NFL stars give gifts to families of Newtown victims

4:45 PM, Dec 21, 2012   |    comments
Chris Johnson's cleats that show the names of the victims of the mass shooting that took place at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticutat prior to the game against the New York Jets
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Chris Johnson first wrote the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims on his cleats. Now the Titans running back has sent gifts to the family of Grace McDonnell after speaking with them by telephone.

He had the names on his cleats for Monday night's game against the New York Jets, and he scored on a franchise-record 94-yard touchdown run. The family reached out to Johnson through the Titans, and the running back spoke Tuesday with the McDonnells and Grace's older brother, Jack.

"You get a whole sense of it and just him and the kids ... that he was trying to be strong, but it's a situation I can tell how he feels," Johnson said Thursday after practice. "I lost my grandmother earlier in this year and just knowing how that feels I just kind of wanted to do something to at least try to lift his spirits."

Johnson also became a father earlier this year too with the birth of twin boys. He said that just made him appreciate his sons even more. He said he sent over a few Christmas gifts to Jack McDonnell and the family, and he also shared his telephone number in case they need anything that he might help with in the future.

The Titans running back said he still plans to auction off the shoes to help families. But he sounded reluctant Thursday as he discussed the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"I kind of what to step back. ... I kind of did it for the kids and the family. I really don't want to make it about me," Johnson said.

Earlier this week, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz visited the family of Jack Pinto, a 6-year-old victim who was buried in a Cruz replica jersey.

Cleats and gloves worn by Cruz to honor Jack Pinto at Sunday's game against Atlanta were given to Jack's family.

On Wednesday Cruz somberly recounted his meeting with Pinto's parents and brother in Newtown, Conn.

He struggled in his retelling only when asked about the family's decision to bury the child in the receiver's No. 80 Giants jersey. The father of an infant girl, Cruz stopped for a moment, and his eyes became watery.

"You never go through some circumstances like this and circumstances where a kid faces or a family faces something of this magnitude at their school," Cruz said. "This definitely was the toughest by far."

Jack Pinto was buried on Monday and Cruz telephoned the family to ask whether he could visit them Tuesday.

The family disclosed after Friday's massacre that Cruz was Jack's favorite player. The boy was one of 20 first-graders and six adults killed in the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Cruz drove to Newtown with his girlfriend, Elaina Watley, and their daughter, Kennedy.

"I had no expectations. I was a little nervous," Cruz said. "I just didn't know how I was going to be received. You never know when they are going through something like that. You never know how it is going to go down."

Seeing the family outside the home along with some local children made Cruz feel better.

"They were still pretty emotional, crying and stuff like that," Cruz said. "I saw how affected they were by just my presence alone. I got out and gave them the cleats and the gloves and they appreciated it. The older brother (Ben) was still emotional, so I gave them to him."

Cruz had written "Jack Pinto, My Hero" and "R.I.P. Jack Pinto" on his cleats before the Giants' loss to the Falcons Sunday in Atlanta.

The 26-year-old player best known for his salsa dances after touchdowns, signed autographs for the children before heading inside.

"I didn't want to go in there and make a speech," Cruz said. "I just wanted to go and spend some time with them and be someone they could talk to, and be someone they can vent to, talk about how much of a fans they are of the team, or different times they watched the Super Bowl."

Cruz spent that part of the visit sitting in the chair where Jack's father, Dean, sat when he watched the Giants' Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots in February.

It was a day Jack got to see his favorite team win a championship.

"It was just an emotional time," Cruz said. "I spent a little bit of time with them. 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 the tunnel where it can really be negative, so it was a good time. They are a great family and they're really united at this time and it was good to see."

Cruz said it was strange thinking about a child being buried in his jersey. He did not know how to react. Should he thank the family?

"It leaves you kind of blank," Cruz said. "I am definitely honored by it. I am definitely humbled by it, and it's definitely an unfortunate but humbling experience for me."

The visit also gave Cruz time to reflect, especially looking at his daughter.

"Ever since it happened I've kind of been spending more time with her, just cherishing the little moments, the little time you get with her because you never know when that can be taken from you," he said.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin said he was incredibly proud of Cruz for visiting with the Pinto family.

"Hopefully some of their grief might at least temporarily be suspended in being able to embrace Victor Cruz," Coughlin said, adding what he did speaking volumes of what he has inside.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice said what Cruz did took heart.

"You've got to be able to put yourself in that family's situation to understand at least what they're going through," Rice said in a conference call with the New York media about Sunday's game against the Giants. "That's what it's about. That's something that you don't just say, `I'm going to do it.' You do it from the heart, from within and what he did was amazing."

Meanwhile, ESPN reported that Yankees star Derek Jeter called the mother of Victoria Soto, the teacher killed while protecting her first-grade students.

Jeter called Donna Soto on Wednesday, and Carlee Soto, Victoria's sister, tweeted the news.

"Derek Jeter just called my mom!!!!! Thanks Vicki, she needs it thank you @yankees this meant a lot to my mother and all of us," the tweet read.

 

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