Let's Have Hugs, Prayers And No More Need For Tributes

Patriots Pay Tribute To Newtown Victims, Survivors

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wears a decal on his helmet in tribute to the victims of Friday's shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The Patriots faced the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night in Foxborough, Mass. (Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters / December 16, 2012)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. —

John Prior saw the news flash across CNBC on Friday and it staggered him.

"I was absolutely stunned," Prior said as he stood in the biting December rain early Sunday night outside Gillette Stadium. "We had our first murder last year in Westport in like 20 years, but this slaughter of innocents …"

Prior's voice trailed off. What words could begin to describe his emotions? A madman with too many guns and too little sanity had cut down a piece of Connecticut's future at an elementary school in Newtown on Friday. What words could begin to describe our collective grief?

Around the nation Sunday, the NFL honored the heroes and the victims of Sandy Hook. Commemorative decals were placed on helmets. Names were written on pieces of equipment in tribute. Giant flags, including one 50 yards from where I am writing this piece, were dropped to half-staff. Moments of silence were observed. Video screens temporarily went dark. Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz would feel an especially powerful connection to one of our fallen angels.

Yet nowhere did this senseless tragedy strike deeper than in New England. And nowhere was it better understood than by the fans standing in front of their vehicles with Connecticut license plates in the parking lots before the Patriots' 41-34 loss to San Francisco.

"When I heard the news on Friday," Joe Ward of South Windsor said, "I felt like I got punched in the gut."

"Terrible," said Mike Bucceri, who's from Glastonbury and now lives in Boston. "Just terrible."

With the Giants on the road Sunday, the Patriots' game would be the closest to Newtown. In a poignant pre-game tribute, as a stadium fell into silence, 26 white flares — honoring the 20 children and six teachers murdered — were set off.

"As important a gesture as it is," Prior said, "it seems so inadequate."

I asked Ward and his wife what they would be thinking about during the moment of reflection.

"That our kids are with us," Jennifer Ward said softly. She pointed to their 11-year-old twins, sixth-graders, a boy and a girl. She pointed to our state's future.

I would ask John Prior the same question. He answered with a point of his finger.

"I'm just going to hug that little girl tight," he said.

And with that Meghan Prior popped out from the other side of their car.

Meghan, 19, was drivinghometo Westport from the University of Vermont, where she's a sophomore, on Friday when she first heard of the massacre.

"I was almost to Hartford on 91 when my mom called," Meghan said. "No one knew exactly what was going on yet. They didn't know what happened to the shooter. She was concerned I'd go on 84 and drive past Newtown."

She stayed on I-91 and took the Merritt Parkway. But here's the thing you really need to know about Meghan Prior's direction. She is a psychology major. She plans on being a school psychologist.

"Hearing that the school psychologist [Mary Sherlach] was one of the first people killed is unbelievable," said Meghan, a graduate of Staples in Westport. "It is so upsetting to me. These people put their lives out there to help children, they protected them.

"I just keep thinking about the families. I can't imagine what they are going through. I keep seeing people on Facebook who know some of the children. It's heartbreaking, especially having grown up in such a safe place and to have that not be the case anymore."

And with that, John Prior put his arm around his daughter's shoulder. He put his arm around our state's future.

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