On a cold, winter Monday night, the American soccer community, particularly Major League Soccer, shared its love with this west Connecticut community that was ravaged by the horror of horrors slightly more than three weeks ago.
Some 40 players, men and women, some of the greatest in the U.S. game and some who have hung up their competitive soccer boots, gave more than 1,200 young children and their parents of this grieving town a reason to smile for a couple of hours.
Soccer Night in Newtown, it was called. It gave soccer players, their parents and coaches an opportunity to meet and greet their heroes, a chance to get autographs, get their faces painted with a soccer ball or have an opportunity kick the ball around with a Soccer Hall of Famer or two.
“It gets our mind off of it, gets the kids’ minds off of it,” said Kara Gerace, a mother of three children. “Have fun together, be with their friends, be normal kids. It’s been great. It’s amazing. It’s been very helpful.
“It was just so fun to just be some place, to feel safe, feel like everyone was around caring about you and helping you out and helping your town and offering such wonderful gifts. Just have fun and play. It was great.”
It was a far cry from the horrors that visited this small, tight-knit town on Dec. 14, when a monster killed 26 people, including 20 young school children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
That tragedy rarely was mentioned on Monday night.
“Hopefully it brings them smiles and [they] let go of some things for a little bit,” said National Soccer Hall of Famer Kristine Lilly, who grew up in Wilton, Conn., about a half hour away.
“Kids want to have fun. They want to relax and be kids,” San Jose Earthquakes forward Marcus Tracy said. “A lot of them do look up to athletes as role models. For us to come here and spend time with them and let them have fun, it’s just a perfect way to help them to heal and find a sense of normalcy in their lives.”
What transpired here on Dec. 14 turned out to be quite personal for Tracy, who grew up and lived here for 18 years.
“I was obviously deeply impacted by it,” he said. “Nothing like the families obviously who had to suffer such great loss. This is my town. This is my home. It’s great to see the response of the U.S. soccer community coming together because Newtown is and has always been a soccer town. It’s important to get people out here, get the kids out there, show them a good time again, sort of restore that sense of normalcy and seeing them and go around and laugh.”
And smile as well.
There was little doubt that the Gerace family had plenty to smile about.
“It really means a lot to me because Newtown has never been noticed before,” young Julia Gerace said. “I just think it’s really good for all these people to come and help us out.
“It means a lot of people are going to feel good about us, be sorry for us because something bad happened here, really.”
Julia’s highlight was seeing the gold medal that U.S. women’s national team captain Christie Rampone won at the recent London Olympics up close and personal.
“I liked holding the gold medal,” Julia said.
To which her younger brother Marcus said, “I want to see the gold medal!”
For seven-year-old sister Isabella, the event was an opportunity to meet the great Mia Hamm “because I knew she was the captain of the Olympics and I just really loved her.”
The event was the brainchild of Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti, who grew up in Guilford, Conn. and graduated from Quinnipiac College in Hampden, Conn. He proudly watched the proceedings from the sidelines.
“You can tell it means a lot to the people of this town,” he said. “I have seen them going up to the players and saying thank you for being here. You don’t know how much this means for our community. We sat in the green room in between sessions with the players and that’s what they were talking about. ‘Whoa — we made an impact here.’ It really struck them. They will tell you how thankful and grateful the people are for coming to town.”
National Soccer Hall of Famer Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN commentator, said soccer’s work here was far from finished, that it had only just begun.
Lalas played soccer on a small field with youngsters. He was given a blue wristband by a boy on a team called the Titans, which he wore on his right wrist. Two of the boys on the Titans had younger siblings who were killed on Dec. 14; their initials were on the band.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Everyone has a story. Everybody is touched in one way or another. but ultimately, this is a community that does not need help one day, but its going to continue to need help. Which is way we made a point of saying that we’ll be back as many times as possible. So they recognize the soccer community is supporting them more than just a two-hour clinic.”
Hamm, the all-time international goal-scorer who was beseiged for autographs, even on children’s soccer shoes, agreed.
“There’s still a lot of healing and pain,” she said. “But what we need to keep in mind is to keep revisiting them because the grieving process takes time. It’s not just a one-time thing.”
But for those few precious hours on Monday night, though, many children and parents were given a chance to smile.