By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Overall, people in the Northeast are tough.
Maybe it's the cold, New England winters, the thick atmosphere around the financial and media centers of the large cities, or maybe it's just something in the cold melted waters in the tiny hills we call mountains.
Or maybe it's some of the calamities we've had over the last decade-plus. 9/11. Terrorism threats. Multiple storms that have knocked out power, crippled businesses and wrecked homes.
The latest happened this Friday, in a tiny, upper middle-class Connecticut hamlet only a half an hour from where I grew up. My toughness, and a lot of the toughness that exemplify many of the people in the Northeast, disappeared.
Like many others, I wept for the victims of Newtown. But I was also appreciative for two hugely entertaining FCS football games that provided a very welcome distraction from the horrible events of Friday.
At about 9:00 AM on Friday, my big concern was conference realignment.
Driving through the town of Newtown, Pennsylvania, right past a couple of high schools and an elementary school, my thoughts were focused on Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University, who were strongly rumored to be announcing their move to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or MAAC, fron the NEC.
With the answers to realignment come brand-new questions, questions that would be natural to pose in times of peace. What will Monmouth do with their football program? Will other schools join the Hawks in the MAAC? The MAAC doesn't sponsor football. Could they sponsor football? If not, what does Monmouth do with their football program? How does the NEC react to losing two programs?
As a fan of the Patriot League, the answers to these questions affect that athletic conference as well. If Monmouth doesn't want to compete in the NEC in football anymore, or vice versa, the Patriot League could be a home for the Hawks.
But those questions would rapidly fade in importance, to be replaced by a feeling of sickness and helplessness when learning of the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.
Details only trickled out in dibs and dabs at first.
Something happened at an elementary school, we learned. I first learned about the horror on Twitter as I was checking my account for Monmouth's announcement that they were joining the MAAC.
The words "shooting" and "Newtown" pops up. The blood must have rushed from my face. "Connecticut", I see, later, which was only very small comfort. Newtown, Connecticut is about a half an hour away from where my parents still live, and where I grew up.
It's funny, though, what your brain does when confronted with such a reality – it's as if it can't accept what was likely that happened, which was unspeakable crime, and instead there was some self-defense mechanism that kicked in, which tried to recast it as something else, a misunderstanding, a lovers quarrel, or anything else except what might have actually really happened.
As details continued to trickle out from this community I had driven through many times – a Normal Rockwell-like upper middle-class suburb, eerily similar to the place where I grew up – I focused on the NEC. It's as if my brain needed somewhere else to go, and realignment was that place.
Unthinkable things revelaed themselves on Twitter. Tiny children killed. More pictures came out of the elementary school – Sandy Hook elementary. Pictures of the school, with all the leaves off the trees in the weeks before Christmas. Interviews of kids at the school, in shock. Adults crying, desperate.
Then came my own vision. That elementary school could have easily been my own. Thoughts flashed back to Veterans Park elementary, walking outside, getting oak and ginko leaves for an art project, on a day similar to Friday. I lived through cold Connecticut school days in December.
My thoughts raced to people whom my mother and father know, who might have had kids and grandkids affected by the horror. My friend's sister is a teacher in Connecticut – where?, I thought. Don't I have friends that live around there?, I panicked. Lunchtime came, and went. I couldn't possibly eat.
At my desk, I held back tears – for the people of Newtown, for the unknown friends of mine who may or may not have been affected, for my own fortunate childhood, for my own son, who's also in elementary school.
President Obama's press conference came on my computer. I needed to find out more. I needed solace, somehow.
He delivered an amazing speech, with a long pause in the middle where he wiped the tears away from his face. It was touching that he was feeling the pain, too, that I was feeling and, as I would better understand later, the pain of any person with grade-school children across the country, and perhaps the world. But in the end, he didn't have any answers, either. Of course, nobody does.
People start posting the identity of whom they think is the killer, a young man who lives in New Jersey who went to, of all places, Quinnipiac. It turns out he's alive, with a completely ordinary day job, and was arrested and questioned, and released. It turns out he has nothing to do with the crime – it was his brother, and an alleged "second gunman", which was also later disproven, who perpetrated the crime. Sadly, chaos reigned. Nobody knew what was going on.
I start heading home, numb. I learn from my wife that my son made it home from school safely. I exhale. I hurry home. I don't know what he knows, and what he doesn't know. It turns out our school didn't mention anything, and tried to make the day as normal as possible for the kids. As for me, I feel I know too much. I knew every last twist and turn on the day.
It turns out he doesn't know, and we did our level best to prevent him from getting any gory details. No 6 O'Clock news. No 7 O'Clock shows.
At 8, he wanted to watch, God bless him, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I balked, imagining the local news cutting in with blood-soaked pictures of Sandy Hook, trying to gently point him to Netflix instead, but he was insistent on seeing the original, which he said was his favorite. Reluctantly, after being outvoted by both my wife and son, I said yes, and network TV obliged me by only showing the same insipid Target and Old Navy commercials instead of flashing to pictures of carnage. Never before was I so relieved to see normalcy.
Also trying to keep things as normal as possble, I put on the first game of the FCS playoffs, Georgia Southern at North Dakota State, on the smartphone. As Rudolph was making a visit to the Land of Misfit Toys, Georgia Southern was busy blocking an extra point, keeping the game tied 6-6 before Dominique Swope came down with a surprise pass from Jerick McKinnon to secure a big early 13-6 lead for the Eagles.
Boy, was I grateful for the distractions – the din of the FargoDome, the reassuring visit from Rudolph, the dull ads. In a world of chaos, Friday night was refreshingly normal. Fargo seemed far removed from the horror of Friday afternoon, and I was unbelievably grateful.
As the game was headed to halftime, and I brought my son up to bed, I had to fight back tears. The enormity of what happened, the guilt that I was able to do what some families could not, the gratefulness that I could do something so simple and so small… I started to lose it, as I had several other times that night. I don't think he saw. I'm not sure.
Once he was put up to bed, I further retreated to the football game. We went to our bedroom, closer to his room, instead of spending time downstairs, which seemed too far away. I was able to shut out the sadness, the talk about when will we tell him? Will we tell him? by immersing myself in the FargoDome.
The game was an absolute thriller, with the Bison converting an enormous McKinnon fumble into a 53 yard touchdown run, giving them a 16-13 lead before a roughing the kicker call against the Bison, another surprise pass to a backpedaling Jonathan Bryant for a 42 yard gain, and then a perfectly executed run my McKinnon off the right tackle to give them the lead.
Temporarily the pain of the day was numbed by the Bison's thrilling game-winning drive, where Brock Jensen ran the quarterback draw through the heart of his offensive line behind two mammoth blocks by center Joe Lund and guard Tyler Gimmelstad. The eruption of the crowd was amazing.
The next day was filled with happiness for my son, heading to his youth basketball game and the other activities of the day. I made pancakes, something I hadn't done in months. It's as if I didn't know what to do to make things right in Newtown, but I could do something nice for my wife and son, so by God, I would. It wouldn't heal anybody. But at least it was something.
Basketball was a distraction too, watching both teams run up and down the court. After the game, there were men putting their arms around their sons, too. While I have no way of knowing, I got the impression that it might have been the first time that happened in a while. Like me, they were a part of the confederation to keep the horror away from their kids, while still holding their own sons extra-close.
I knew the Sam Houston State/Eastern Washington game was going to be on at 4PM local time on ESPNU. While my wife and son made a gingerbread house, again blissfully away from the horrors of Newtown, a buddy of mine and I watched the semifinal on TV, safe in our house, away from the outside world.
Even so, I'd break away from the bliss to check on the latest developments on the computer.
The horror gave way to "why?", a question that will almost certainly never be adequately answered, but seems to be inside every human being's nature to try. More details emerged – his mom, a gun enthusiast was murdered, too, before the horror at the school. A national debate on gun control broke out, which felt like it was too much, too soon, given the fact that I was still dealing with the raw pain of what had happened.
It was looking like the second semifinal was going to be a dud when Sam Houston State rolled up a 35-0 lead on hosts Eastern Washington, behind a couple touchdown rumbles by Bearkat quarterback Brian Bell. We ate spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, again with my son sufficiently shielded from what had happened. He proudly showed me his work on the gingerbread house.
Just when the nightly news cycles started coming up with stories of prayer vigils and a presidential visit to Newtown, Eastern Washington pulled themselves together in the second half to make what was a laugher into an incredibly tight game. Behind a two touchdown receptions by junior wideout Brandon Kaufman, almost inexplicably, the Eagles cut the deficit to 35-28 with an eon left to play, 13:08 left in the 4th quarter.
Like Friday, it was easy to immerse myself in the game. Could Sam Houston be doing their best impersonation of the NFL's Houston Oilers, who were best known for being the victims of the biggest comeback in playoff history?
Ultimately, Sam Houston did just enough to hold off the Eagles, nailing a huge 42 yard field goal by Miguel Antonio with 5:23 left to maintain a two score lead, ultimately hanging on in a thrilling 45-42 win.
My son went to bed. Normally. Without an inkling that anything had happened on Friday. We chose to do everything normally, even though when my wife and I had a spare moment to ourselves, it was anything but.
On Sunday, my wife told my son what had happened in Newtown. We didn't get into specifics. But we told him what had happened. We decided it was best, so that he didn't hear an even more twisted version of the truth from another kid on the playground.
If there's one thing I've learned over time, it's that sports do not allow people to heal from horror and tragedy. They serve as a community platform to highlight people or injustices, and provide a critical distraction when, sometimes, reality becomes almost too much to bear.
Having distractions are a very good thing, in ways. While you don't want to be so distracted that you miss your job or family, when trying to get through something so hard, so incomprehensible, it's a good thing to be able to get all the tough stuff out of your life for a couple hours in order to allow the dust to settle in your own soul.
But I think it's a balance. If the distractions allow you time to get your strategies in order, or help you deal with something, then they're a positive thing. If you live in the distractions without deaing at all with what is happening, it's not. It's a fine line.
As we bring our kids back to their schools in a changed world, one with policemen posted in front of the school, the aftermath of this horrifying event is certainly not over.
But to me, this weekend, the happy distractions of the FCS playoffs were a good thing as we prepare to move through this holiday season and think about how we want to show our support for the residents of Newtown, Connecticut.
I don't know how to fix what went wrong. But thanks to a weekend where distractions took me away from the reality for just long enough, I'd like to try.