ATLANTA - We're adults here, most of us, and that means we look at professional athletes with a cynical, slightly jealous eye. But just like with Christmas and cartoons, if we view athletes through the eyes of a child, our whole perspective changes.
On Sunday afternoon, Giants receiver Victor Cruz paid tribute to Jack Pinto, one of the students killed in Friday's Sandy Hook tragedy, by writing Jack's name on his shoes. He did so because Jack Pinto loved him above all other players, loved him so much that he may well be buried in a Cruz jersey.
After the game, Cruz stood and spoke before a semicircle of cameras and microphones four and five deep, and tried to make sense of the fact that he was one of the most important people in the life of someone who died decades too soon ... so much so that Pinto would watch Giants games wearing his Victor Cruz jersey.
"It's humbling," he said. "I was honored to know I was his favorite player. It's just unreal what happened."
Like the rest of the country, Cruz watched and read with horror as the events of Sandy Hook unfolded on Friday. And by Saturday, he realized that he had a personal connection.
"My Twitter feed started filling up with 'Jack Pinto, Jack Pinto,'" he said. "I'm reading this, and I'm in my hotel room fighting back tears." He asked his girlfriend Elaina to try to track down Jack's family, and within 20 minutes, she'd located them and patched him in on a three-way call.
This first time, Cruz and Jack's family didn't talk for very long, just a few minutes of shared sadness. But Cruz pledged to honor Jack's memory in Sunday's game, and more importantly, pledged that he'd be there for the family for a long time to come.
He'll head to Newtown later this week to present Jack's family with the cleats and the gloves. He was sketchy about the exact date, perhaps because he didn't know, perhaps because he'd rather not turn a visit with the Pinto family into a media opportunity. "The last thing I want to do is add stress on the family in this tough time," he said.
Going forward, he wants to do all that he can for the family. "We may do a fundraiser, something like that," he told Yahoo! Sports. "For now all we want to do is comfort the family. We'll think about other things we can do to help in the long term."
And what about the political implications of Sandy Hook? The specter of gun control reared up the moment the tragedy broke, and every time we ask how this could possibly happen to children, the conversational thread runs right to guns. Cruz acknowledged the larger issues at play, but he wants to focus on the tangible pain, not the intangible debate.
"If I'm needed in [a political] way, I'd do whatever I could," he said. "But I'm focused on the positivity and the well-being of the family."
There's something different about the Sandy Hook tragedy, something that, in some way small or large, alters the way we view the world around us. At the Georgia Dome, it began even before kickoff. NFL games are constant barrages of sight and sound; if fans aren't cheering a play, music is pounding through the speakers at ear-bleeding levels. Instances of silence are rare, and in most cases aren't even silent. Someone's laughing, someone else is hollering to fill the empty space. But before the game, the Falcons asked fans for a moment of silence to honor the Sandy Hook victims, and everyone in the 71,000-seat arena became quiet. Every single person.
After the game, Cruz stood at his locker, answering question after question. In most postgame locker-room sessions, athletes sit still for a few routine questions, offer up routine answers, then put on their headphones and head for the bus. Cruz waited out every single question, answering the game-related ones with the typical platitudes but the Sandy Hook-related ones with thoughtfulness. Perhaps even athletes underestimate the good they can do, the influence they have on children, until it's right there in front of them in stark terms.
"We see the effect we have on kids, and it's humbling," Cruz said. "It's a real honor to be a role model."
Most times, we can be as cynical as we'd like about athletes, and most times, they'll let us down. They, like us, are human. But when we look to these players as inspirations — when we look to them as children do — every so often, they'll be everything we'd hoped they would.
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