Just before 1 p.m. Sunday, as the last of 80,000-plus fans were taking their seats at MetLife Stadium for a game rife with seemingly important storylines, hundreds of guests from Newtown took the field with all their grief, all their hope and, with the help of the host Giants and visiting Eagles, all their joy.
Children smiled Sunday, children who haven't had much reason to lately. They sat atop their parents' shoulders and slapped hands with NFL players. They wore jerseys, held signs and were the focus of lengthy close-ups on the enormous stadium video screens. They provided the entryway for both teams, forming lanes through which the players walked during introductions, then held hands and circled the field for the national anthem.
"It was bittersweet," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "Just seeing those kids kind of put things in perspective. Life is short. You have to live it to the fullest. Unfortunately, a lot of those kids weren't even able to enjoy their Christmas. So it's a heartbreaking feeling, but we just tried to go out there and give those kids something to look forward to, even if it was for just three and a half hours, something to raise their spirits, something to take their minds away from the hurt and the tragedies they've had to experience."
About 200 Sandy Hook Elementary School students, plus about 200 more family members and school faculty members, were guests of the Giants 16 days after a shooting at the school left 20 students and six women dead. They boarded buses, chartered by the Giants, about 8 a.m. at Newtown High School, then made the 85-mile journey that the team hopes served as a small step back toward feeling normal again.
"I looked at all the excitement," Giants guard Chris Snee said. "I'm sure that when they head back to their town, they'll still think about what happened. But to be able to provide some relief for them made us all feel good."
It was a moving pregame ceremony, the crowd cheering the announcement of the Newtown contingent and then observing a moment of silence. Players and coaches took their time on the way to the sideline, making concerted efforts, it seemed, to be sure everyone felt welcomed and included.
Not all of the guests were Giants fans. Connecticut is a divided state when it comes to sports. But Sunday was about unity – a school, a town, a team, a nation … all together.
"We're Giants fans today," Christine Wilford, who attended the game with several young children, said before boarding a bus in Newtown. "This is the best thing ever. The kids need to have some time together to have fun."
For everyone in uniform, this was a disappointing day from a professional standpoint – even for the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, who rolled to a 42-7 victory but were eliminated from the playoffs with Chicago's victory over Detroit. Having lost in embarrassing fashion the previous two weeks at Atlanta and at Baltimore, coach Tom Coughlin and players spoke to hordes of reporters about opportunities lost and the realization that there is only next season to look forward to.
For the Eagles, this was the end of an era. Coach Andy Reid, having presided over the worst season in his 14-year tenure, was fired Sunday.
All of this is stuff that will keep fans from New York to Philly ranting on the morning radio talk shows well into the new year. The Giants, at least, finished the season on a positive note. Coughlin talked all week about playing with pride, and sharing that with the Newtown families, who were scattered in different sections during the game.
"We certainly wanted to honor and respect them, try to do our part to help them in the healing process," Coughlin said. "I hope they left with some inspiration today."
The Newtown group had brunch shortly after arriving and some families were greeted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell while assembling for the ceremony. Then they watched an entertaining game in which Eli Manning threw five touchdown passes, one to Victor Cruz, who celebrated with his end zone salsa dance.
"We definitely played for pride – for ourselves, for our fans and for those kids from Sandy Hook," Cruz said. "[Seeing the children] was a little bit of sadness, obviously, but it was good that for the first time in a long time, probably, they could have a smile on their faces. ... It was tremendous, a little bit of just going out there and wanting to play for them and wanting to put a victory on the board and put a smile on all those families' faces."
Cruz has been a prominent figure among the teams and athletes reaching out to Newtown. Jack Pinto, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook, was a Giants fan, and Cruz was his favorite player. Cruz met with the Pinto family in Newtown Dec. 18, the day after Jack Pinto's funeral, and again Sunday before the game.
"They were all smiles," Cruz said. "I took a picture with them and told them this game was for Jack. It was a good time. It was good to have them all out on the field with us and I'm sure they enjoyed it as well."
Howie Ziperstein, who was attending with his wife and three kids, said the day was about supporting Sandy Hook. One sign in the stadium read, "We Are Sandy Hook."
Standing near buses before departing Newtown, Lou Ruggerio held several green and white signs he said kids would be holding. One read, "Sandy Hook — We Choose Love."
Another, which Ruggerio planned to have the kids sign, said, "A Giant Thank You From Sandy Hook."