In the aftermath of the deadly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the public has responded with an outpouring of kindness. Athletes and other celebrities often rise to the occasion, but New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz was exemplary in the way he went about it.
Cruz learned that he was six-year-old Jack Pinto’s favorite player through Twitter. He inscribed “Jack Pinto, my hero” and “R.I.P. Jack Pinto” onto his cleats prior to his game on December 16.
More quietly, he stepped up in a more personal fashion by visiting the little boy's family in Newtown, Connecticut. Cruz arrived in the early morning, without a media entourage and privately expressed his condolences to relatives of the elementary school student who was one of the victims in the Sandy Hook massacre.
"It was an emotional time," Cruz told NFL.com. "I spent a little bit of time with them, and we got to smile a little bit, which was good for them. It was a time where I just wanted to be a positive voice, a positive light in a time where it can be very negative."
What could be tougher than meeting with the grieving parents shortly after burying their son in a Number 80 jersey?
It speaks volumes about who Victor Cruz is as a person.
Often we talk about athletes as role models. Some accept the responsibility, while others shun it. Cruz has also been notably active in helping his hometown community in Paterson, New Jersey. By visiting the Pinto family, he demonstrated that not only an understanding of how he is looked up to by young fans, but also that an athlete can reciprocate the affection without a phalanx of cameras in tow.
The Giants wide receiver was among many offering thoughtful gestures. A number of college teams have honored Sandy Hook Elementary by wearing the school's colors. Giants and Jets players remembered the victims with an inscription of the initials SHES on the back of their helmets, while the New England Patriots sported a special decal on the back of theirs.
Even players whose fan bases are far from Connecticut have been moved to action. Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans honored the victims by writing each one of their names on the cleats he sported during a Monday night game against the New York Jets. The running back is auctioning the shoes on NFL.com and will donate the money raised from the sale to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund. Bidding recently passed $6,000, and continues until January 7, 2013. The Titans star went even further by reaching out to one of the victim's brothers by phone.
Following his team's loss to #4 Ohio State, Winthrop University head basketball coach Pat Kelsey voiced a strong opinion over the shootings. Kelsey took advantage of having the microphone after playing a top opponent and spoke movingly about the privilege of being a parent, his determination to teach his 13 players and his own children the right things, and the emphasis that should be placed on preventing similar tragedies. The video quickly went viral.
Athletes and coaches who lead outside the sports arenas deserve kudos. As a society, we too often tend to focus on "bad boy" athletes and negative images. The news is often filled with stories of athletes and their involvement in DUIs, domestic violence, drug use and other disappointing behaviors.
In recent weeks, many sports figures have shown us all that they do care about more than Xs and Os. They have the power to give back, to lead by example, and to prove that they are willing and able to be the role models we often ask them to be.
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A native of Newark, Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, New York Jets President Neil Glat, and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.