I was dealing with a number of emotions and as a parent I couldn’t imagine what these people were dealing with. I immediately called my wife. I needed to hear my son’s voice. He isn’t even two yet and can barely put together more than a couple of words but I needed to hear him. I needed to hear him say “Daddy”. No sooner than I hung up the phone I realized that 20 families, 20 dads, 20 moms, would never hear their child say “Daddy” or “Mommy” again. That shook me to my core. My heart shattered and I was again left feeling helpless, angry, and sad.
On Monday morning I received a phone call from Chris Canetti, President of the Houston Dynamo. Chris is also a Quinnipiac University Alumnus who grew up in Guilford, Connecticut. He asked me how I was doing and we started talking about the tragedy straight away. “Is there a soccer community in Newtown?” he asked. “There most definitely is.” I answered. I went on to tell Chris about the success of the boy’s and girl’s High School programs, the large in town club and the CFC Samba Premier program located in Newtown. I even mentioned that Marcus Tracy, a member of the San Jose Earthquakes was from Newtown. Ironically enough the Dynamo drafted Marcus out of Wake Forest, but he opted to play in Europe instead of joining MLS.
The ball was rolling. I called Steve Coxon, the president of Connecticut Football Club who has a branch (CFC Samba) out of Newtown and he donated his club’s training time slots at the Newtown Youth Academy for us to host the event. Word quickly spread through social media that the Houston Dynamo was coming to Newtown and partnering with Quinnipiac University and CFC. Chris was contacted by Alexi Lalas who wanted to help. Then Mia Hamm, Cobi Jones, Kristine Lilly and several MLS clubs joined in as well. Finally MLS Commissioner Don Garber got involved and said “What can we as a league do to help?” and from there Soccer Night in Newtown was born.
When Chris and I first spoke on that Monday morning we could not have imagined it would have reached the point that it did. The outpouring of support and willingness to help from across the nation was both overwhelming and exceptionally special. When all was said and done nearly 40 MLS players representing every club in the league was committed to the event. Players such as Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, Matt Reis, Kenny Cooper, Shawn Franklin, Ricardo Clark, Chris Rolfe and Dwayne De Rosario, to go along with US National Team Greats: Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, Tony Meola, Mike Burns, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Christie Rampone. Every one of them volunteering their time in the offseason for a worthwhile cause. Not for the media, not for the publicity, and not because they were contractually obligated. Rather, because they cared.
There were so many acts of kindness by so many amazingly gracious and impressive people, but none more impressive than Landon Donovan. Landon quietly went about his business; you could see the emotion on his face. He was “all in” and this meant something to him. As the event ended and people left the building, Landon stayed. His liaison informed him that he could go and he replied “There are still a few kids here, I would like to stay.” And so he did. He juggled and passed the ball with 3 kids for about 30 minutes in a nearly empty building. When he saw a little girl crying because she mistakenly threw out the autograph card that held so many signatures she worked so hard to collect, Landon fished through the trash to find it. He then took the shirt off his back, signed it and handed it to a fan. He didn’t leave the building until every child was gone. As he walked out to his car, alone, there were no cameras, no media, just Landon, his sense of fulfillment and all of my deepest respect.
In closing I leave you with excerpts from a thank you letter sent to the organizers and volunteers. This heartwarming letter captures the meaning and magnitude of the event better than I could ever describe.
“In attendance last night were; children that can't go to sleep at night, ...parents that needed to see their children smile, ...kids that are afraid to go back to school, ...families that have had their hearts broken, ... first responders that experienced 1st hand the tragic event, ....teachers that were locked in closets with their students, ....many families and friends of a community that have shed many tears over the past few weeks....
In a very special way, you all have helped the healing. With compassion, caring, understanding and play you touched the very soul of our town, our youth. Youth not always measured by age, but the youth in all of us that is pure innocence and joy. Seeing soccer legends and players ignite the memories of parents and college volunteers was as gratifying as seeing players sign the ball of a younger child that doesn't even know their name. The hopes and dreams of all are brought together by the simplest gestures: a picture, a signature, a kind word or a smile..
The balls, cleats, shirts, and cards will hang on shelves and walls for many years but the memories....will be in the hearts of those that attended, forever...
When in the future, you tell your friends about the "Soccer Night in Newtown", and I hope that you do with a smile, be assured ~ there are angels behind your smiles......”