Winthrop Eagles honor victims of Newtown, Conn. school shooting

adouglas@heraldonline.comMarch 1, 2014 

  • Want to help?

    The CMAK (Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski) Sandy Hook Memorial Foundation was established in memory of Chase Kowalski, one of 26 people killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

    To donate to the foundation, go to chasekowalskifund.com.

    For information, go to the Chase Kowalski Memorial Fund page on Facebook, or follow the organization on Twitter @ChaseKowalskiMF.

A friendship, forged over a distance of nearly 700 miles and defined by emotions only a parent could know came full circle for two families Saturday night at Winthrop University.

Steve and Rebecca Kowalski held hands, took deep breaths and faced nearly a dozen media cameras in Winthrop’s athletic newsroom. The room – packed – wasn’t much different than the one that their new friend, Winthrop basketball coach Pat Kelsey, faced in December 2012 in Ohio.

It was then that Kelsey delivered a two-minute, emotionally-charged, post-game speech. That was Dec. 19 – just five days after the mass murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Kelsey’s message then – “this has to be a time for change” – isn’t that much different than the Kowalskis’ mission now: “to turn tragedy into triumph.”

More than one year ago when Kelsey called for the nation’s leaders to “step up,” the Kowalskis and so many other families in Newtown were mourning the loss of loved ones. Their son Chase Kowalski, just 7 years old, was one of the children killed inside Sandy Hook.

On Saturday, the Kowalski family sat in the stands behind Kelsey’s Winthrop basketball team. In front of them, the players’ jerseys carried the names of the children killed at Sandy Hook. Senior Joey Jerome wore Chase’s name.

Rebecca Kowalski wore the university’s Eagle logo on her shirt, right over her heart – a fitting place for a symbol that represents a basketball coach who, she says, spoke from his heart just when she needed to hear it.

Meeting Kelsey, his family and team for the first time, she said, was “kind of like coming home to family.” She reached out to Kelsey by phone in the weeks following the Sandy Hook tragedy. They found common ground through their Christian faith and tight bonds with family.

Kelsey, and many others, the Kowalskis said, have been with them for the past year on a “journey of hope and healing.” Their journey this weekend brought them to Rock Hill where basketball fans gave them a standing ovation during pre-game ceremonies as Kelsey and Jerome stood in the middle of the court with the family.

The trip, Rebecca said, “helps in our healing process.” They heard a lot of “let me hug your neck” – as Southerners say – and the Kowalskis found that comforting.

During Kelsey’s post-game news conference he had plenty of reasons to smile. It was senior night for three players, the team earned a big victory over Presbyterian College, and the Kowalskis were there to share details about their memorial foundation to honor Chase.

The Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski Sandy Hook Memorial Foundation or CMAK promotes physical and emotional health and wellness for families and especially children. The Kowalskis want to help children who love sports. Chase started running competitively at 2 and his favorite sports were auto racing, baseball and running.

Kelsey said he plans to get involved with the foundation and the family hopes to build part of their “Race4Chase” community in the Rock Hill area. The foundation’s goals and the Kowalskis’ mission, Kelsey said, “fires me up.”

He’s been “absolutely floored,” Kelsey said, by the family’s perseverance and perspective. And, Chase “is a source of courage for me and a source of strength,” he said.

Kelsey keeps a small, green “worry” stone in his pocket during every game. It given to him by the Kowalskis. It’s his good luck charm.

After Winthrop’s victory over Presbyterian College on Saturday, he joked, the Kowalskis may be his good luck charm and need to be at every game. The family said they would visit again.

Saturday’s special touches during the game – especially Jerome wearing Chase’s name – were “amazing and overwhelming at the same time,” Rebecca said.

“In a way, it brings it back,” she said. “But, it’s so special that everybody can find it in their hearts to make sure that every one of those kids is remembered.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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