In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are eight days until the race.
Sunday's "Outside The Lines" spotlighted the role Boston's athletes and teams played in helping the region heal in the aftermath of the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon (first of the two-part video embedded above).
While the city was grappling with what happened -- the terror, the fear, the loss -- the first response was the simplest: Shock. And the simplest place to look for many for reassurance and certainty was to one of the city’s most durable institutions, its identity; Boston sports. Its teams. Its players.
“We needed to be together,” former Celtics coach Doc Rivers told OTL. “We needed a gigantic church. We needed a gathering, and a gathering that brings people together, and sports are the biggest venues to do that.”
Three days after the bombings, with the city tense as police searched for two unidentified suspects, the Bruins hosted the first sporting event in the city after the bombings.
Along with a video tribute to first responders and victims, Rene Rancourt led a rendition of the national anthem that was unlike any other.
“As I was practicing, vocalizing, I would be in a room by myself and I would be breaking up,” Rancourt told OTL.
After singing the first few lines into his microphone, Rancourt stopped signing and urged the crowd to take it from there. In unison, the Garden faithful sang the rest of the anthem.
“The way that people jumped in at that moment, it was a real shock to me. As if we had rehearsed it,” Rancourt said.
“It was important to let people now that we were with them,” coach Claude Julien told OTL. “We were hurting with them, and we were going to heal with them as well.”
The Red Sox played their first game at Fenway after the bombings on April 20, a day after one suspect was killed and another was captured in a surreal manhunt that shut down much of the Boston area.
On the team that defines the city the most, its player who is loved best, decided to speak loudest. David Ortiz addressed the crowd during a stirring pregame ceremony: “The jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox’. It says ‘Boston'. ... This is our f------ city, and no one is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
“They just told me to go out there and say something to the fans,” Ortiz told OTL. “What I said was something that I didn’t plan, I just said it because that’s what I was feeling at the time.”
Boston’s sports teams continued to honor victims and first responders throughout the spring and into the summer.
Heather Abbot, her left leg amputated below the knee in the bombings, was invited to throw out a first pitch at Fenway last May.
“The crowd was so invigorating,” she said. “Not only was it healing for me, it was healing for the city to see that the people who were hurt were going to be OK.”
The victims were feeding off the players and fans. And the teams were inspired.
“For every victim that came out to either throw a first pitch or be acknowledged in some way, there was a constant and overriding theme and feeling that each person brought to us,” manager John Farrell said. “And that is they didn’t give up in any form or fashion.”
The emotion carried into the fall, the Red Sox going on to win the World Series on a Fenway Field that had the “B Strong” logo mowed into center field.
“This is for you Boston. You guys deserve it,” World Series MVP announced to an elated Fenway Park a few minutes after the Sox won the championship. “You’ve been through a lot this year. This is for all of you and all the families who’ve struggled with the bombings earlier this year. It’s for all of you.”
At the parade a few days later, the team made a special stop at the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street.
“I don’t know how many championship parades come to a halt. Ours did,” Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes told OTL. “I’m just so lucky to be a part of it, to be the one that set the trophy down and wrap it in the ‘617’ jersey. Every time I walk down that area now, [I think] ‘Man that’s where we set the trophy down.’ Whereas before it was like, ‘Whoa, that’s where that bomb was.’”
Why do we watch and cheer and care? For all we give, what do we get back? For Boston, a city got back its heart. The holes in it were still there. The hurt, too.
But so was the will and the joy and the strength.
“You play in front of this fan base and you play in a city like Boston, you get a really good understanding of what sports means to the fans,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “You want to give back.”