Dec. 14 is the most solemn of days in Newtown, Conn.
But Saturday, the seventh anniversary of the shooting, the day of quiet remembrances was punctuated by joyful celebration when the local high school football team won the state championship in epic fashion.
In the game’s final seconds, Newtown quarterback Jack Street launched a soaring 36-yard pass to senior wide receiver Riley Ward, who scored as time expired to give the team a 13-7 win over Darien.
The crowd erupted in cheers as Ward threw his helmet in the air and took a celebratory sprint across the field. The stands cleared, and Ward was soon surrounded by teammates, coaches and a throng of supporters.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Ward told the Hartford Courant. “I love this town. I love everybody. I’m at a loss for words.”
It was a moment of pure athletic glory that lifted spirits in the town of 28,000 and rippled out into a nation where gun violence claims tens of thousands of lives every year.
Several of the team’s players attended Sandy Hook, and the brother of one of the linebackers was among the children killed in the massacre.
“7 years ago in Newtown, CT was an unspeakably awful day. 7 years to the day, kids from that town and school did this,” tweeted veteran sportscaster Scott Van Pelt of ESPN. “Sports are amazing sometimes.”
“Amazing,” said Jimmy O’Brien, a popular sports video blogger.
“This is a movie,” wrote sportswriter Molly Knight of the Athletic.
The attack on Sandy Hook remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history. A gunman armed with an assault-style rifle stormed into the school, fatally shooting 20 first graders and six educators before killing himself.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, many Newtown residents attended memorial services for the victims at local churches. Some expressed frustration that the country had made little progress in combating gun violence in the years since the shooting that upended life in the town, despite wave after wave of desperate calls for gun control.
“On this day seven years ago, we all thought the world was going to change. But it seems we were deluded because the situation has gotten even worse with the violence of guns,” Monsignor Robert Weiss, of St. Rose of Lima Church, told congregants, according to the Associated Press. “We live in fear, we live in anxiety, and yet we live in hope because we know God walks with us.”
At the game, Newtown supporters donned bold green, the Sandy Hook school color that has become associated with the push to end gun violence. Cheerleaders wore green bows, fans put on green face paint, and Newtown players wore green tape, the Courant reported. Even some Darien fans showed up in green apparel.
The teams fought through thick fog for most of the game. The score was tied at 7 before the winning touchdown.
“The whole town showed out on this special night,” senior Jared Dunn told the Courant. “We knew we had to bring it home for our town.”