Dispatches from Newtown: how a sports complex offered a reprieve for a day

Amy K. Nelson went to Newtown, CT and found one place where kids could be kids for a day: the local sports complex.

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Marc Gold's blue eyes were glassed over, the specks of white surrounding them barely visible amid a sea of red.

As he looked down from a second-floor window at a sprawling indoor sports complex while hundreds of children ran, played and laughed below him on a basketball court, he exhaled.

"This," he said, "is the story. This is what the story is, these kids coming here, playing sports, being allowed to be kids again."

Gold pointed to one boy, who looked to be around 9 years old, and said that he was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Many of them are, he said, and look at them, they're having fun.

It's been three days since Gold was one of the first responders, helping to shepherd some of those same kids to the firehouse, to safety and away from the horror at Sandy Hook -- away from the death of their 20 schoolmates, none older than 7 years old.

"I've cried every single day," he said.

In that, he was very much not alone. As Gold reflected, just to his right stood Peter D'Amico, owner of Newtown Youth Academy and the man whose dream it was to build a place where the community could gather and where teams and leagues from not just Newtown, but surrounding areas, could play in the winters and members could work out alongside them in the gym. A resident since 1980, D'Amico, who owns an international building company, has coached soccer teams here ever since. It was his "dream" to open the NYA, and it was realized four years ago when the private 90,000 square-foot complex opened.

"He just wanted a community," said Kathy Brophy, a staff member at NYA. It's "almost like a European soccer facility, because it's almost like a home for kids in Europe and that's what he had in his mind."

Born in Sicily, D'Amico has wispy gray hair -- with a few atop his head but not enough to classify as a combover-- and a neat gray mustache peppered with a few darker gray strands. He coaches a traveling soccer team and each summer he brings his kids to play in Europe for two weeks. Parents and siblings often join and it's one of the joys of his life. He raised four sons in Newtown and has nine grandchildren, some the ages of those killed.

D'Amico walks almost as if he tiptoes, unassuming and gentle, while also being wholly dedicated to his adopted town, to the children of it, and to the notion that everything that surrounds us matters and should be valued.

"I want to show you something," D'Amico said, before leading us to a dark workout room, a lone square illuminating light from the floor below where the children played. D'Amico smiled, faintly; it was a brief moment of comfort that should never have been necessary.

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All images: Amy K. Nelson

***

Marc Gold has three children; his oldest is in middle school. He hadn't left the firehouse much since Friday, and Monday was the first day he felt easy enough to break away. It gave him comfort to be there. It also was the first day he's felt any sort of hope. He tried to smile, but his face was uncomfortable, constantly in a state of trying to unsuccessfully mask the anguish.

He was asked to tell his story on camera, tell the story of the town and the story of D'Amico and his sports complex and the reprieve it was providing. But Gold doesn't want to be a spokesman; he is just a dad who volunteers, he's not a real fireman. He wasn't even in the building, just outside of it. He isn't a hero, he insisted, those are down there on that basketball court, volunteering all day, or at the Newtown Youth Academy front desk, signing in people who have arrived from all over the country wanting to help. Gold wants to tell the world how much D'Amico and this complex have been a bastion for Newtown, how there was no safe haven away from the massive media pool with their collective cameras, notebooks and microphones at every turn. How D'Amico gave people a shield, a cocoon, a womb, for the first time since Friday.

The thought of visually appearing as an unofficial spokesperson was too much.

"I couldn't live with myself, " he said, his eyes softly flexing to half crescents. "You seem like you're a very compassionate person, you tell my story. Please tell it for me."

Marc Gold's story is that of so many here. And on Monday hundreds -- if not thousands -- of those people gathered at the Newtown Youth Academy. It was an oasis, where no media were permitted and a place where games, laughter and normalcy lifted -- if only temporarily -- the shock, sadness and despair so pervasive here.

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***

Kyle Lyddy is 25 years old, wore a striped polo shirt, took his glasses off when interviewed and is someone who smiles as a way to put people at ease. He is Mr. Newtown. The youngest of five kids, he's lived his entire life here and played sports throughout nearly all of them. Basketball, baseball, soccer ... then, later, manager of the UConn men's basketball team. He even wrote a book about it, "From My Seat, As a Manager."

Lyddy still lives and works here and also coaches basketball. Since Friday, he, at times, has felt like he's acted as unofficial Newtown host to the media, wanting to educate the world about what Newtown was, before Friday.

"I'm very connected to the town emotionally," Lyddy said. "I attempted to help paint a picture of this town, paint a picture of who the people are."

"Paint a picture of what we aren't."

Lyddy is also a disseminator. His Twitter feed ranges from stories of human kindness that people pass along or he witnesses himself to posts about charities that are fundraising or trying to corral celebrities' help with links to Newtown's Facebook page.

Just after 6 p.m., Lyddy sat across from a birch-colored circular desk in a Newtown office building. He was here because my producer, Greg T. Gordon, grew up in Newtown and went to high school with Lyddy.

"Giving him the Most School Spirit award would be an understatement," was how Greg described him. "He was all about community, the church, the culture here. And, of course, sports."

Yet for as much advocacy as he does, he is not immune from feeling the frustration of relentless media. A CNN producer told him there were over 100 people in Newtown, and "that's just one network," he said. Trips to the bank, the grocery store, even walking down the street elicit approaches from journalists. They are more common in Newtown than seeing a sign asking for prayer.

"It's almost like our whole lives [are] being dictated by these camera crews," Lyddy said. "I don't know when they will go away."

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**

The car line stretched a mile into the center of Newtown. The lower sky was shaded white -- a fog-like cover emitted from the television trucks and generators. People parked all along the street, many of them making not one but two pilgrimages to impromptu memorials. The first, where a giant Christmas tree abuts the Pootatuck River, was encircled by thousands of candles, cards, flowers, trinkets, notes, stuffed animals, ornaments and lines of scripture, among the countless items. The speed with which new tokens of love, support and thought were placed seemed limitless.

There was a quiet hum surrounding the memorials, with many unafraid to show emotion. A Spanish-speaking family walked along the path of the Christmas tree and the mother motioned the sign of the cross then told her son to come closer. She was weeping. Two men engaged in conversation, quite openly, about gun control and their mutual distaste for the media.

"I use them and they use me," one of the men said to the other about his information sharing with the press.

People of all races, cultures and ages visited. Another mother, this one younger, was embracing her young daughter, standing over her daughter as if she were miming a willow tree as they both looked at the tributes, tears falling faster than her cold hands could wipe them off her cheeks. The daughter leaned down, a bit unbalanced, and looked to grab on to something, steadied herself and then picked at some white wax that had hardened on the pavement. Her mother motioned her back up and they joined the father and another sibling, walking toward the second memorial.

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The second one, that one began with a walk up the hill, stationed by police and closed off to incoming cars, and then culminated down a long, dark road, the shadows of those hand-in-hand the only thing discernible at a close distance. A street light hit the face of a woman walking back with her husband, and she looked as if she were hyperventilating. She was returning from the bottom of that road, returning from the firehouse, the one where the children first found shelter, the one where Marc Gold rushed the last group of kids to safety, the one where some frantic parents were reunited with their children, the one where, sadly, some others were not.

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Amid these scenes, amid this pain and the ranging looks of shock, sadness, disgust and yes, even hope, the media float on the outskirts of it all, like the edges of an amoeba. Some are more respectful and keep a healthy distance, others descend into the eye of the cell; one TV crew flashed a bright light panel as a cameraman and an audio technician with a large boom mike pointed their instruments at mourners, onlookers and anyone else who fell in between.

**

The NYA banned cameras from its property. This was to be the one place kids and their parents could go where they knew a microphone would not be shoved in their face or a notebook would not be taken out.

"I wanted to have a place where the children can be away from the television and all the news," D'Amico said, "and be away from home, where they have been for a long time."

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By early that morning, word had spread throughout the town -- mostly via email through all the various sports leagues and coaches -- that the NYA was the place to be. Kathy Brophy was there early when a local college hockey team arrived and helped unload what staff members estimated to be 9,000 stuffed animals off a bus. When she saw the young men helping her with the random donation, she began to cry, as did they. All of the stuffed animals had been handed out by the late afternoon.

"What happened Friday was a horrible tragedy," she said, "but the generosity has been overwhelming. There's more good than bad."

It was in large part because of Kathy, and Greg's talk with her, that we were able to be the first journalists in the building. We were welcome to observe, speak with people casually, and the ones whom the NYA knew would be comfortable to speak to us were directed our way.

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Outside the building, a group of lacrosse dads took rotations screening anyone who looked like they may not belong, and a cop cruiser sat parked just steps away, stopping any media from entering. In the building, conversations ranged from Christmas decorations and shopping to the media and telephoto lenses they saw used at the cemetery. Usually, what appeared to be the more emotional conversations were held in smaller pockets, off to the side, often accompanied by tears.

As the day's shifts of children came and went, the high schoolers were the last to close down, some time around 10 p.m. When the day began, a room for arts and crafts had been set up and the first task the group of kids set for themselves was creating a new welcome banner for the Sandy Hook kids' temporary school. All of the other Newtown schools went back to class on Tuesday, but not Sandy Hook. They still are without home. But soon, their makeshift school will open. It will have 20 fewer kids and six fewer teachers. But every single sign that the children of Newtown, Conn., made on a rainy Monday in Peter D'Amico's realized dream will be there to greet them.

Amy K. Nelson is a Senior Correspondent for SB Nation and host of Full Nelson. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyKNelson or email her here.

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