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.
Everywhere we looked on television and online Sunday with the Associated Press and elsewhere there were mentions of Newtown tributes. In St. Louis, Rams running back Daryl Richardson and Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfeld — who both wear jersey No. 26 — joined hands in silent tribute to the fallen 26. Cruz would write "R.I.P. Jack Pinto" and "My Hero" on his shoes in Atlanta. Jack, a first-grader who loved to wrestle, loved the Giants' wide receiver, too. Cruz told reporters that Pinto's family told him they were planning to bury the boy in a No. 80 — Cruz's number — Giants jersey.
"I don't even know how to put it into words," Cruz said after the Giants' 34-0 loss in Atlanta. "There are no words that can describe the type of feeling that you get when a kid idolizes you so much that unfortunately they want to put him in the casket with your jersey on."
The Giants wore the letters S.H.E.S. in tribute to the school on their helmets. The Jets will do something similar Monday night in Tennessee. The Patriots had a more elaborate Newtown town seal and black ribbon affixed to their helmets. Team president Jonathan Kraft told NFL.com the Patriots would be donating $25,000 to the victims' families.
Both teams were affected deeply.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin held a moment of silence at the team meeting Saturday night.
"It's very difficult to get past the senseless killing of children," Coughlin told Rachel Nichols of ESPN. "There's tremendous evil in our world."
Unlike Coughlin, who said after the Giants' loss that his players were greatly upset about the tragedy, Bill Belichick made no mention of it in his postgame press conference.
It turns out the Kraft family owns a Rand-Whitney box factory in Newtown near the school. Jonathan Kraft told NFL.com he had called to talk to a retiring employee Friday. Instead of a party there were counseling sessions and the company was giving space for staging and for the media.
"The players have been really affected by it," Kraft told NFL.com. "You never hear guys talk about current events, but the guys were talking about it on Friday afternoon and Saturday in the building. A lot of guys have young children. A lot of guys have guns."
One group that did not have guns Sunday night was the Patriots' Endzone Militia. They wore their 18th century outfits. They did not carry the muskets they shoot off after New England scores. The move showed fitting tribute and sensitivity. Yet through all this, it would be John Prior's words that haunt me. As important as the gestures are, they seem so inadequate. I don't want to go off like Bill Maher did in a tweet over the weekend: "Sorry but prayers and giving your kids hugs fix nothing; only having the [courage] to stand up to our insane selfish gun culture will."
I believe in those hugs I saw at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. I believe in the prayers said as those flares were set off. But I believe, too, much more can be done to help the mentally ill. And I believe more must be done to get rid of semiautomatic rifles and 30-round clips that serve no other mission than to kill people.
The tribute I saw Sunday night at Gillette Stadium was somber and it was fitting.
Yet in Joe and Jennifer Ward's twins and in John Prior's beautiful daughter, I saw our state's future, too. We don't need more tributes.