NEWTOWN, CONN. – When unspeakable things happen, actions hold more currency than words.
So Chris Canetti, president of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo and a native of Connecticut, where a gunman pointlessly took the lives of 20 elementary school children and six of their teachers and administrators in Newtown on Friday, Dec. 14, picked up the phone.
It was the Monday morning after the tragedy, and on a whim while driving to work, he called Eric Da Costa, the head soccer coach at his alma mater Quinnipiac University, located not 20 miles from Newtown. They resolved to do something for the vast soccer community there.
"I don't think I'm any different from most Americans who really relate to the sadness of this tragedy and had a desire to do something," said Canetti, a father of a 5 and an 8-year-old.
Canetti quickly found five volunteers on his team to attend and Da Costa secured the Newtown Youth Academy's indoor soccer field. Word soon trickled out about Soccer Night in Newtown, as they'd dubbed it. Former national teamer Alexi Lalas asked if he could join. Then Mia Hamm did, too, followed by several other men's and women's national team legends like Kristine Lilly, Christie Rampone and Cobi Jones. MLS got involved and reached out to its other clubs. So many players volunteered - often offering to pay their own way - that some had to be turned away.
Five days before the event, registration was opened exclusively to locals of Newtown. Two time-slots quickly filled up with almost 1,500 people in a town of just 27,000.
On a Monday afternoon that didn't feel quite as cold as the preceding 24 days, a brilliant sun shimmered off a thick sheet of snow. A mile and change from the scene of the crime, hordes of excitable children dressed in their soccer gear flocked to the event.
Hamm and Landon Donovan, who was supposed to be on a sabbatical from the sport, and other American soccer luminaries sat at booths, signing things and posing and chatting. Three dozen other MLS players roamed the cavernous hall, participating in Q&As or joining impromptu pickup games on the artificial turf. Glad shouts and shrieks emanated from bouncy castles. A deejay played in a corner. Lalas ran a chaotic short-sided game for kids who didn't reach much higher than his knees. A friendly buzz in a happy hive.
"We have not seen a lot of smiles in town lately," said Peter D'Amico, director of the Newtown Youth Academy. "Here we have."
The soccer players were eminently aware of the delicate surroundings they'd stepped into. "You could see it on the faces of the players, when we were preparing for this, all getting together and talking in a hotel earlier today, they were all a little bit nervous," said MLS commissioner Don Garber. "You're not quite sure what to expect. You've got a lot of families that have been just so traumatized. This whole town has to find a new normal. But I think it's come off really well. There are a lot of happy people out there, at least for a couple of hours."
Sport, our most interactive form of escapism, can offer a potent sort of catharsis. A famous historian once said that play is the precursor to civilization. So when the latter is shattered, it makes sense to rebuild through the former.
"It's a nice distraction, a diversion - something to look forward to, something to put in your calendar because a lot of us are just putting one foot in front of the other," said Marianne Grenier, a Newtown mother of two. She knew the families of six of the victims. They were high school friends and gym partners and soccer teammates. Her son Andrew, all big dark eyes with a mop of brown hair, goes to first grade in a different elementary school. But he's projected to graduate from the local high school in the class of 2024, which is 20 members smaller today than it was a month ago.
"I feel an urge to move on," said Grenier. "It's been three weeks and we've just been all in a fog. It's a nice moment of collective healing."
A grieving town was given the interlude it craved. "It's unfortunate that we're meeting under these circumstances but it's great to bring a sense of peace, even if it's for a little bit, to this community," said Dynamo defender Corey Ashe.
If you didn't know what happened there, you'd never have guessed from the goings-on Monday afternoon. And that was exactly the point. The only tip-off was the message on the green sheets taped to the walls.
We are Sandy Hook
We choose love
Or the first sign you see when you come off interstate 84.
Newtown first responders
Thanks for your hard work and bravery.
The writing was unmistakably that of children, scribbled in bright colors and surrounded by a heart.
But there was no other mention of all the ugliness, of all the pain the mind had wandered from in a brief reprieve. By the grace of an abnormal event, some normalcy returned. For an afternoon, Newtown was bucolic again.