Auriemma, Huskies Affected by Sandy Hook Tragedy

The more the details of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown began to surface last Friday the more numb UConn coach Geno Auriemma grew. Never could he have imagined that 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 would be among the 26 people killed.

“Just looking around in our office, the players were already out here for practice when all that was going on so I don’t think they were aware of it right then and there that Friday,’’ Auriemma said. “But us coaches that were in the office still, our staff you just know… You just feel so helpless and so powerless.

“And you try as much as you can to put yourself in the shoes of the parents and the brothers and sisters, and you just can’t even imagine that. You can’t even fathom that. The average person has trouble dealing with the death of a parent or a grandparent or someone that’s been ill for a long time much less a brother or sister or son or daughter that you sent to school to first grade and they don’t come back. You’re not equipped to deal with that on any level.’’

The Huskies too were heavily affected by the tragedy. Kelly Faris, in particular, plans to work with young kids in the future. And Faris and Heather Buck have developed a relationship with Sandy O’Donnell, the marketing director at the Newtown Youth Academy. The players worked at a basketball camp at the Newtown Youth Academy Sports & Fitness Center during the summer and fall of 2010.

Naturally, the Huskies promptly asked Auriemma what they can do now to help in light of these events.

“I told them at some point when it’s appropriate we’ll get them involved,’’ Auriemma said. “But right now, there really isn’t much we can do. It’s one of those things that I think kids, which is what they are still because they’re not that far removed from when they were taking the school bus to first grade or whatever. And then you add the fact that it’s like one hour and change from here. They’re young. They’re early 20s, late teens. So the amount of things like this that they’ve witnessed in their lives… this one affected them much more than what I can remember happening since I’ve been around my teams.

“And we tried to explain to them as coaches that it’s OK. I was 10 when John F. Kennedy was shot and I was 14 or 15 when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (were killed). And it just goes on and on and on how many things you’ve seen in your life. All the way to today, and that one I think cut the deepest of anything I’ve ever experienced in my life.’’

The Huskies will pay their respect to the 26 victims and their families Wednesday against Oakland at the XL Center by wearing patches on their jerseys. The patch is a rectangle with a green background, a black outline and features the letters “SH’’ in white.

UConn will also conduct a pre-game ceremony to honor the victims. All 11 players and a combined 15 members of the UConn spirit squad, dance team and pep band will hold 26 candles during a 26-second moment of silence. Fans are asked to be seated by 6:50 p.m. for the ceremony.

“It’s more of an honor to do something like that,’’ Faris said. “It’s not about us. It’s about making people aware, keeping it out there. It’s kind of that fine line with right now I think it’s good to do those types of things. After a while each family’s different. You don’t know their situation. You don’t know how they’re going to handle it. It may be just more reliving. So, for us, right now it’s an honor to be able to wear something that represents those kids and those teachers who did what they did and went down as heroes.’’

Auriemma and his wife, Kathy, took a significant step toward the future this week by donating $80,000 to the newly established Sandy Hook Memorial Scholarship Fund at UConn.

“When this incident occurred, there were a lot of things being bandied about by people,’’ Auriemma said. “How do you go about doing something? Everybody says, `We have to do something. Let’s go have a practice over there. Let’s have a game to raise money.’ Those are all well and good. There’s a lot of good intentions that came out of this. But when we talked about it, it was something that’s more long-lasting, something that really keeps those 26 people in a memorial that’s going to last hopefully forever. Symbolic gestures come and they go. They’re important, but I think what we decided was that if we could educate the dependents and the siblings of all the people that were involved… and then hopefully going forward we hope to raise enough money that if we could do 26 scholarships for kids that qualify with academics, financial need, community service and those kinds of things, that that’s something that can go on for as long as the money holds out. And we figured that the cost of a UConn tuition right now is about $80,000 for a four-year period. So I’m hoping that all the people that wanted to do something in addition to symbolic gestures … and not just in Connecticut either. This was probably the lead story in every newspaper in the world for three or four or five days.

“So hopefully we’ll raise enough money, and down the road maybe something different will happen than normally happens in these shootings, that the person who did the shooting won’t be as famous as the people he left behind and that were killed. By them dying, they’ll help give birth to some kids’ dream of going to college that can’t go to college. And maybe some kids will grow up in Newtown, and it’ll be a tremendous honor for them to get a scholarship in some little kid’s name that was there that day. And if we can do that, then maybe everyone can forget the person who did it and remember the victims.’’

Said Faris: “I know Coach was shaken up by it and really wanted to reach out in some way. I talked to him a little bit, trying to put our heads together on what could happen and what everybody could do. And I think that’s very generous of him to start something like that. Again, there’s a line. What we can do. What we can’t do. If we do too much is it just reliving everything for everybody? So right now I know it’s chaotic in the town and everybody’s dealing with different things differently. So I think that was a really good way to get things going and hopefully as time goes on there will be more ways that we can help.’’

Here is more reaction from Faris and Kiah Stokes:

“I had heard about it before practice, but I didn’t know to what extent things had taken place,’’ Faris said. “And then after practice is when I was really told about everything that happened. It ruined my day, ruined my week. It’s one of those things where I went back and that’s all that I could think about. All I could picture in my head was all those kids’ faces. And that’s what I have passion for is just little kids and that’s what I want to work with and to hear something like it’s really devastating.’’

“I was so upset,’’ Stokes said. “I remember where I was. I was eating lunch at the dining hall because it was like 11. It’s just really heartbreaking, especially because they’re children. When I first turned on the news they said only one person had died and I was like, ‘I just hope that’s the end of it.’ Then I get to practice and they say it’s over 20. I can’t even imagine. That night both my mom and my dad called me and they were like, `We just want to say we love you, and if something ever happens we don’t know what we would do without you.’ It just hits you at home because you never know what could happen. Especially with elementary students. It’s just ridiculous. I pray for those families affected, and I wish the best for them.’’