This story appeared in the Dec. 9, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. To read more from SI for subscribers or to purchase a subscription, go here.
The night before, he had been so excited. Someone had said that wrestling was the off-season sport of choice for football players who wanted to stay in shape, to be ready. Jack Pinto wanted to be ready. He was six. He had a plan. So they were heading to his wrestling meet at Sandy Hook Elementary School. His mom was driving the family's Honda minivan. His brother, Ben, 11, was sitting beside her up front, thumbs dancing, eyes boring in on his Nintendo DS.
Wrestling wasn't for Ben. But Jack seemed unfazed by the sport's gladiator trappings: yelling parents, a single winner and loser for all to see, the intimate physicality. At a practice two nights before, in fact, a rogue shoulder had knocked out the second of his top front teeth; blood stained his shirt and lips. Most six-year-olds would pause. Jack handed the tooth to his coach and hustled back onto the mat.
Now, Thursday evening, Dec. 13, 2012, at about 6 p.m., Jack and his family were driving to his second meet -- Newtown vs. Ridgefield. Jack -- first-grader, 55-pound weight class -- sat in the big backseat. Ben, preteen and thus strenuously unimpressed by little-brother activities, was along for the ride. Jack never could leave Ben alone for long, but now he had a specific question.
"Ben, what position do you think I'm going to play?" he asked.
Silence. Thumbs dancing. This was part of a constant theme for Jack: What life would be like after his seventh birthday. Sure, it was five months away, but seven was a big number in the Pinto home. At seven, Jack would be old enough to host sleep-overs. Old enough for an iPod touch. He played flag football now, pickup games. But at seven he'd be old enough, at last, to play real tackle football on a real team, with a uniform, in full pads. Like Ben.
"What position?" asked the voice again, from the backseat.
"I don't know, Jack, a receiver, I guess," Ben said finally. "You're fast. You'll probably be a receiver."
Tricia Pinto pulled the car into a spot in the school parking lot. Jack's seat belt was off in a flash, and now he was standing up in the car behind his mother and big brother, hovering just over their shoulders. It was dinner-time in Newtown, Conn., and dark outside. He had a better question.
"Do you think I'm going to have what it takes?" Jack asked.
The first-buried of the Newtown victims began his life howling. This went beyond that first-gulp-of-air yawp, beyond the usual teething yell; when Jack Armistead Pinto and his mom were discharged two days after his May 6, 2006, arrival, his scream accompanied the family all the way down a long hospital hallway and out the door. In the face of each startled nurse and staffer who watched them pass, his father, Dean Pinto, was sure he saw the same thought: Those. Poor. People.
And Jack didn't stop -- not when he was awake, not for nine months. It was only when he began crawling that his temperament changed. "He was just frustrated," Tricia says. "He had things to do, and he needed to do them. He only started becoming the kid he was when he could move."
That was different. The Pintos weren't action junkies. Ben plays a sport a season but is hardly obsessed. Tricia and Dean had never been all that athletic; they describe themselves as "followers" who like controlled outcomes and avoid the spotlight. Jack was hopping on one foot at two, taught himself to ride a two-wheeler at three. They'd often look at their youngest and think, Where did that come from? He didn't like toys. He wanted sports gear. At five, he had the full catcher's armor: shin guards, chest protector, mask.
That was rare. The popular notion is that children love sports, but any parent who shuttles their boy or girl to soccer or basketball or baseball practice knows that this is hardly true. Rosters are rife with players, even talented ones, who are there because of the uniform or because they see it on TV or because Mom said so. A child who needs to play, whose default mode is to grab a ball and toss it while others read or draw or play video games, is as rare as one who loves piano or igneous rocks. Jack liked rocks. He lived to play.
"There are kids who come and just have fun, and kids who come and they're distractors; they just want to play with their friends," says Curtis Urbina, a coach with the Newtown Youth Wrestling Association. "But with Jack, I remember turning to one of our coaches and going, 'Yeah, we've got one at least.' You get some with natural ability, but you can lose them. But if you've got a kid like that who will listen, too? Boo-ya: You're done. Jack was that kid for me."
In the grim days and months after a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, killing 20 children and six adults before killing himself, Jack became that kid for many people. Two days later, word spread that he would be buried in a replica jersey of his favorite football player, New York Giants wideout Victor Cruz; Cruz wrote JACK PINTO "MY HERO" RIP on his cleats and gloves for that afternoon's game in Atlanta. At a college tournament that same morning in Madison Square Garden, wrestlers from George Mason wrote Jack's name on their headgear. In January, USA Wrestling announced that it was changing the name of a major Greco-Roman competition to the Jack Pinto Cup. Last month a Los Angeles youth football league held its first annual Jack Pinto Bowl, for six- and seven-year-olds.
Part of this, of course, was an effort to pay respect, to mourn. Part, perhaps, was the societal impulse to reclaim a bit of humanity in the face of pure madness, not to mention survivors' guilt. But along with all that, surely, was a recognition by athletes of all grades, by fans of varying intensities, that the core of our culture's towering sports mania -- the monstrous stadiums, unseemly salaries and ticket prices, the cavalcade of sports channels and websites, the endless parade of World Cups and Super Bowls and Olympics -- remains the boy or girl who must move, must play, must compete. Michael Jordan was Jack Pinto once. So were Sidney Crosby and Abby Wambach, and the thousands of coaches and officials and administrators who, playing days done, do nearly anything to stay close to the game.
There's a now famous photo taken in 2012, on Super Bowl Sunday. Jack, Giants tattoo on his cheek, is gritting his teeth and clenching a fist. He looks as if he'll be tough one day, but not yet: It's still a bit of a pose. He was only five then, and he hadn't fully grasped the idea of competing at all costs. When his best friend scored a goal against his team in preschool soccer, Jack cheered as loudly as anyone. His competitiveness was still mostly with himself, and it went beyond the games he played. Even when he couldn't understand them, he insisted on reading the books that Ben read. Jack just wanted to be better.
"Jack was never disappointed with anything that he was doing: never," says Shari Butler, who coached Jack's basketball and baseball teams for two years. "Anytime he got out of the car, he would skip over and be like, 'I'm ready to play.' They all want to pitch at that age, and when they don't, some kids put their heads down. Jack wasn't like that. There wasn't a position I couldn't put him at."
That was the one problem with the Victor Cruz story and the way it spun out into the world. Somehow, in the blur of that first weekend, the fact that Jack would be buried in Cruz's jersey got twisted into an odd sort of tribute to the NFL star. The matter was more basic. When it came time to pick out clothes for his son to wear in his casket, Dean Pinto couldn't bear the idea of a suit or tie. That wasn't Jack. Jack was the kid always tugging at his dad to throw a football. He wanted to play: He dressed to be ready. They threw forever in the driveway.
"Hours and hours and hours," Dean says.
So it was that Jack was dressed for his funeral the following Monday in shorts, his favorite camouflage Crocs, his white Giants jersey, number 80. A wrestling medal was placed around his neck. Tucked under one arm were two of his three beloved stuffed sharks, which Jack had named Sharkey Jr. and Sharkey Hunter.
"We just wanted it to be about who he was every day," Tricia says.
That morning should've been the usual Friday rush. Tricia and Dean had met in law school, but after Ben was born, she stopped working. So after swinging Ben over to Reed Intermediate in Newtown for his before-school math club, she hurried home to relieve Dean -- who was on the way out for his 90-minute commute to Morgan Stanley in Purchase, N.Y. -- and finish getting Jack ready. But there was little for her to do. On this morning he had done almost everything.
Jack had already eaten his cereal, picked out his clothes -- -sweatpants, gray Under Armour football T‑shirt, sneakers -- and made his bed; for once, they had a bit of a cushion. Tricia had time for a quick shower before putting him on the 8:20 bus. After coming downstairs, she checked again, but even his laces were tied. There had to be something....
"Did you brush your teeth?" Tricia asked.
"Yep," Jack said.
"Did you, really?"
Jack stepped close, opened that mouth with the big new gap up top, huffed once under her nose: Kid's Crest, bubble gum.
Strange, how someone so small could've loomed so large. It wasn't just his need for action that made Jack different; it was his need for connection. The other Pintos like a bit of space, but if you sat to watch TV with Jack, he was on you like a vine, clinging. When Ben had sleepovers, Jack would sit outside the door, just waiting to be asked in. The first time he heard that kids grow up and go to college and marry, Jack broke into tears. "I'll go, but I'm coming back," Jack said. Ben will not look back, the Pintos always joked, and Jack will live forever in the basement.
Two weeks before, on a Saturday, Jack was at the season's first Biddy Basketball practice. Butler allowed one pre-schooler, Marcus, to play up with the kindergartners and first-graders. She scanned the faces of the 30 bigger kids there, looking for one to take Marcus under his wing, one who wouldn't treat him like he didn't belong. "I picked Jack," she says. "It was obvious. Ask 99 of 100 people in Newtown who knew Jack, the thing they'd remember most was his smile. I knew he was going to be kind to him."
But Ben, of course, was the one he wanted to be closest to. If Ben were on the couch, reading? Jack wanted to lie near him, reading too. If there was one thing that trumped being outside, or playing basketball, baseball or football, it was that.
"Great," Tricia said, as the bubble gum cloud dissolved. "You have 10 more minutes."
Jack usually didn't like video games, just watched over Ben's shoulder. But now, in the family room, he picked up the console and played Skylanders until it was time for Tricia to walk him down to the end of the driveway. The yellow school bus, number 33, arrived pretty much on schedule.
She was in King's restaurant, just sitting down with four girlfriends, when the first calls came in. It was sometime after 9:35 a.m. Two of the mothers had kids at other schools. Three of the mothers raced out.
Parents congregated at the firehouse at the end of the road that led to Sandy Hook Elementary, and Tricia spent the next hours scanning the milling mass of kids for Jack's face. For a while she was sure everything would be all right.
Dean drove back from Purchase. Other kids kept coming. Soon he realized he had to hope that Jack was wounded and in a hospital. By early afternoon the averted eyes of police, a request for names of still-missing children, the announcement of the number killed all combined to make their horror clear.
Someone drove Dean to pick up Ben at Reed, and then all three went back to the firehouse to get Tricia. The plan was to bring him home first, so that he could hear the news from Mom and Dad together. But by the time Dean and his oldest were brought into an empty office, it was obvious Ben knew something, and Dean couldn't lie. "I just came out and said, 'There was a shooting, and Jack was killed,' " Dean says. "And I always look back and think ... " -- he stops, voice collapsing into a whisper -- " ... didn't do the best job."
Nothing mattered in the days after: All merged into a meaningless blur. On Sunday they met with President Barack Obama, along with several other families, and Jack's name was on Cruz's shoes on TV. On Tuesday, Cruz came to the house with his girlfriend and daughter; the little girl watched Scooby-Doo, and Cruz and Ben played Xbox. The President? Jack's favorite player? Tricia's only thought was, Where's my son?
She wouldn't leave the family room. She knew that every hallway, every room in the house, held a sharp reminder that could leave her ravaged, so for nearly two days Tricia camped in one small corner there. For Dean, it wasn't Jack's bedroom or the kitchen that he feared so much as the driveway, the place where they played catch. By Saturday, someone found Sharkey, Jack's favorite stuffed animal of all, in Ben's room. That first night, he had slipped into Jack's room and claimed it.
"Night is the hardest," Tricia says. "Night is the worst. My house is quiet. Where there used to be robust noise, there's ... quiet. That was the toughest to get used to: There wasn't the bickering. There wasn't the wrestling. There wasn't, 'Get out of here!' and 'Shut the door!' or Jack saying, 'How come, Ben ... ?' You don't realize how much noise two kids can make versus one."
Early on, Dean dreamed a lot about that morning: Of being in the school, in Classroom 8 with Jack, protecting him. Fifteen children and two adults died in Classroom 8. The state investigation released last month stated that "there were a total of eighty expended 5.56 mm casings seized from Classroom 8." Dean still wishes he had been there.
"I feel like our faces are different," Tricia says. "I look at the mirror now, and I look at pictures of me prior to this and I think, 'I don't know who that is.' And I see the same in Ben. He's serious, thoughtful. He's not all sad, but I look in his eyes and there's a bit of difference that nobody would see but me. Maybe that's projecting. I look at Dean, my whole family. We're all changed. We will forever be changed."
What would he have grown up to be? Lord knows. Kids change, puberty hits, friends and passions come and go. Maybe there would've been an injury. Maybe his talents would've topped out in high school or a small college or some distant minor league; maybe we would never have heard of Jack Pinto. But kids like him find a way to keep a hand in, to lodge themselves in front offices or TV studios. Kids like him grow up to work some 9-to-5 grind, perhaps, but still hustle through traffic to coach a fresh herd of six-year-olds in ball caps or shoulder pads.
"Sports would've been a part of Jack's life for the rest of his life," Butler says. "It was natural to him."
Atop a hill high in Newtown, his dark-gray headstone stands near three others marked DECEMBER 14, 2012. A light-gray bat and baseball and football are carved onto the face, next to the words LOVED WITH A LOVE BEYOND TELLING, MISSED WITH A GRIEF BEYOND TEARS. At the base, along with an American flag, pumpkins and some flowers, someone has left three baseballs, a miniature skateboard, a football, a small Victor Cruz action figure.
Which sport would he have chosen? The night before, when Jack was asking if he had "what it takes" for football, his big brother tried ignoring him: The code of 11-year-olds stipulates, after all, that so direct a bid for support be met with a shrug. Then again, that code stands little chance against the force of Mom. From the driver's seat, Tricia applied a nudge, a word, and at last Ben looked up from his DS.
"Yeah, Jack," Ben said, "you're going to be great." At least it was no lie. That was the wondrous, baffling and undeniable thing about his little brother. The possibilities were endless.
To honor their son, the Pinto family has partnered with Kids in the Game, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing low-income children with the resources to take part in school physical education and after-school sports programs. To learn more or donate, please contact kidsinthegame.org.