ORLANDO, Fla.—A city woke up Sunday morning, one week after unspeakable events that will forever cast a shadow of sadness and grief over its people. The sky was mixed and cloudy, but a clear blue hint of hope shone for all to see.
It was the morning after a game of soccer at Camping World Stadium, and seven days after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub that left 49 dead and scores injured. Many from across the nation and beyond tuned in to the game, a regular-season fixture between Orlando City and San Jose that might not normally resonate far beyond the boundaries of the two cities. But it was no normal game.
That it finished in a 2-2 draw drew mixed emotions from both teams, from massive disappointment to huge relief. But the result, ultimately, was not the key issue.
This was about allowing Orlando to grieve, and start to heal. This game of soccer became a rallying point for the victims and their families, the first responders, the LGBT and Latino communities – an entire city. It became a massive outpouring of support, felt far and wide.
When the Orlando Gay Chorus sang the iconic soccer anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at halftime, the stadium and its city felt love and empathy from San Jose, and Toronto, and Vancouver, and Colorado, and wherever an MLS team played on that night. It was a league-wide affirmation of support embodied by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who was among the 37,193 in attendance in Orlando.
“I always believe sports has the ability to do more than just be the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” Garber said. “It really can raise the hopes and dreams of people in our communities. To see it here tonight, it definitely brings a tear to your eyes.
“It’s important for all of us to recognize the world is going to be a much better place if we’re more focused on love and less focused on hate. We all are part of a league that is based on diversity and inclusiveness and hope.”
That message rang loud and clear on a night when joy and harmony was allowed to mix with sadness and grief.
It echoed with every hand-selected piece of music on the stadium playlist, which included the teams entering the field to “All You Need Is Love,” the whole crowd singing the national anthem and the half-time playing of “Don’t Stop Believin'”, with the DJ halting the track periodically to reveal the crowd also singing along – as loud as the PA system.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has become a national figure with his many press briefings and TV appearances, and on Saturday he was again front and center as the city’s chief representative, a widely admired figure who has spoken with genuine emotion and understanding of the tragedy. Like everyone here, he has been profoundly touched by the week’s events, and its many responses, and it showed.
“We have had the most horrific day in the history of the city of Orlando, yet I stand here prouder today of our community than ever,” Dyer said. “We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater. We will be defined by how we respond, how we treat each other, and this community has already stepped up to do that.”
The rainbow motif was everywhere at Camping World Stadium, from the corner flags to the giant banners at both ends and the many flags waved by the supporters in The Wall, the supporters section behind the south goal that is manned by the members of The Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm. It was a fitting symbol for the Mayor’s words of tolerance. The message was clear: No hate, only love, for all members of the community.
I wrote earlier this week that it’s hard to type when you can’t see the keyboard through tears, and those tears will continue to fall for the victims and their families and friends and loved ones. But for one day and night in Orlando, the tears had less grief and more hope about them, the message of love shining through.