NEWTOWN — The next morning, not 12 hours after winning the CIAC Class LL football championship on a walk-off touchdown pass that captured the attention of the nation, Newtown football senior captain Jared Dunn still had to haul himself out of bed and off to church.
“I was half-asleep,” the linebacker said, alluding to a long night celebrating Newtown’s first state football championship in 25 years. Nevertheless, during Sunday morning services at St. Rose of Lima Church on Route 6, Dunn was jarred from his post-title stupor when Msgr. Robert Weiss declared from his pulpit: “How about that Newtown football team?”
The congregation gave the team a standing ovation.
“The place just erupted,” Dunn said. “Just erupted. I personally didn’t expect it. That was really special to me, just knowing the whole town knew all about it. It was just crazy.”
Newtown’s football players and coaches have been running out of words to describe the experience and aftermath of their 13-7 victory over Darien, won on the final play when Jack Street hit a wide-open Riley Ward for the winning, 36-yard touchdown, sending the players, coaches, Newtown students and legions of family and fans at Trumbull’s McDougall Stadium into unbridled ecstasy.
“It’s been crazy,” third-year Newtown coach Bobby Pattison said of the days since his team’s miracle victory. “It’s been a little crazy, but exciting. Winning a championship, after 27 years, and bringing a championship home the way we did, in that style on the last play. It’s been absolutely crazy. It’s been amazing, though.”
That they did it on — of all days — the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, with many of the same players who were in the building and even lost loved ones as elementary school students on that morning, was, at the very least, a cathartic and uplifting moment on an otherwise painful day of remembrance.
While the significance of the day served as a backdrop to the players’ historic accomplishment, they were showered with love and appreciation everywhere they went, celebrated like world champions.
One of them was senior linebacker Ben Pinto, whose brother, Jack, was one of 26 students and teachers who lost their lives at Sandy Hook. Ben Pinto spent the last week in wide-eyed awe of the places the championship victory took him and his teammates.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “From after the game and all the way through school… It’s been a whirlwind of a week. It’s been a great experience.”
PETE PAGUAGA: WE ‘FROZE’ WHEN CAPTURING VIDEO OF NEWTOWN’S WINNING TD
That whirlwind began with the bus ride up Route 25 to Newtown under police escort. “That was great,” senior lineman Mike Loomis said. “We ran a lot of red lights.”
Next stop was a national TV appearance during halftime of NBC’s Sunday Night Football game between the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers. The entire team and the school’s cheerleaders were bused down to the NBC Sports studios in Stamford, gorged themselves on a catered meal, and joined hosts Mike Tirico, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison.
“My favorite part was probably all the food,” senior quarterback Brandon Lombardo said. “It’s been cool to experience these great moments with all my brothers from the team, hanging out like we always do.”
The next day, Pattison and Street visited downtown Milford for a live spot on “The Dan Patrick Show.” Later that night, the players and coaches visited ESPN’s worldwide headquarters in Bristol, got a tour of the studios and were featured guests on “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt, where they took pictures and traded jokes with their awestruck host.
“It was honestly kind of a lot all at once,” Pinto said of the post-title media blitz. “But, it was really cool, going into all those studios. I felt like I was inside of the TV, you know? The stuff that you see on your couch on Sunday afternoons. All of the sudden I’m there… talking to all the guys.”
The Newtown players were floored at how tall Van Pelt was in real life. “It’s crazy,” Pinto said. “I’m 5-foot-8 and I could barely see his head. It’s ridiculous.”
The players were thrilled as celebrities, including their favorite musicians and athletes, took notice on social media and video clips of the winning touchdown made the rounds on every major sports and news outlet imaginable — ESPN, Fox Sports, CNN, and all of the major networks chronicled the stunning accomplishment.
“On the bus home and we were just hoping to get the play on ‘House of Highlights,’” Loomis said, referring to the popular Instagram account. “We thought that would be cool. But then it went everywhere. We didn’t expect that at all.”
On Thursday, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont came to Newtown High School to personally congratulate the team.
But where they felt most appreciated was back at home at Newtown, among the fans who supported them and other townsfolk who were just realizing the significance of their state title.
Pinto works as a busboy at Cover Two Sandy Hook Restaurant, the local hangout owned by the Tarantino family, including assistant coaches and siblings Tyler, Drew and Nick, in the center of the village, just around the corner from the since-demolished Sandy Hook Elementary school.
There, he and his teammates have been treated as celebrities.
7 years to the day after tragedy struck their hometown, Newtown High School (@nhsathletics) won a football state championship on a last second TD pass. Head Coach Bobby Pattison and QB Jack Street joined us in studio today: pic.twitter.com/ilvzbkfk6i
— Dan Patrick Show (@dpshow) December 16, 2019
“People will stop me while I’m carrying a plate of dishes,” Pinto said. “They’ll go: ‘Woah, were you on the team? Were you playing?’ Yea, that was me out there. It’s crazy to think that, the stuff you’re seeing on the news that everybody’s talking about, that’s something we were all a part of and will remember for the rest of our lives.”
Loomis, who played alongside his twin brother Zach and whose uncle, John Pavia, played on the 1992 state championship team, said he’s been stopped numerous times at the gym. “Random people I’ve never even met before are all like, ‘Congratulations. What a great play,” he said. “We needed something big, especially on a day like that. The whole situation was perfect. It couldn’t have been any better.”
Dunn’s been amazed by the reaction he and his teammates get around town.
“Pretty much everybody’s wearing the Blue and Gold,” he said. “Even seeing some of the elementary schools’ Twitter accounts, even they were wearing the Blue and Gold. It’s just amazing to see the whole town have our back.”
The Newtown Nighthawks football team is inspirational. The state couldn't be more proud, and I was honored to stop by their school this afternoon to personally let them know. Congratulations on a job well done! #cthsfb @nhsathletics @SenatorHwang @raghibct pic.twitter.com/msADf4j2DK
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) December 19, 2019
Pattison said the team was determined to play on the anniversary. They didn’t want the day’s significance to influence the team’s preparation for the biggest game of their lives.
“The date had significance and we played on that date,” the coach said. “The important thing to focus on was the work and time that these kids put in to win to state championship. It’s an emotional day for a lot of people and we certainly can’t speak for a lot of people. It’s a tough day and, for these guys, it was a great accomplishment to win a state championship.”
All thoughts inexorably flashed back to the game and it’s surreal, fairy tale finish. Players and coaches describe the eerie scene during a timeout when a breeze suddenly lifted the fog that had enveloped the stadium, just in time for the winning touchdown pass in front of bleachers packed with fans — from both Newtown and Darien, alike — wearing Sandy Hook green as tribute to the memory of those lost.
“Personally, I appreciated it,” Pinto said. “Everything that we’ve all been through. Just the support — especially from Darien — of everyone coming together. It was more than a game.
“It was really kind of poetic. The ball hanging in the air, and the fog lifting… There really wasn’t any other way I could have asked for it to go down. I feel amazing. It’s all been a ride.”