Orlando City fans wave rainbow American flag
USA Today Sports Images

Orlando City find ESPN award bittersweet: "It is a difficult one"

ORLANDO, Fla.  It will be with a combination of pride, community spirit, and lingering grief that Orlando City will publicly accept their ESPN Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award next month as part of ESPN's annual Humanitarian Awards. 

The team has received a $100,000 grant, which it has already announced will be distributed evenly among the Better Together Fund, Contigo Fund, and OnePulse Foundation.

For Orlando, the award comes on the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub tragedy that left 49 dead, and a whole country stunned by the worst mass shooting in America’s history.

It is also most fitting that Florida’s MLS representatives carry the title "City," and that their new stadium carries a permanent memorial to the victims, as Orlando City Foundation president Kay Rawlins explains.

“We are really proud to accept it,” she says of the award, "but it is a difficult one because you are getting an award for something that’s tied to a tragic event, and there are mixed feelings about it. However, it also comes with a check that we’ll give to the Pulse charities. I love that this is an opportunity to help the victims’ families and everyone else involved, including the first responders, as it is still an ongoing issue.”

Rawlins vividly recalls the fateful events in the wake of the June 12, 2016, tragedy that left the city in a state of shock. The Lions were due to play the San Jose Earthquakes at home six days later, and there was intense debate about how – and even if – the match should go ahead. 

“It was obviously something for everyone to talk about at the time,” Rawlins remembers. “What were we going to do, and whether it was appropriate to even have a game at that time, were the issues. But the city was insistent; they wanted it to go ahead. 

“If you think of Orlando as one big family, which we are, it was an opportunity to handle a crisis and support [the victims] in any way we could. And that’s what came out of it – we were providing a venue for everyone to gather, and hug, and remember, and start the healing process.”

It is Orlando City’s thoughtful, caring and empathetic response that is being honored by ESPN. But Rawlins believes that, ultimately, it is down to the team’s community-first ethic that everything came together, establishing the #OrlandoUnited movement and continuing to support it in the weeks and months that followed.

“The supporters’ groups have this unique voice, and I think we have shown we are a voice for the LGBT and Latin American communities,” she says. “We are telling people, we don’t care what your background is, everyone is welcome, and the [rainbow-colored] seats in the new stadium are a very visual reminder to everyone  that that’s who we are. I think people are admiring of it and happy to see it.”

Head coach Jason Kreis paid tribute to the club’s community spirit as he participated in Monday’s tributes on the first-year Pulse anniversary. That's when Kay Rawlins led a team group to the site of the memorial at the nightclub, and fans were invited to visit the rainbow seats at the stadium.

“The club being such an integral part of the community was a big, big factor in why I came,” said Kreis, who joined Orlando a little over the Pulse tragedy last year. “I really think it is a special situation when a club can be connected with the community, the team can feel connected, and we can all feel like one big family."

Series: