The Newtown High School football team won its first state championship in 27 years Saturday night. And the Nighthawks did it in the most memorable and emotional manner imaginable, capping a fourth-quarter comeback with a 36-yard touchdown as time expired to beat Darien 13-7 in for the Class LL title — on the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
On a night so foggy it was hard to see across the field at Trumbull High School, quarterback Jack Street hit Riley Ward for a touchdown to tie the game at seven with seven minutes remaining.
After forcing a turnover on downs, Newtown took over at its own 32-yard-line with less than a minute left and orchestrated one of the most memorable drives in school history.
As GameTimeCT’s Pete Paguaga documented on his Twitter feed and in his game story, the Nighthawks got the ball to the Darien 36-yard-line with 3.3 seconds left, setting up a play that was so eye-grabbing and historic that hundreds of thousands of people had watched it on social media in the first two hours after the game ended.
Street dropped back as time expired and lobbed a perfect pass that hit Ward in stride in the right corner of the endzone, setting off a raucous celebration by the Nighthawks. It was Newtown’s first state title since 1992.
The play came seven years to the day after a gunman killed 20 young students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Before the shooting, the 20-year-old gunman shot and killed his mother. He committed suicide after first responders arrived at the school.
According to GameTime CT, a week prior to the game, Joel Cookson of the CIAC sent an email to the media sharing and supporting the request of the Newtown High School administration to refrain from interviewing players, coaches, parents and students about the Sandy Hook shooting. Cookson wrote that doing so “will undoubtedly put unwanted stress on the players, school and community.”
Newtown superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue also said that the high school’s principal and athletic director consulted with the football team about playing on the anniversary. “They wanted to play, keeping the main focus on the game,” Rodrigue said.
The game, as it turned out, was the focus of a whole country full of sports fans. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt was among those who passed along Pagagua’s video of the winning touchdown.
By 10 p.m. Saturday, that video had more than 1 million views. That’s in addition to the viewership on other clips of the same play, such as the up-close version shared here by Mike Buswell, a local baseball and basketball coach.
The Darien football account congratulated Newtown on the win in a tweet that summed it up nicely: “You played with your hearts on your sleeves.”
Paguaga started his career as a high school sports reporter and editor in Connecticut weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings. On December 14, 2012, the day of the shootings, he’d been hired as the sports editor of the Register Citizen, one of the papers whose coverage is featured at GameTimeCT, but hadn’t yet started the job. Throughout his tenure as a reporter and editor in Torrington, Norwalk, Meridan, New Haven, and elsewhere in Connecticut, Paguaga had covered several Newtown High teams that were among the best in the state, yet not quite good enough to bring home a state title.
In 2013, just a year after the shootings, the Nighthawks went 12-0 in the regular season and earned the No. 1 seed in the Class LL playoffs before falling 35-33 to eighth-seeded Ridgefield in the quarterfinals.
Six years later, Newtown was in position to finish the job. But with a thick fog making it hard to see and even harder to move the ball, the Nighthawks had their work cut out for them late in the fourth quarter.
As Paguaga explained to Heavy: “The stands were packed with fans wearing green in honor of the Sandy Hook victims. That included Newtown fans and Darien fans alike.”
“I thought that was so cool and so special,” Paguaga told Heavy.
Though the Nighthawks struggled to move the ball, their defense kept them in the game. Linebacker Jared Dunn, who Paguaga called “the best player on the field,” made play after play in the fourth quarter to prevent Darien from icing the game. Dunn, who had multiple sacks early in the game, batted down two key passes on a Darien drive that would have given the Blue Wave the lead had they scored.
Thanks in part to Dunn’s performance, Newtown got the ball back in the final minute, needing either to force overtime or to mount an improbable 68-yard-drive to win it in regulation.
Street, who splits time under center with fellow QB Brandon Lombardo, got hot on the drive, getting Newtown into Darien territory with a shot to win it. Impressive as Newtown’s drive may have been, the Nighthawks faced a tall order when they had the ball at the Darien 36 in the final seconds.
“It was so tense,” Paguaga said. “I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. Can they throw a Hail Mary to win this game? … I thought this game was going to overtime. … He gets open. He gets wide open. The safety kind of hung back. He catches it. He scores. The places goes absolutely insane. Me and one of the other reporters, we just stood there.”
“None of us truly believed what had just happened,” Paguaga said. “It was really weird because the fog disappeared on that play. If you look at the video on that play compared to the other videos in the game, there was no fog on that play.”
It was, Paguaga said, “easily the greatest football play that I’ve seen in seven years.”
Recording the final play on a camera from the endzone, Paguaga never imagined that his footage would air on SportsCenter and CNN, among other platforms. Producers from Good Morning America also asked for permission to air the footage.
“A walk-off in football other than a field goal is a rarity,” Paguaga said. “You don’t expect that. I truly thought the game was going to overtime. … I’m just watching and and I’m like ‘is he in-bounds?’ And I’m trying to process how far away he is.”
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Then, Paguaga said: “Holy crap. He scored. … I just kind of followed him across. Then Jared Dunn ran right up to my camera and started screaming. I just kind of followed everything. The hugs. … They just kept hugging. It was chaos.”
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