In a town that suffered through unimaginable sorrow only 24 days earlier, Matt Reis found himself with a sole mission Monday night: Make kids smile.
He was manning a photo booth set up inside of the Newtown Youth Academy, an athletic facility in Newtown, Conn., the community where a gunman killed 26 innocent people at an elementary school last month -- and where the longtime Revolution goalkeeper joined some of the biggest names in American soccer in hopes of bringing some small semblance of healing.
At Reis' station that meant striking silly poses, while elsewhere amid the activity there were faces being painted, autographs being signed, questions being answered, soccer balls being kicked.
And, true to the mission, distracted smiles being stretched from ear to ear.
"Seeing the kids' faces when we were playing soccer with them, just kicking balls, they were carefree," Reis relayed in a phone conversation Tuesday. "Once the ball's rolled out, everything else just melts away."
The brainchild of Houston Dynamo President Chris Canetti, who hails from nearby Guilford, Conn., “Soccer Night in Newtown” was born of a desire to give the children of town a chance to forget about the tragedy at Sandy Hook for a few hours – and his sport heard the call for action.
They event came together quickly, though it was enough time to attract some of the biggest names in American soccer over the past two decades. The list of participants included legends like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, and Landon Donovan, who was among the contingent of current players that featured a representative from every Major League Soccer club.
No team was better represented than the Revolution, which sent a seven-member delegation that included Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes, Hunter Freeman, Ryan Guy, Bobby Shuttleworth, Clyde Simms and Chris Tierney in addition to Reis.
“I think it speaks volumes. I think it's huge for every team to be represented; for all these guys, in the offseason, to put this together within a couple weeks; for the league to have everybody out there,” Reis said.
“It just speaks to the personality and the makeup of what the American soccer player is. It's somebody that wants to help, and it's definitely someone that cares about the community and the people that are in it.”
Soccer is a big part of the youth sports culture in Newtown, and the night attracted nearly 1,500 people – including some who had attended Sandy Hook Elementary School -- and despite the fact it was an event open only to Newtown residents, the crowd would’ve been even bigger if the indoor facility could’ve accommodated more. With that in mind, Canetti told his league’s website that they plan to hold another event in the spring, when the weather is better and they can sprawl across outdoor fields, and the expectation is that the players will be eager to help again.
Even on short notice, this time around organizers were turning away willing volunteers after the available spots filled up fast. And when others hear Reis talk about the value of the experience, or better yet see the pictures from his photo booth, there are sure to be plenty more excited to undertake the mission.
“It's extremely rewarding,” the keeper said. “When both sides feel rewarded it was a great event, and everyone was just so gracious. The thank you that we got, the high-fives, they were definitely very, very thankful for us to be down there, and we were very, very thankful for the opportunity to go down there.
“It was just a chance for parents to see smiles back on their kids' faces again.”
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