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The Daily News of Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES — In the wake of unimaginable tragedy, after weeks filled with loss and sorrow, they stood together, spread side by side across the Coliseum field, gripping tight to handfuls of red and white fabric, as the choir began to sing.
It had been an unspeakably long few days for so many here, each of them beset in some way by the dueling tragedies that had struck the Los Angeles area. For many, there were vigils and funerals, their tightknit communities in a seemingly ceaseless state of mourning after a mass shooting rocked the region. Others had spent hours upon hours fighting wildfires burning in the coastal hills, all of which now blurred together in a harrowing fog.
But here, as they unfurled the flag and the national anthem began, they stood together, not in tragedy, but in solidarity, for a football game that was never supposed to happen here.
The Rams had brought them together in no more than a few days' time, after the NFL moved the game from Mexico City, giving out more than 1,000 tickets to those most affected by the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks and the nearby wildfires. Maybe football, they hoped, could offer even the briefest of solace from such overwhelming sorrow.
The California Lutheran University Choir sang the national anthem and were joined by first responders, who held the flag. Cal Lutheran alumnus Justin Meek, who was one of the 12 victims in the shooting, was a member of the choir for four years.
Karen and Jordan Helus, the wife and son of fallen Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus, who was killed responding to the shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill, lit the L.A, Coliseum torch prior to kickoff.
For Mike McKenna, football was all that kept him together in recent days. For six years, he'd been an assistant coach with the Thousand Oaks Titans youth football team, but never had that role meant so much than this past week, as the city was rocked to its core.
His cousin, Jake Dunham, was one of the 12 killed at the Borderline Bar & Grill. But in the face of such devastating news, there was no time to mourn. Just 24 hours later, most of his players and their families were forced to evacuate their homes as wildfires began tearing through the hills around Thousand Oaks.
That Saturday, with most of his players and their families displaced, the Titans met to play a football game, with an opportunity to go to their league's Super Bowl on the line.
For Jacob Poley, the Titans' 14-year-old quarterback, football was the escape for which he'd been searching. When his family was forced to evacuate their home, with flames reaching the fence around their backyard, Poley brought with him only his "prized possesions." Among them, a pile of framed football photos.
"To get away from those thoughts, football was the only thing I wanted to focus on," Poley said.
When they went on the field that Saturday, they hadn't seen each other since the shootings, and the fires had devastated so many closest to them. But they won, anyway. In face of such sorrow, McKenna said, "football was our escape."
"It's been great to see that despite all that's happened, football has really kept these boys together," McKenna said. "It's motivated them to see what's important. All this tragedy around them, and what's important is, these people in the community have stepped up and helped them through."
In a sprawling city that can feel so impossibly disparate, a sense of community can be impossible to cultivate. By nature, Los Angeles is a tangled mess of different people and interests and culture, and yet, on Monday night, as fans waved towels in unison and the Rams ran onto the field, waving a flag that declared "LA Together," the Coliseum stood together at its center, a community unwavering in the face of tragedy.
For one night, football was the fabric that bound them together, in sorrow and loss, in compassion and in hope.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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