“It was somewhat surreal in the hotel lobby with Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan and [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber and Alexi Lalas,” Coxon told me yesterday. “I actually drove Cobi Jones from the hotel to the event. It was a lot of good guys so appreciative to be there. That was probably the biggest thing I got out of these people - they were just happy to be there and do something. There were no egos. It was an amazing event.”
But more than the sudden gathering of soccer stars, the success of Soccer Night in Newtown was measured by the smiles on the faces of children who last month endured unspeakable horror at their own Sandy Hook Elementary school and the loss of 20 young friends and six teachers.
“Mia Hamm had an amazing line all night in front of her,” said Coxon. “She must have been dealing with lines a hundred people long all night long. She stood there for every single photograph, shook every hand, signed everything. So did Landon. One of the things that caught my eye at the end was the last soccer player to leave was Landon Donovan. Landon was there at the end when there was maybe 10 kids left and he was juggling the ball and just hanging out, just hanging out with the kids.”
While everyone in the nation was stunned and saddened by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Canetti showed character by reaching out and beyond the comfort zone to launch the event with his own MLS team, the Houston Dynamo. Eric DeCosta, head coach at nearby Quinnipiac College, which Canetti attended, offered to help Canetti out, as did Coxon, who helps manage Connecticut Football Club, which has 95 Connecticut youth teams and a branch based in Newtown.
“Chris was the driving force behind all of this,” said Coxon. “He’s a family man, he’s got two children - two young children of similar age, kids that probably go to an elementary school like the Newtown kids. It just hit home with Chris. He’s a Connecticut native from Guilford and he really wanted to do something for the community, so he put this whole thing together. He was awesome. He’s the one that got the MLS involved and I think he wants to do more.”
At Canetti’s urging, MLS jumped on board and 35 MLS stars volunteered to participate along with national team legends, including World Cup stars Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan, the all-time leading goal scorers for the United States. Commissioner Garber cancelled his trip to FIFA's glittering Ballon d'Or in Switzerland to attend. MLS W.O.R.K.S ran the operational side of the event, managing the 40 volunteer coaches from CFC and Quinnipiac and the other many volunteers.
“I was on the side of it with the players and officials – Don Garber, the presidents of some of the teams and the players, and MLS W.O.R.K.S. gave us a bit of a background on what was going on and how we should handle it all,” said Coxon. “From all the reports we’ve had back, it’s been nothing but a huge success. It was really well put on by MLS.”
The community interest in the upcoming event quickly exceeded space limitations at Newtown Sports Academy, so the evening was divided into two sessions, with a half hour break to regroup in between. The event was arranged like a meet and greet, with lots of other activities for the kids. There were small-sided games, shooting on net with radar to show how hard the kids kicked the ball, booths for autographs, a bouncy castle and face painting. ESPN’s Bob Ley ran a question and answer session with Donovan, Hamm and Marcus Tracy, who is originally from Newtown. There was a booth where kids had their picture taken with the Dynamo’s two MLS Cups.
Around 650 Newtown residents flocked to each session and many had to be turned away, sparking talk from Canetti of a return visit to the community in spring lest no child be disappointed. Coxon acknowledged that those plans are under discussion.
“To me,” said Coxon, “the highlight of the evening was when a mom and a little girl came up to Chris and me as we were standing next to some MLS players. Chris spotted that she had the Sandy Hook Elementary School sweatshirt on and asked her if she went to Sandy Hook and she said yes. The look on his face... He grabbed her by the hand and said, 'Come with me,' and the two of them went running off and he took her to see Mia Hamm or Kristine Lilly, to see something great. There were no photographers around, but he delighted in doing that and you could tell how much it meant to Chris to put a smile on this little girl’s face, which was the whole idea of the night.”