First and foremost, I remember the bagpipes.
As a reporter for the Hartford Courant in Sept., 2001, I was honored and humbled to be given the assignment to cover the first Major League Baseball game held in New York City after 9/11.
The assembled media gathered at Shea Stadium that Friday afternoon, Sept. 21, and endured a lengthy security gauntlet the likes of which sports world had never seen. Everything was unchartered territory that day, and how could it not be? The ruins of the World Trade Center were still visibly smoldering off in the distance as you drove across the Whitestone Bridge into Queens.
While Mets manager Bobby Valentine did his level best to keep his players and attending fans in good spirits, the mood was tense, somber and sad. And the bagpipes in the pregame ceremony reduced many to tears, including players along the baselines, like Mike Piazza.
But it was the Mets’ catcher, in the bottom of the eighth, who provided the moment that justified our presence and validated our resolve to overcome this horrific tragedy and move forward with our lives.
FINAL — Oh. My. God.
Street hits Riley Ward for a 36-yard game winning touchdown as time expires in the fourth quarter.
Newtown 13, Darien 7.
The Nighthawks (13-0) are your Class LL state champions. pic.twitter.com/qCIF3E5Ruu
— Shawn McFarland (@McFarland_Shawn) December 14, 2019
Piazza’s two-run homer off the Braves’ Steve Karsay did more than put the Mets in the lead. It was a moment of direct healing and intervention. It was a civic duty, an allowance for the fans in the stands, all New Yorkers, all Americans, to cheer and be caught up in a stirring sports moment.
To forget. For a moment. To be happy.
That is the beauty and magic of sports. It is Steve Gleason blocking a punt at the New Orleans Superdome for a touchdown in 2006 to bring a devastated city back to life. It is the fans at TD Garden, just days after the Marathon Bombing in 2013 – before the bombers had even been caught – singing the National Anthem before a Bruins game with gusto, resolve and defiance at the first sporting event in the city. It is David Ortiz, at Fenway Park, declaring that Boston was “Our F—ing City” and that no one could dictate our freedom, the day after the bombers were finally caught. Six months later, a World Series title and the trophy laid at rest at the Marathon finish line.
And so it came to be on Saturday, on the football field at Trumbull High School in Connecticut, that the Newtown High School football team found itself three seconds and 36 yards away from a dream it had not fulfilled since 1992: Capturing the Class LL state championship.
It was lost on absolutely no one that the 11 players setting up at the line of scrimmage – and the rest of their teammates on the sidelines, were all elementary school students seven years to the day – Dec. 14, 2012 – when 20 children and six teachers and faculty were horrifically gunned down inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Some of the Newtown players were in the very building when the horror began. One player, linebacker Ben Pinto, lost his younger brother, Jack, in the attack. Days later, the Pinto family were visited in their home by New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, Jack’s favorite player. Jack was buried with a Cruz No. 80 jersey. Cruz learned of this and drove from New Jersey to Newtown to personally grieve with people he’d never met, hoping his professional sports stature could provide a moment of solace.
Surely that visit helped inspire Ben to play football and be an integral part of the 2019 team now tied with Darien in those final seconds on Saturday.
So, quarterback Jack Street, a fourth grader inside Sandy Hook Elementary that terrible morning, dropped back, and Riley Ward made his double move, and the ball sailed those 36 yards – and surely 26 sets of invisible hands guided it to its destination. Riley caught the ball with the clock at zeroes and danced over the goal line as a celebration engulfed the field, went viral and took a nation along with them on their emotional wave.
On Sunday night, the team, its coaches, the Newtown cheerleaders and even the team mascot were live on halftime of the Sunday night football game on NBC, and you could practically see the heart of NFL tough guy Rodney Harrison bursting from his chest as he stood proudly with the players.
The final score was 13-7. Newtown ended the season 13-0.