As the community of Newtown, Conn. continues to remember the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting seven years ago, the city had something to celebrate after its high school won the football state championship.
On Saturday, the seventh anniversary of the tragedy, the Newtown Nighthawks defeated the Darien Blue Wave in the final play of the Class LL football championship. Junior quarterback Jack Street unloaded a pass to senior wide receiver Riley Ward as he made his way across the field, relatively uncovered.
The Hartford Courant reports Ward caught the pass, took two steps and was in the end zone when time expired, earning the Nighthawks a 36-yard touchdown and giving them a 13-7 state championship win.
When the whistle sounded, Ward streaked back to his team, took off his helmet and tossed it in the air as the field erupted in jubilation. Players, coaches and staff all joined him on the field, exchanging hugs and jumping for joy.
It was the team`s first state championship since 1992.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Ward told the Courant.
“I love this town. I love everybody. I’m at a loss for words.”
Seven years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman armed with an assault-style rifle entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 first grade students and six educators, before shooting himself.
It remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history and renewed the debate for stronger gun control, including a universal background check system, and banning the sale and manufacture of certain types of semi-automatic firearms at both a federal and state level.
Several of the football team members had attended Sandy Hook themselves, and the brother of shooting victim Jack Pinto, Ben, played as one of the team’s linebackers, the Washington Post reports.
Prior to the game, locals attended memorial services for the victims at area churches, and a vigil took place in Salisbury, Conn. During each event, people expressed frustration over the country having made what they said was little progress in combatting gun violence in the years since the tragedy, despite the consistent calls for gun control.
“On this day seven years ago, we all thought the world was going to change,” Monsignor Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Church, told congregants, according to the Associated Press. “But it seems we were deluded because the situation has gotten even worse with the violence of guns.”
In memory of those killed in the shooting, supporters donned bold green colours during the game — Sandy Hook’s school colour, which has also become connected with the push to end gun violence. Cheerleaders wore green bows and players wore green tape, the Courant reported.
Much of the game was played in thick fog and the teams were tied 7-7 with only one minute left. By the end of the game, the fog had lifted and the final play led the home team to victory with less than four seconds on the clock.
“Absolutely amazing,” coach Bobby Pattinson said. “I’m so proud of my kids for not giving up. We had moments in that game where it didn’t look too good for Newtown … I’m so proud of the kids. I couldn’t be happier.”
People took to Twitter when the team won to share their excitement, with even Darien fans sharing their own positive thoughts.
“My wife, with tears in her eyes, stated, ‘This was divine intervention, I’m so happy for them’. I couldn’t agree more,” one person tweeted.
Senior Jared Dunn said the whole town showed up for the game.
“We knew we had to bring it home for our town.”
“Twenty-seven years, it’s crazy. This is crazy,” Dunn said.
With the victory, the Nighthawks ended their season 13-0.