Healing through soccer -- stars bring smiles to Newtown

NEWTOWN -- There will still be more tears -- lots of them -- but for one night, at least, the kids of Newtown could smile again.

Dozens of professional and international soccer stars made sure of it Monday night at the "Soccer Night in Newtown" event at the Newtown Youth Academy.

Hundreds and hundreds of kids participated in the event. They brought their soccer balls, they brought their shin guards, and, most importantly, they brought the smiles which for many have been hidden by a cloak of sadness and fear since the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six teachers on Dec. 14.

"Just the feedback and the smiles that we're putting on people's faces, we know that we're having an impact," said Marcus Tracy, a 2005 Newtown High School graduate who now plays for Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. "And that's what it's all about, coming here to sort of distract these kids and to take their minds off of what happened and help restore a sense of normalcy."

The horrific events of that day hit particularly close to home for Tracy. He grew up not far from Sandy Hook Elementary School, and he was back home in Newtown when the tragedy unfolded. His mother was once a teacher there and she knew several of the victims. And as for the children whose lives were taken, Tracy was once in their shoes -- an innocent youngster with a heart full of dreams and not a care in the world.

"To be able to see little kids just having fun, that's what they're supposed to do," Tracy said. "They're not supposed to worry about anything."

Tracy went on to star at Wake Forest after graduating from Newtown High -- as a senior in 2008, he won the Hermann Trophy, which is given each year to the top player in the country -- then played professionally in Denmark for three years before signing with San Jose in September.

The list of stars who participated in Monday's event is quite impressive. Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy. Matt Reis of the New England Revolution. Former U.S. men's national team standouts Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas. Former U.S. women's national team stars Kristine Lilly, a Wilton native, and Mia Hamm. More than 30 players came to this quaint little town to try to help ease its unimaginable anguish. They signed hundreds of autographs, posed for hundreds of pictures and kicked soccer balls around with hundreds of kids. They played games, imparted some soccer wisdom and helped make being a kid fun again. And the kids showed up in droves, more than a thousand split into two separate sessions Monday at one of the indoor fields at the NYA.

"I was pretty overwhelmed with the gratitude that was being expressed to us," Hamm said. "We're just trying to put some smiles on some kids' faces. To hear the sincerity that's attached to the sentiments expressed to us is so heartfelt and so meaningful, not only as a player of this game, but as a mom and a member of a community. I've been impressed with the strength of Newtown and just how everyone has taken care of one another. I think it's a great lesson for us to learn. ... We really appreciate the families letting us come in and share the game we love with their kids."

Hamm and the other players were proud to be a part of the event and didn't hesitate to come aboard when it was being planned. The idea for the event was conceived by Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti, a Guilford native. Canetti, a Quinnipiac University graduate, contacted the soccer coach at his alma mater, Eric Da Costa, and the event quickly began picking up momentum.

"My only reservation was just respecting the families," said Hamm, a mother of three small children. "I know this is not the type of attention this community was looking for, and (we need to) just respect them, and in the same breath, say `We're here for you.'"