NEWTOWN, Conn. – For a few precious hours on a cold, winter night, the children and parents of this western Connecticut town had a reason to smile, an opportunity to forget the horrific events of Dec. 14 and a reminder that the rest of the world cares.
Forty players, including some of the biggest names in American soccer, gave more than 1,200 young children and their parents of this grieving town a chance to return to normalcy for a couple of hours on Soccer Night in Newtown.
Children, youth soccer players, their parents and coaches met their heroes, had an opportunity to meet and get autographs from the likes of Landon Donovan and Mia Hamm, get their faces painted or play the beautiful game with Soccer Hall of Famers.
"It gets our minds off of it, gets the kids' [minds] off of it," said Kara Gerace, the 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."
The tragedy that struck this town on Dec. 14 was hardly mentioned. That's when 26 people, including 20 young school children, were killed in a horrific shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"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 nearby Wilton, Conn.
Players came from near and far. Seattle Sounders forward David Estrada did not think twice about being involved. Estrada, a U.S. citizen who was born in Morelia, Mexico, doesn't have any children, but he put himself in the Newtown families' shoes.
"Everybody who sees these kids that went through this, they see their nephews or little cousins," he said. "I see my cousins who are in elementary school. It's really heart-breaking for them to go through this. For us, it’s really just an opportunity to put a smile on their face. It's not about the superstars who are here."
Asked what his most memorable moment of the event was, Estrada replied, "Just a smile on every kid. They're so excited. They might not know our names, but they know we're professional soccer players. Just to see them smile after what they experienced is the highlight of my off-season."
San Jose Earthquakes forward Marcus Tracy took the shootings personally, saying he was "deeply impacted" by it. He grew up and has lived in Newtown for 18 years.
"Nothing like the families obviously who had to suffer such great loss," he said. "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."
There was plenty of that on Monday night.
"It really means a lot to me because Newtown has never been noticed before," said young Julia Gerace. "I just think it's really good for all these people to come and help us out."
Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti, who grew up in Guilford, Conn. and graduated from Quinnipiac College in Hampden, Conn., came up with the idea of Soccer Night in Newtown. Major League Soccer, MLS W.O.R.K.s, it's charitable arm, Quinnipiac and several local soccer clubs made important contributions as well, whether it was players giving up their time, funding for the event or local citizens volunteering to help out.
"You can tell it means a lot to the people of this town," Canetti 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."
Hamm, who had the longest lines waiting for her to sign autographs, even on children’s soccer shoe, agreed.
"A lot of them were just saying thank you, thank you for being there and giving you hugs," she said. "That says it all."
National Soccer Hall of Famer Alexi Lalas, an ESPN commentator, said the emotional recovery had only just begun.
Lalas, who played soccer with youngsters, was touched by a blue wrist band he was given by a boy from a team called the Titans. Lalas wore the band on his right wrist. Two of the boys on the Titans had younger siblings who were killed on Dec. 14; their initials were imbedded on the wristband.
"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 it’s 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."
Michael Lewis, who is the editor of BigAppleSoccer.com and soccer correspondent for Newsday, will be covering his eighth World Cup in Brazil.