuesday with a home game against a team still to be determined.
“We like to think we put a smile on someone’s face every time we get a win,” running back Cooper Gold said after rushing for 256 yards and five touchdowns in less than three quarters of playing time on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of good things going on here . . . that sometimes get overshadowed by all the negative things that go on, but I guess that’s what news is sometimes.”
Cooper Gold. What an All-American name, right?
Newtown is that kind of city, a quaint little postcard of a place that proudly flies a giant American flag high above the middle of its tree-lined Main Street.
It’s the kind of town that Steve George has never wanted to leave. He is Newtown’s coach. He was born and raised there, and was part of Newtown’s last state championship football team in 1992. He’s now in his seventh year as head coach of the Nighthawks.
“I’ve seen some great things happen in Newtown,” George said. “I sort of think that’s what we should be known for. There’s a lot of good things going on here. There’s a lot of great sports teams, there are great academics, and great things that go on in our schools that sometimes get overshadowed by all the negative things that go on, but I guess that’s what news is sometimes.”
One only need look to this week to realize the truth of those words.
As Newtown’s football team writes a story that gains national attention, the Sandy Hook tragedy has boomeranged back into the public eye, too. On Monday, the day before Newtown’s final regular-season game, the Connecticut State Attorney’s official summary report on the shootings was released. On Tuesday, the day of the game, a judge ordered that the 911 calls from the shooting be made public. And if the team reaches its goal of the state championship game, it could take place on Dec. 14, the one-year anniversary of the massacre.
All of that seems unfair, but even when the reminders are not as obvious, as glaring, they are still there in some form, and in some instances, self-created.
All season, for example, the Nighthawks have worn a helmet with a specially designed logo, which includes the number “26” as a tribute to the 26 victims killed in the massacre. The logo also contains green (Sandy Hook’s colors were green and white). Many fans taking in Tuesday’s game do so by filling up the visitor’s bleachers wearing jackets with green or white ribbons.
“As much as we have a rivalry with Newtown, we’ve supported them in the tragedy they had to deal with, and we still do”
That Newtown’s final regular-season win would come in Monroe was in some ways fitting. Monroe is Newtown’s direct neighbor to the south, and its most hospitable one, as well — the town that rallied most swiftly to its side.
When it was determined that the Sandy Hook Elementary School would be closed indefinitely, it was Monroe that volunteered the use of one of its campuses, Chalk Hill School, which had been closed the year before. Working quickly, students, employees and volunteers in the Monroe district rallied to prepare the building and make the sudden transplants feel at home. The school is still the temporary home of the students of Sandy Hook, less than 10 miles from the school they used to hold dear.
Earlier this month, the Sandy Hook complex was demolished for good. A new school will soon rise in its place.
“As much as we have a rivalry with Newtown, we’ve supported them in the tragedy they had to deal with, and we still do,” said Masuk coach Dave Brennan, whose team was eliminated from playoff contention with a 7-4 record. “Does it lessen the sting of a loss like this? Never. You always want to compete when you have a chance to play football, but this is what makes our sport so wonderful.”
To wit, when the clock expired, even the remaining Masuk faithful gave the victors a hand.
Newtown is so small — about 28,000 at last count — that nearly every resident had some personal connection to the shooting, however indirect. While none of the football team’s players reportedly had any relation to victims of the tragedy, about 10-15 had gone to elementary school at Sandy Hook, as had two coaches.
So on opening day in September, Newtown High officially dedicated the season to all that were lost that horrific morning, wearing green and white jerseys with “Sandy Hook” on the front and “Stay Strong” on the back.
Eleven weeks later, they are still carrying on their promise to the 26.
On a gray night that saw rain falling softly for all four quarters, the joy in that could not be understated.
When Gold left the game for the last time with his team up 35-7, when the offensive line was allowed a rare moment in the spotlight while being replaced late in the fourth, when the defense gamely dug in for a goal-line stand while up 35 points, it was made clear that these were boys embracing the challenge of chasing a dream. These were kids, happy and full of hope. To a town still healing, it was a sight and sound more meaningful, more perfect than the numbers 12 and 0.