NEWTOWN — Steve George had used that whiteboard to diagram his plays. He had used it to draw X's and O's to score on Oxford. He had used it to draws X's and O's to defend against Masuk.
He never dreamed he would use that whiteboard in his classroom to address the president of the United States.
George thought he knew disappointment the night of Nov. 28 when Norwich Free Academy came into Blue and Gold Stadium and hammered his previously unbeaten Newtown football team 63-21 in the state Class LL playoffs.
"We had to face a lot of adversity in the last couple weeks, losing [injured senior two-way star] Dan Hebert," George told reporters after the game. "But it's a special group of kids."
If he only knew what adversity would lie ahead for his town …
George got a phone call from the high school on Dec. 15, a day after the unimaginable happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Secret Service had arrived, and he was needed to clear some cars his technology class had been working on from the school parking lot.
After removing the cars, George went into his classroom that Saturday. Desks had been removed. Cable had been brought in, AT&T was setting up phone lines.
"We kind of put two and two together," George said.
His classroom would be a staging area the following night for President Barack Obama's speech to the nation during the interfaith vigil for 26 innocent victims. In that classroom, amid the grief and all the confusion, George and fellow teacher Bobby Pattison decided to leave a simple message on that whiteboard.
"Dear President Obama, the Newtown community is so thankful that you are coming to help us heal. In times of adversity it is reassuring to know that we have a strong leader to help us recover."
George signed it. Pattison signed. And there their words stood in a room that doubles as George's football team meeting room. The words stood there among pictures of the Nighthawks' season, stood on the whiteboard next to a test where one of his technology students had scored a 100. George likes to do that. He hangs excellence on the whiteboard to set an example for his students.
Sure, Steve George and Bobby Pattison hoped the president would see their message. They didn't expect a reply.
Obama would deliver a powerful yet caring and compassionate message that Sunday night, telling Newtown, "You are not alone." Yet he also told a nation, as the audience inside Newtown High School wept, we must do better in protecting our children from harm. He closed by reading the first names of the 26 victims at the school and said, "God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory."
There are little memories among great tragedies, too, that can be long remembered. There are little moments that can carry a lasting and symbolic message. Obama would leave one of those, too. Yes, Steve George and Bobby Pattison hoped the president would see their message. They never expected this.
"You're in our thoughts and prayers," Obama wrote on that whiteboard. The president signed it, with that big, round O. That whiteboard had seen O's like that to scheme against Masuk, but never one that ended in "bama." For good measure, the president did the darnedest thing. He signed that perfect test paper, too — he recognized that example of Newtown excellence.
"In a tough, tough time," George said, "it put a little smile on your face."
The Secret Service had blocked off his section of the high school, so George wasn't the first person to see the message. Principal Charles Dumais sent George a picture. George tweeted it. From that tweet, newspaper stories and Internet stories of that whiteboard message spread. The little shared moment on that whiteboard made a lot of people smile in a tough, tough time.
"I was at the vigil when he spoke," George said. "Yes, he's the president, but as a speaker I heard a caring father who wanted to console the people in Newtown, who acknowledged our suffering and pain. Yet he said it in a way you would you say to your kids or to one of your friends when something terrible happened to them. There was genuine care.
"And that's what I saw in his message, too. It wasn't a superior speaking to an inferior. It was more of equal thing, like a dad talking to another dad. 'I understand what you guys are going through.' He has young kids. I have young kids. It's all I have been able to think about when I go home and pick mine up at school. I think that's what all of us parents feel."
George would send another tweet two days later, and that photo, too, would find its way to various television outlets. It was a photo of a Victor Cruz visiting with the family of Jack Pinto. The first-grader had been a big Giants fan, a big Cruz fan, and Jack would be buried in a Cruz jersey. The Giants wide receiver paid tribute to Jack last week by writing "My Hero" on his cleats. The care and respect Cruz would show will not be soon forgotten in Connecticut. Given his tweet, I figured George had been there when Cruz visited one day after Jack's funeral. I figured wrong.
"The picture was sent to me," George said. "I had been asked to go, but there was somewhere else I had to be that day."
It was the funeral of the one of the murdered first-graders.
"I'm a Patriots fan, and obviously the Giants have owned us the last couple of Super Bowls," George said. "But what Victor Cruz did, it really says something about the impact sports figures can have. He called the family. He came to visit. The booster club gave him a sweatshirt he said he'd wear Sunday [against Baltimore].
"He made a great effort to help heal. And he's not the only one."
The Globetrotters and Tina Charles have been to the Newtown Youth Academy, where so many of the Sandy Hook children, who have been out of school since the massacre, are spending their days. The Houston Dynamos will stage a soccer clinic. More will follow. When George spoke about that night in defeat last month about having a special group of kids, he wasn't lying.
"They asked for volunteers at the youth academy, and practically my entire team was out there, helping the kids, playing games, basketball, football, soccer," George said. "Every one of our sports teams helped out. You feel you have to be a source of strength in these situations. But as a teacher, we have drawn strength from the kids."
It is that strength and sense of community that George wants the world to see this Christmas. That was what he has seen from Newtown's great rival. That has what he has seen on that whiteboard from the president of the United States. We're in this together. All of us.
"I think that's what everyone in America relates to, it could have been any school," George said. "It didn't matter if the door was locked, if all the protocols were met. If it's the wrong place and the wrong time, with a lunatic loose, it could happen anywhere.
"The people that were there, the stories I have heard, assistant coaches who had kids in the building, the first responders …"
George's voice trails off. He knew four of the dead.
"Look, I grew up in Newtown," George said. "I was born in Newtown. I went to Newtown High. I live in Seymour right now, but I have spent the majority of my life in Newtown. I want people to know what a great place to live and work it is.
"There's so much positive here that's not being portrayed in a lot of media. That's the sad thing for us. We're going to be known for the shooting deaths and not all the wonderful things that happen here."
Steve and Laura George have two boys of their own, and a third child is due in a couple of weeks. Peyton is 2. Jack is 5, in kindergarten at nearby Seymour Elementary. They will be in his arms this Christmas. He will hug, tight.
"Obviously, your family is always on your mind at a time like this," George said. "But you feel something greater at work. You feel the community. You feel the heartfelt things from surrounding towns. I know I've gotten calls from all their coaches. Everybody at Masuk wore blue and gold, our colors [Wednesday].
"Monroe — our big rival, our Thanksgiving rival — gave us a school [to replace the Sandy Hook building at least for the rest of the academic year]. Something like that, it really, really touches you in a way that you don't feel often in this life."