It's the fall of 1996. I'm still Leah Soltis, a skinny, geeky girl living in Sayreville, New Jersey. For the past five years, I've attended every single football game my high school has played...and most of the ones for the two years prior to that. I'm a flag girl, a member of the marching band's color guard, and my brother was on the marching band for two years before I was old enough to join. By the fall of '96, I've been to over a hundred football games, and I'm actually the Captain of the color guard, if you can believe that. A Senior. Our band is on its way to a state title for our division. In a few week's time, we'll march onto the old Giants Stadium field and perform the best we've ever performed.
But that's not what I'm going to talk about today.
Today let's talk more about those football games.
Like I said, I went to every game. I cheered my team on from the stands under balmy late summer skies, and in the freezing rains of November. I basked in the warmth of a harvest moon, and I huddled under ponchos and blankets, snuggling with my girlfriends to keep warm.
I learned a love of the game of football in those years, and it's stuck with me ever since. (Seriously. Ask me sometime about that time the Giants were in the Superbowl and I was six months pregnant with Zoe and the refs made a bad call and I climbed up on my coffee table to yell at them....Charles was not pleased.)
On this particular day, at this particular game, the football team is marching its way toward a state championship. And man, I want them to win. We all do.
It's a home game tonight, and I have friends on the field. Because even though I was a band/theater/academic club geek, I was lucky. I was able to make friends with all sorts of people back then, and some of my friends happened to be on the football team. They were good guys...one, in particular, helped me get through A.P. Math that very same year. I sat with him and a couple of other jock-friends every day, and we did a LOT of group work. Thank goodness - I wouldn't have passed that class without them.
But I digress. Back to the game.
It's nearing its end, and despite this being one of the best seasons in our school's storied football history...we're losing. Nothing our team can do is helping. Our plays are falling apart. We're losing yards instead of gaining.
The minutes are winding down, faster than we want them to. We want more time instead, to get the score back to even. We want more time instead, to win.
It's not meant to be.
The players, the band, the cheerleaders, the spectators....everyone in our stadium....we're all on our feet, cheering on our team, hoping that maybe, MAYBE, one more cheer will be the boost they need to make it. The boost they need to win.
It's not meant to be.
The clock zeroes out, and the other team had wins.
It's the senior players' last game, and together, they tak a victory lap around the field. It's not a victory lap for that game, though. No. Rather, it's a victory lap for their high school careers. For their team's success over the prior four years.
Many of them have tears cutting paths through the dirt on their faces. That one particular friend, the one who helped me through A.P. Math, cries as he runs. Tears burn white-hot in my eyes as well. I hate to see the season - their careers - end that way.
But it's a beautiful thing, that victory lap. There's not a single person in our stands who isn't clapping for our players. We were so proud they've come so far. We're so proud of their journey.
I'll never forget that moment.
As much as it hurt to see my team lose that day, it hurts a thousand - a million - times more to have that gorgeous memory stomped all over, turned upside-down, topsy-turvy, inside out, the way it's been over the past few days.
This fall, fall of 2014, 18 years later, my old high school's football team has been shut down amid allegations of hazing...of abuse...of the sodomizing of children in the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team locker rooms.
Oh, dear God, Sayreville. What have we done? What have we allowed? What has been happening in a locker room while adults were nearby, able to stop it, but allowing it to happen?
What the hell kind of culture have we created?
I'm heartbroken for the victims of this alleged abuse. I'm heartbroken for the abusers, too, though. For an abuser is often created by abuse. What was done to those players in the past, to make them think this type of behavior was okay? What chain of abuse has been allowed to exist in that locker room, and for how long?
I look back on that night, so very long ago, and I wonder....there were good guys I knew on that team. Was this going on back then? Had they partaken in the chain of abuse? Were they hurt? Did they hurt?
There are so many questions, and so many people can answer. So many people can shed light on the darkness of that locker room. I truly hope they will.
My hometown is hurting. I wish I was there, to stand with my classmates and my friends as they stand up together for the victims. I wish I had been there in Kennedy Park (Oh, God, remember the cement hills? The rope swings? The chain nets?) for the vigil.
I hope my hometown can be strong. I hope they can come together like we did that night, for our team, long ago. I hope they can let this investigation not become a witch hunt, but rather a hunt for truth.
I hope my hometown can heal. I hope that, once the truth is told, that terrible wound that's been ripped through all our guts can begin to close. There will always be a scar, that's for sure, especially for those children most directly involved in these heinous crimes. But scars can be overcome.
Those poor children. Their poor parents.
We have to do better, Sayreville. We can do better. I know it. I'm here with you, watching from afar, and I stand with you. Let's find our answers, let's fix the problem, and let's begin to heal. We owe it to ourselves....and those children.