The greatest play in the history of Connecticut high school sports, a play great enough to capture both a state championship and hearts across the nation, has a simple name.
“Post Corner,” Newtown junior quarterback Jack Street said.
Three seconds remained in the Class LL title game in the lifting fog early Saturday evening, the seventh anniversary of Newtown’s ineffable tragedy, when coach Bobby Pattison called for a timeout. The football sat on the Darien 36-yard line. The score was tied at 7.
“We saw something,” Street said. “We decided to change the play.”
“People in the stands were talking about the overtime rules, is it like college or what?” Jack’s dad Rick said. “Newtown has a good kicker. Should we try a 52-yard field goal, long for high school? Nobody’s thinking touchdown, not with Darien’s defense and three seconds left.”
Darien, which had shut out Newtown until midway through the fourth quarter, showed a single high safety. Newtown decided to flip-flop receivers and instead of a double move across the middle, senior Riley Ward would run a double move to the sideline.
“Riley burned his guy,” Jack Street said. “At that moment, everything was in slow motion. I’m like, ‘Get him the ball. Just get him the ball!’ I threw it to a spot. Riley ran under it.”
He got Ward the ball.
What can be said about what happened next? Yes, it was breathtaking. Yes, Newtown won the Class LL championship, 13-7, on the stunning final play to complete a 13-0 season. Yes, the Nighthawks won their first state title in 27 years and video views of a celebration pure and joyous reached the millions. Yes, after they celebrated at the home of a player’s family Saturday night, the entire team appeared at halftime of Sunday Night Football from the NBC studios in Stamford.
“It doesn’t get bigger than that,” Jack Street said.
Can we also say this? The Newtown moment, the one Jack calls “unreal,” is why we play sports and why the games remain important to the fabric of our society, the fabric of who we are. The games can never replace the tragedy, nor can they fill the void of personal grief and great loss. Yet the games are a healing place where we can return to normalcy first for a few hours and eventually for the rest of our lives. Where unreal can become real.
On Saturday, Newtown laughed and cried and cheered.
We all did.
Jack Street was a fourth grader at Sandy Hook Elementary the morning of Dec. 14, 2012 when the shots rang out. By the time they stopped, 26 lie dead, including 20 of his schoolmates.
“I was with my fourth-grade class in the first-grade hallway in the art room,” Jack said. “It was the scariest moment of my life.”
Rick Street was getting ready for a conference call at his Waterbury law firm when a colleague came to his door and said she heard that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook.
“I sat there stunned,” Rick said. “Nobody knew what happened. What do I do? I got this important call. My assistant came into the office and said, ‘You’ve got to go. I’ll take care of everything.’”
Grabbing his keys and starting west on I-84, Rick initially couldn’t get a hold of his wife. Mara was out for a walk. Three ambulances came out of Waterbury Hospital in formation and Rick was behind them.
“I figured they were going to Heritage Village (in Southbury), because Newtown is served by Danbury Hospital,” Rick said. “But the ambulances kept going and I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to Sandy Hook.’ I did some creative driving at about 90 mph to get past them.”
Mara arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary a couple of minutes before him.
“It was a chaotic scene,” Rick said.
As Rick was walking down the hill from where he had parked his car, Mara told her husband over the phone Jack was OK.
“Are you with him?” Rick said.
“No, I heard from someone they saw him,” Mara said.
“Go find him,” Rick said.
“I’m trying,” Mara answered. “I’m trying.”
They went to the nearby firehouse where parents had gathered to await the news of their children. There was a state trooper there, and Rick remembered him as being extraordinarily calm.
“He was fantastic,” Rick said. “People were shouting at him, ‘What’s going on? What happened?’ He said, ‘We’re going to bring the kids to the front of the firehouse and line them up class by class.’ ”
Rick and Mara saw Jack walking down the driveway from the school.
“We were obviously in the classroom for a while,” Jack said. “The cops came and led us out.”
“At that point, I still didn’t know exactly what happened beyond the report of shooting,” Rick said. “As the parents went around (to reunite) with their children, pretty quickly everyone realized what was going on. We were one of the lucky ones. Another turn, another this or that, we were just lucky. That’s the only way to say it. So many friends and neighbors…”
Rick Street paused.
“It was awful day. It was a terrible day. Yeah, we were one of the lucky ones.”
Jack knows how fortunate. Senior linebacker Ben Pinto lost his younger brother Jack at Sandy Hook.
“I can’t even imagine what it has been like for him,” Jack said.
Blessed fortune was not lost on Rick and Mara Street. His oldest son Erik is a senior at James Madison. His middle son Alex plays at Hamilton. To this day, Rick looks at Jack and he cherishes all he has.
“I’ve reflected a lot,” Rick said. “I want to enjoy the little moments. Don’t get caught up so much in the business of life. Make sure you go to EVERY game. Sitting at my desk at work is important, but it’s not the most important.”
Every Friday night he is at a Newtown game. Every Saturday he is at a NESCAC game to watch Alex play at his own alma mater.
“People tell me it’s crazy,” Rick said. “I tell them I don’t want to miss a thing.”
So he doesn’t.
All three of Rick’s sons have gone through the Newtown football system and Rick gathered with his old football friends for a few hours pregame. They talked about Newtown teams that didn’t get over the hump. They talked about what happened that horrible December morning in 2012. They talked about changing the memory.
Rick went and stood with the guys in the back row for the game. Mara sat with her friends. They were thrilled Erik made it home for the game. So was Jack. Erik was the one who taught him how to throw a football.
The fog grew so thick during the game Jack said it was a little difficult to see the Darien defenders in their white uniforms downfield. Sitting across the field, Rick did miss one thing. His son’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Ward with 6:58 left. Ward disappeared into the fog.
“Here’s the weirdest thing,” Rick said. “The fog lifted in the last minute or so. You could see the last play perfectly clear. It was strange. It was uncanny.”
Maybe divine. At any rate, Jack Street had a perfectly clear view of Riley Ward score and throw his helmet into the air.
“I did the same thing,” Jack said. “I never saw mine land.”
This has not been an easy 2019 for the Streets. Mara had a tough battle with breast cancer the past year. The prognosis is all good, Rick said.
“As a family we’ve battled through it,” Jack said. “I’ve kept working with football, kept going on with life. That’s what my mom wants.”
His wife overcoming cancer, the Sandy Hook tragedy, the disbelief of his son’s miracle touchdown pass, Rick Street isn’t ashamed to say he was overwhelmed by the Newtown moment. He broke down crying. He lost it.
“I am not speaking for Sandy Hook,” Rick said. “I am not speaking for Newtown. I wouldn’t dare to do that. I have too much respect for the people who were so horribly affected. I do think everyone wanted to see this happen. It had a lot more meaning because of the day. There was a lot more pressure on the kids, I think. They were certainly aware of it. Still, the win was about football and the LL championship and the kids in that moment. The kids and the coaches never tried to make it any bigger than that.
“But, listen, I wasn’t the only one crying in the stands. It was cathartic.”
Cathartic. What a perfect word.
“This day comes around once a year,” Jack Street said. “I know everyone in Newtown is thinking about (the tragedy) on that day. The town has rebuilt. And to have our entire town behind us and storm the field afterward was just unbelievable.”
Unbelievable. What a perfect word, too.