TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jon Lovorn believes in a lot of things, including angels.
The biology major at the University of Alabama believes in the power of a good education. As a hockey player he believes in following your passions, even when it’s not easily done. He believes in giving back and trying to make a difference, especially when it comes to the only place he’s ever called home.
Lovorn was born in Dallas and raised in Chicago. But home is Newtown, Conn. He moved there in his teens and fell in love with it while in high school. Located on the western side of the state, with ties to the New York metropolitan area as well as the Revolutionary War, the picturesque town has a population just shy of 30,000.
It’s the kind of place where if you walk into the shops on Main Street, they know who you are and ask about your family.
It was also the home of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Five years ago Thursday, Lovorn was in his health class about a half-mile from Sandy Hook when all of the schools in the area went on lockdown. To be out of view from the windows, he and about 30 other people crammed into a closet, and for about 90 minutes, they waited to resume their everyday lives.
The initial word came through cellphone: A teacher had been shot in the foot. The lockdown ended so he went to chemistry class, where Lovorn asked if he could keep up with the news using his iPad when not doing his classwork. He’ll never forget raising his hand to update the teacher and class.
“There were 26 people who were killed.”
Specifically, 20 6- and 7-year-old children along with six teachers had been murdered.
The shock and grief went beyond borders, with even an emotional President Obama commenting: “As a country, we have been through this too many times.” But the town was naturally devastated. Everyone knew someone who had a tie to the tragedy, and all were struggling to cope with the agonizing pain and sorrow.
“It was just kind of all-consuming,” Lovorn said about the darkness that engulfed Newtown. “It was all around you all of the time. … The best way I can describe it is feeling numb, not knowing what to do or how to act.”
That feeling still exists to a degree, but with it comes another feeling that also pervades: “I just want to help.”
He has found a way. His way.
If you’ve never been to an Alabama hockey game, it actually has an impressive following, and the team is good. Just about every SEC school has a club hockey program of some sort, but this one plays in the top tier of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (the highest level of collegiate hockey played outside of the NCAA).
The hope is to someday make a jump similar to the one recently made by Arizona State.
The Crimson Tide’s home is the Pelham Civic Complex, where the Birmingham Bulls minor league team also plays, roughly an hour east of the Tuscaloosa campus. Just to practice takes a serious commitment from everyone involved, and some serious fund-raising.
Lovorn came to Alabama for the academics but was able to keep hockey in his life. The team captain describes his playing style of being like Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, but as a fan he can’t help but be amazed at what Connor McDavid has been able to do with the Edmonton Oilers.
“My mom tells me that ever since she put skates on me for the first time that she just knew that’s where I was going to be,” he said. “I still remember the first time I skated, falling down for like the first 10 minutes. By the 30-minute mark I was just whizzing around. Didn’t want to get off the rink, didn’t want to go home.”
He still doesn’t, but as a senior Lovorn knows that this might be it for his competitive career. His own personal tribute to Sandy Hook had been taped inside his helmet for each game, but he wanted to do something special this final season, in part to let everyone at home know that he’s still with them.
Thus, a switch in his jersey number to No. 26. And when he realized the team had 26 games on the schedule, he dedicated one to each victim plus his or her name on a helmet sticker.
It’s simple. It’s elegant. And it’s not overtly political, which isn’t easy nowadays.
It’s his way of celebrating those people, and a community that doesn’t want to be solely defined by a tragedy. Of course, there is still pain and sorrow in Newtown, which never will forget the 26 angels. But it’s so much more than “12/14,” similar to the way Tuscaloosa isn’t just a city that was devastated by a tornado in 2011.
“Just a nod to those 26 are always there,” Lovorn said. “There’s not a day that goes by that myself and I think the town as a whole doesn’t think about what happened and those lives that were taken. Just being able to represent that in a positive manner I think is pretty awesome.”