Is that one of the kids?
No, he’s a little big for the elementary school wrestling team. But only a little. Clearly he’s a coach, though, because between drills he’s tying shoes, adjusting headgear, making sure each kid’s ready position really is a ready position. He’s 14 years old, and his name is Jack Wellman.
It’s warm-up, and the kids are working their way across the mat, dipping low and darting forward, developing the explosiveness in their legs that they’ll need during matches. There’s a straggler. Jack is on his knees next to him, getting on eye level with a 6-year-old, demonstrating the technique again. The rest of the team is already onto the next drill.
The last of Jack’s baby fat hasn’t quite melted off. His face is so young, and throughout the bulk of the 90-minute practice session he wears a smile that’s bigger than ear-to-ear, more like temple-to-temple. It never fades. He’s having more fun than anyone else on the mat.
The middle school team comes in at 6:30, so the elementary kids need to wrap things up. Curtis Urbina, the head coach, blows the whistle.
“Who are my squirrels?!” he barks. Eager hands go up. You! You! You! You!
A few of the kids get down on all fours. Little brothers and sisters who had been watching with their parents, as well as some of the middle school wrestlers, bounce onto the mat. Urbina says go, and the room erupts with laughter. It’s a giant game of tag. The squirrels give chase as kids and coaches run and leap across the mat to avoid them. Now everyone in the Newtown Middle School gym has a smile as big as Jack’s.
For much of the past 12 months, smiles have been hard to come by in Newtown, Conn. Finding peace, reason or even closure after the tragic shooting of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School has been an almost impossible task for the roughly 1,960 people who were left behind. Each person’s path to healing—just like his or her suffering—has been highly individual. Finding common ways to mourn, grieve or even celebrate the lives lost can lead to raw emotions and renewed pain. Jack Wellman’s path has involved wrestling mats. The fact that other people in Newtown have been inspired by his spirit is, of course, their choice. But this much is real: It’s a Thursday evening at Newtown Middle School, and Jack—the entire wrestling team, for that matter—is in a good place.
Pain has been a frequent reality in Jack’s life. When Caren Wellman was eight months pregnant with her first child, she stepped off a chair while painting the nursery, snapping her fibula and tibia in half and shattering her ankle. She was in a cast from ankle to hip when Jack entered the world five days later.
The ordeal set the stage. Fourteen years later Jack has an injury history more befitting a 14-year NFL veteran: broken bones, sprains and bruises, even two concussions. The list is largely the result of the punishment he has absorbed while performing the most thankless tasks in the sports he has chosen to play. In football, he was an interior lineman, a guard who often had to take on defenders twice his size. His football coach convinced him to come out for the lacrosse team. The position that appealed to Jack was goalie, a role that would bring further battering and bruising.
Then there was the wrestling mat. Jack’s father, Andy, was a high school wrestler. He knows the risks that Jack and younger brother Luke face every time they get on the mat. But he also believes in the life lessons the sport can teach. “It puts you in an uncomfortable situation,” he says, “and I want [my kids] to learn how to work through that, to prepare them for those uncomfortable situations later in life.”
For Jack, though, the experience at first was less about being uncomfortable and more about being in pain and, at times, humiliated. He started wrestling in sixth grade, when Luke joined the Newtown Youth Wrestling Association, but Jack didn’t get serious about the sport until seventh grade.
League meets at Newtown are treated more like warm-ups for the bigger tournaments. Coaches are always careful with their match-ups, pitting novice wrestler against novice wrestler so that everyone has at least a chance to win. But the tournaments, the ones where you get the trophies and medals that mean something when you’re of a certain age, feature random draws. The highest middle school division is seventh/eighth grade, meaning Jack was on the wrong side of the “age curve.”
The Wellmans don’t know the exact numbers, but Caren estimates a 20-match losing streak for Jack at one point. “Oh, at least,” Jack says.
Wrestling is the most individual of sports. Sure, it’s frustrating on a tennis court or a track if your opponent is running you ragged, but in wrestling you’re always one misstep from being physically manhandled, face ground into the mat, arms wrenched, another human on top of you, doing everything he can to torture you into submission.
At one tournament in Berlin, Conn., Jack scanned a bracket full of state champions and runners-up, some of the best middle school wrestlers Connecticut had to offer. At the bottom of the bracket was Jack Wellman. In one match, a superior wrestler who was still fuming over an earlier loss took out his frustration on Jack to a point that bordered on the sadistic. “It was 10 minutes of non-stop pain,” Jack says.
When the punishment finally ended, Jack made up his mind: He would never go back on the mat again. But his coach, Christopher Bray—an old-school kind of mentor—took Jack aside. There were tears during the pep talk under the bleachers. Bray asked him if he was going to be the kid who quit and went home. Jack sobbed, finally shook his head no, trudged back to the mat and finished another winless day.
His father, the other coaches, older wrestlers, all constantly reminded Jack: All the work and embarrassment would really pay off when Jack was an eighth grader.
There was one highlight that season, though: a tournament in Cobleskill, N.Y. The day before the competition Jack jumped into the shallow end of the hotel pool and wrecked his ankle. He limped back to the hotel room expecting a day off on Sunday. Then a stomach bug hit younger brother Luke.
“It was kind of like, Well, we came all the way out here and just ruined a hotel room,” Andy says. “Maybe Jack can wrestle so that one of you gets out there this weekend.”
So Jack, the kid who rarely won on two good ankles, hit the mat, and a funny thing happened: He medaled. Third place. “Out of four,” he quickly points out.
Jack shook his opponent’s hand and headed straight to the school’s cafeteria where the awards would be handed out. The seventh/eighth grade bracket was one of the first to finish, and the awards wouldn’t even be made until all the brackets were done. It would be hours before his medal would be ready, he was told.
“That’s okay,” Jack said. “I’ll wait.”
“Football was more like a job.”
That statement makes sense when you consider that he was an interior lineman, the least glamorous position in football. But if this was a job, it was one that Jack took very much to heart. All the proof you need can be found in Caren’s favorite photos, taken after Newtown lost a league championship game when Jack was in fifth grade. There’s Jack coming off the field, eyes welling up with tears. There he is, sitting by himself in the bleachers, inconsolable. There are his teammates, concerned with the post-game cupcakes, and off to the side there’s Jack, shoulders slumped, tears in his eyes.
Jack doesn’t play football any more. The end came last August. After weeks of grueling workouts in stifling humidity, it was down to the last play of the last practice before the season opener. Jack was an eighth-grader and, at 120 pounds, a comically-undersized lineman. But he was good, a starter every season he played. He was adept at landing blocks on the move, pulling as a lead blocker and moving to the second level to take out linebackers and defensive backs. Like any interior lineman, sometimes he had to deal with the big guys, some of whom weighed well over 200 pounds; unlike Pop Warner, American Youth Football does not have a weight limit.
The last play of the Saturday walk-through would be Green 20, requiring Jack to land a trap block on a defensive tackle. A 250-pound one. The collision didn’t seem particularly violent. At first Jack thought he just had the wind knocked out of him. Then he rolled onto his stomach and the pain surged through his body. The Wellmans, at another field for Luke’s practice, got a call that Jack was down. “Jack doesn’t go down,” Caren says. As they scrambled to get to the other field, they heard an ambulance scream by.
Jack can tell the story with a smile now. Actually, most everything he says is with a smile. He’s the kid who sees someone sitting alone in the cafeteria and pulls up a seat. He greets visitors so enthusiastically that you might think he’s being sarcastic. Just about anyone asked to describe Jack Wellman uses the term “old soul.” With his Unitas-inspired crew cut, he even looks like a throwback.
When his parents arrived at the field, Jack had been immobilized and was being loaded into the ambulance. Doctors ordered two MRIs, meaning he would have to lay still in an MRI machine for an hour. He was starving, having skipped breakfast, was still in pads, and the neck brace was cutting into the skin under his chin. He couldn’t reach the poison ivy rash on his legs that was driving him nuts. The bad news came a few days later: A vertebra in his lower back was fractured. He had already missed most of lacrosse season after breaking his thumb on a save. Now football season was over before it began. That eighth grade wrestling season that had been his carrot during all the pummelings the year before, was out of the question as well.
Fourteen years old, broken body, broken spirit, a pain so sharp he could barely sleep for weeks. Jack’s face looked so odd without that smile.
Curtis Urbina will meet a visitor over at the school. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and a perfect autumn day. Soccer and baseball fields flank Reed Intermediate School, set in front of hills full of classic New England foliage. This is why New Yorkers like Urbina fall for Newtown.
His visitor sits down on a low, kid-sized bench on the school’s playground, but Urbina settles into a low crouch. He’s small but wiry strong; you’d say he’s in remarkable shape for a 40-year-old—if he weren’t 56. The stereotypical wrestling coach is humorless, gruff, running a boot camp. Urbina is none of these. He wears a perpetual grin and speaks with the cheery tone of a kindergarten teacher. Jack Wellman says he’s “the coach who gives hugs after a loss.”
Urbina had watched Jack wrestle with the middle school team. He saw a kid short on ability, but long on effort, and he always appreciated Jack’s attitude. As the 2012-13 wrestling season got underway that October, there were already two Wellmans on hand for practices, Andy was volunteering as a coach and Luke was on the middle school team. If nothing else, Urbina needed another pair of hands around the gym, someone to roll out the mats and wipe them down. He told Andy to start bringing Jack to practice.
It was a tough sell for Jack, who had spent the fall moping around the house, mourning his lost year. He had still been going to every football practice and game, watching from the bench, but it wasn’t doing it for him. It seemed unlikely that spending three nights a week overseeing a bunch of little kids who barely knew the basics would do the trick. His parents cajoled: One night, and if you hate it, you don’t have to go back again.
There are wonderful life lessons to be learned in wrestling, especially at older levels. But the NYWA elementary school team is more about picking up such virtues as focus, discipline, respect for others. If the kids learn two moves in a year, it’s cause for celebration. Moms, dads and little brothers and sisters line the perimeter of the gym, sitting on the floor watching, chatting, working, helping younger kids with homework. Urbina encourages families to attend practice. The team is its own little community. If a parent has to step out, for a phone call, for the restroom, they know their kids will be fine with the rest of the group.
With 20 kids grappling on the mat, elementary school team practice involves plenty of herding cats. Someone invariably trips during the warmup run around the boundary circle, resulting in a cartoonish pile-up of tiny arms and legs. But Urbina has a knack for getting his kids to focus.
The problem for Urbina: There’s an enormous gap between what a 9-year-old can do and what a 4-year-old can do. Jack saw that the youngest kids needed help and he naturally gravitated to them. The arrangement worked. Jack looked like a big kid, someone the little guys could relate to. And Jack had seemingly limitless patience. There was something else though. Seeing the smiles, hearing the laughs of these kids on the mat sparked something in Jack. After the first night, he kept coming back.
After a few weeks, Jack came to Urbina with an idea: He wanted to coach. Urbina took Jack under his wing for a few practices, making sure he knew the proper way to execute the drills and techniques that the kids were learning. The NYWA had a new leader.
You probably have a picture in your head of the kind of parent who would put a 4-year-old in a wrestling program, and it probably looks like Earl Woods with a touch of roid rage. It’s not the case in this program. Last year, 4-year-old Stephen Singlak was easy to spot. He was the smallest kid on the Newtown team, or possibly any team in the state, curly blonde hair, and an impossibly baggy shirt tucked into his shorts. And then there were the shoes, his signature look: bright white sneakers, the only kid on the mat who didn’t have wrestling shoes. His father, Steve Singlak, admits: “I’ve never wrestled in my life.”
Sandwiched between two sisters, Stephen had energy to burn but no outlet in which to burn it. Steve and Melissa Singlak had heard good things about the NYWA, and they were charmed by Urbina during a chance meeting. They decided to give it a shot. Stephen was having fun on the mat, but was lost when it came to the actual wrestling. The coaching staff didn’t have a lot of time to bring him up to speed. Worse, with the other 4-year-olds his size showing up infrequently, there was no good fit for Stephen when the wrestlers paired off. The fit ended up being Jack.
When Stephen would see Jack, his face spread into that I’m-up-to-something smile. Often, he’d just pounce onto Jack’s back, or clutch onto one of his legs. But then there was the time when Jack spent a half hour teaching Stephen how to perform a half-nelson, over and over and over again.
Rob and Debora Accomando already had two boys in the NYWA, so last year 3-year-old Steven started coming to practices. He became one of Jack’s kids, and he was just the right size to grapple with Stephen Singlak. With no opponent the right size for either during a December meet at Sandy Hook, the two of them went head-to-head in a practice match, the first “real” competition for each. After a few minutes of the miniature wrestlers rolling around, the match was declared a tie. Steven was ready for the traditional post-match handshake, but Stephen was nowhere to be found. Was he too fired up, angry, sad, off somewhere crying? Not at all. Moments later, Stephen sprung back on the mat, but the two didn’t shake hands. They hugged and then kissed.
The Accomandos were taken back. Such spontaneous acts don’t always come naturally. Kindness is often a learned behavior, and Jack’s smiles, his positive attitude and gentle guidance, were being reflected in these kids. “My God,” Rob says, “to instill that kind of love.”
Jack Wellman huddled in the corner of the room with his eighth grade classmates. The door was locked, a table propped against it. The lights were off and the shades were drawn. A bit of daylight worked its way around the blinds, providing ambient light. So did the glow of his teacher’s cell phone. It buzzed.
Dude, your town is all over the news.
A classmate needed to use the bathroom, but no chance of anyone going. They stayed there, in silence, for 30 minutes before quietly filing through a shared door into an adjacent classroom, where the same scene was taking place. The lockdown was lifted 30 minutes later. Jack was in the cafeteria when the texts and tweets started to pour in. Friends traded info.
Something’s going on at one of the other schools.
Luke, a fifth grader, was home sick that day. Sister Annie’s pre-school didn’t start until the afternoon. Thank God for that.
A shooting at one of the elementary schools.
His kids, were they there? Were they okay?
There were no names yet, just a number that kept rising with every report. Newtown Middle School was silent, no hallway chatter, no lockers clanging, except for students’ names being called over the intercom as their parents arrived to pick them up. Jack walked to the office to meet his mother. Both of them were in tears.
He came into the house and asked his dad: “Is Stephen Singlak okay?”
He was. Stephen didn’t attend Sandy Hook Elementary, but some of the elementary team wrestlers did. The family went to a candlelight vigil that night, and there was a rumor that Jack Pinto was among the victims. The Wellmans are close with the Pinto family. Luke is friends and football teammates with Jack Pinto’s brother, Ben. And Jack Pinto was one of the smiling kids on that wrestling mat, a first-year grappler on the elementary school team.
Later that night, Jack was watching TV when his mom came into the living room, tears streaming down her face. She nodded. Jack knew.
To this day, Newtown wrestlers still refer to the Jack Pinto moment. At a December practice, just days before the shooting, he was wrestling when a baby tooth fell onto the mat. He picked it up and held his hand out to Coach Urbina. Can you hold this? Then he turned back to his opponent, a little bit of blood in his mouth, and got back to wrestling.
“He was new to the team, but he was so into it in practice, he just wanted to wrestle,” Jack says. “He was a tough kid.”
Days later, the Wellmans and many members of the wrestling team attended Jack Pinto’s funeral. It was one of two held in town that day. The younger kids didn’t know what was going on. Some of them still don’t know what happened on that Friday. Jack saw Stephen Singlak bouncing around at the funeral home, big smile on his face. Stephen thought it was funny to see all his wrestling friends outside of the gym, and all dressed up. Jack Pinto was laid to rest wearing his New York Giants Victor Cruz jersey, as well a wrestling medal. His teammates had presented his parents with several more.
This pain hit Jack hardest of all. There were times when he simply dropped to the floor and wailed. “I couldn’t see how it was ever going to be better,” he says. He met with grief counselors at school a few times, and visited often with his guidance counselor. He also went to his personal therapist once a week for the next four months. One message that was coming from all of them was to write, as a way to release his emotions. Write from your heart.
Jack would work away on his father’s computer. “It was something to do rather than sit around and cry,” he says. It was mostly writing for the sake of writing, but he knew there was a way his words could help. Like most athletes his age, Jack is a fan of Nike. He thought, What if Nike could provide us with some gift, some small token, not just a handout but a gift to help the kids in his town heal? He wrote a heartfelt letter and emailed it to Mark Parker, Nike’s President and CEO. Jack outlined the pain that he felt, that he saw in his community, in his parents, in his brother. Soon the two were corresponding regularly. While Nike chose not to publicize it, the company performed numerous acts of kindness in Newtown.
There was a thought to cancel the rest of the wrestling season, after just two meets. Some families had already pulled out. Even though the venue would undoubtedly change, how could you bring your kids back to a program that had lived at Sandy Hook Elementary School? The wrestling coaches came together and made a decision: the season would go on. There were kids who had been looking forward to meets and tournaments, and what better way to restore some sense of normalcy then to go back to practicing three nights a week? Displaced from Sandy Hook Elementary, they started to use gyms in nearby Brookfield, Bethel and Danbury as their new homes. During their first practice back, Jack stepped off the mat to say a quick word to Steve Singlak: “It’s just so good to see Stephen’s smile.”
That Saturday, barely 24 hours after the shooting, Rob and Deb Accomando pulled up to Caraluzzi’s Market, and went through the usual drill: Deb hops out, Rob looks for parking. Wait, what are we getting?
The Accomondos live in the village of Sandy Hook, but their home was not in the Sandy Hook Elementary School’s district. Their two older sons were at a different school that Friday, though their son Daniel will graduate from Newtown High School with the Sandy Hook class. The Saturday morning after the shooting, they had talked about getting away for a while, maybe going to Vermont. Like so many others, the urge to find a way to help was overwhelming. That day they teamed with other Newtown families to make meals for families they knew had lost kids. Rob made the deliveries himself. The next day the urge to help was even stronger. They went to work on a plan to tend to any and all of the needs of the 26 famillies who lost loved ones on 12/14. They started the My Sandy Hook Family Fund with a Facebook page. Every penny the fund brought in was and would be split evenly amongst the 26 families who lost loved ones. There are no administrative costs because the Accomandos and everyone else working for the Fund are doing so for free.
Jack had been sitting around, mourning, crying for about three days. There would be setbacks, but he was ready. “There was this amazing outpouring of love and support coming from all over the world,” he says. “I felt like I had been sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I realized it was time for me to do something.”
He knew the Accomandos from the town’s wrestling community. He wanted in. A neighbor had bought green bracelets to fundraise for the My Sandy Hook Family Fund. The Wellmans went to a wrestling meet in Danbury, and while Luke wrestled Jack worked the crowd, selling bracelets. He raised about $350 that night.
Coaching the wrestling team became something he could look forward to. Winning and losing isn’t really a concern at the elementary school level, though the Singlaks couldn’t recall a single win for Stephen in the first half of last season. But somehow, somewhere along the way, Stephen actually learned a thing or two from Jack. By the end of the year Stephen was winning about half his matches.
“Watching Jack and Stephen, it was like this gentle bear playing with a cub,” Urbina says. At the season-ending Western Connecticut Elementary League Championships, Stephen finished fifth in the kindergarten division. As a team, Newtown shared first place in that meet for the first time. Jack’s smile was back.
The My Sandy Hook Family Fund steadily gained steam, and most of is has been built on thousands of smaller donations, $20, $50, $100. The Accomandos made an appearance on Shepard Smith’s Fox News program in December, and that night their site crashed. Significant donations were pouring in.
It wasn’t long before all the help became just another problem in Newtown. Many people were uneasy about sending money, as if they were suggesting it could replace a lost loved one. A personal touch is nice, but it’s also what that led to Newtown being flooded with stuffed animals and sympathy cards and paper snowflakes. Mothers and fathers wouldn’t be returning to work any time soon, and some still haven’t. Yet there are still bills, mortgages to be paid, grief counseling that will go on for years. As Rob Accomando says: “These families didn’t need teddy bears.”
The missteps of the United Way of Western Connecticut have been well publicized. The families who lost loved ones received only a portion of the donated money, and then only after a delay of months. A town hall meeting ended with mothers in tears.
All these people with good intentions, their actions just adding to the pain. Politics had gotten involved. People had agendas. Adults have a way of making things complicated. Jack kept them simple. As he always had in sports, he put his head down, ready to work, ready to help.
The Accomandos had set out to tend to every one of the families’ needs. Rob has been mowing lawns, raking leaves, and doing a lot of landscaping himself, an overwhelming workload considering that he and Deb run a healthcare leadership recruiting and consulting firm out of their home while raising three active boys. In September, My Sandy Hook Family Fund took on its most labor-intensive project yet, a major landscaping renovation for one of the families. They needed manpower. They found it in a 14-year-old.
Jack wrote another letter, asking family and friends to volunteer:
On Saturday, September 28, our volunteers will be mixing cement, applying Belgium Block and landscaping throughout the [redacted] property. It is my job to provide at least fifteen able-bodied, reliable people to complete the tasks on hand. … If you are like me, you have been waiting for the right opportunity to do something in commemoration of our 26 Angels. Well, this is it. This is the call to action. Now is the time to step up and make a difference.
They had dozens of volunteers, many of them Jack’s friends from football and wrestling. It was a long day, and Jack’s bad back was aching through most of it. But he carried on through the pain. “He was standing shoulder to shoulder with men, working as hard as anyone,” Rob Accomando says.
“I said afterwards, I take two baths a year, and that night would be one of them,” Jack says. “I was hurting.”
The My Sandy Hook Family Fund is an ongoing success. Rob Accomando has an eye towards the future. He wants to start a scholarship initiative, not to reward academics or athletics, but to incentivize kindness and inclusion, encourage kids to be good to each other. When he envisions the kind of kid he wants to be recognized, the model is clear. It’s Jack Wellman.
“Jack’s not a leader because he’s the coolest guy, or the best athlete. It’s because morally, he has a pureness,” Accomando says. “When he wants to help, it’s because he genuinely feels compassion. He has this pureness of spirit that… it’s disarming, it’s comforting and it makes you feel like there’s good in the world. If we could get this kid to lead—lead from compassion, lead from a depth of humanity—he might, dare I say, change the world.”
Right now that leader is still just a high school freshman. His first season on the Newtown High wrestling team is right around the corner. Through preseason workouts, the pain in his back hasn’t been too bad. The other pain, from last December, still gets to him sometimes. He’ll check in with his therapist again, but he’s getting better. Mostly, he’s just a 14-year-old boy with things on his mind. Like one of the new kids at wrestling, Dante, another little guy. Dante was having a tough time at first, but his focus has really improved the past few practices. Jack smiles. “I think,” he says, “he’s really starting to get it.”