ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Becky Kowalski wiped tears from her eyes as the crowd at Winthrop stood and cheered to honor and remember son Chase, the 7-year-old who died in the Newtown, Conn., massacre in December 2012.
Kowalski, husband Stephen and daughter Brittany attended the Eagles' game Saturday. The family came down to visit with Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, who less than a week after the mass shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six adults challenged leaders from the White House to the classroom that "everybody needs to step up. This has to be a time for change."
Family friends showed the Kowalskis Kelsey's comments at Ohio State and they soon reached out to the Winthrop coach. The family and Kelsey hadn't met in person before this weekend.
"It was kind of like coming home to family," Becky Kowalski said.
"We already had a bond," husband Stephen said.
The Kowalski's were introduced to fans before the national anthem, at first with polite applause in deference to the family's grief at losing Chase.
But Kelsey encouraged and drew a loud ovation, waving both his arms in the air. Then he hugged Becky Kowalski tight as she took off her glasses and dabbed both eyes.
Becky and Stephen have started The CMAK (Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski) Sandy Hook Memorial Fund. The foundation raises funds through initiatives like Race4Chase because he was avid athlete who had taken part in youth triathlons.
Instead of their names, Winthrop's players came out wearing the names of the young victims. Senior forward Joab Jerome wore Chase's name and hugged the Kowalski family before the game. Some Eagles players had two names of victims on their jersey back. Winthrop's Jarad Scott wore the first names of 6-year-old James Mattioli and 7-year-old Grace McDonnell.
"It's hard when you see 20 kids names," Becky Kowalski said. "It kind of brings it back, but it's amazing to see those 20 kids being remembered."
Winthrop coaches wore lapel pins with the initials of the six adult victims.
The Kowalskis sat behind the Winthrop bench, Brittany and Becky snapping pictures. Stephen wore a black Winthrop "RocktheHill" T-shirt. Several people walked by during halftime to offer their support to the family.
The family stood with the crowd of 1,700 at the end as Winthrop's alma mater was played following an 82-60 victory over Presbyterian.
Becky Kowalski said the warm feelings of those she met helped her deal with the ongoing grieving process.
"What's that phrase we kept hearing from people," Becky Kowalski asked Brittany, "Hug your neck? I think that's one we'll take back with us."
Kelsey said he nervous before the family arrived at the airport Friday for the weekend visit, but was quickly put at ease by Kowalski's easy going nature and playful personalities. Then again, it's been that way since the relationship began.
"From the first time they reached out to me, it was life changing," Kelsey said.
Before the game, the Kowalskis toured the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, about 20 minutes north of Winthrop's campus. They also visited an area YMCA where they hope to help start a youth triathlon program, something Chase did in Connecticut.
Area YMCA head Frank "Moe" Ball took the Kowalskis on a tour of their facilities. Ball runs 10 YMCAs in five area communities. He said people in the region were behind Kelsey's sentiment of leaders from all walks of life stepping up to prevent such tragedies.
"The priorities need to change and this country needs to do something to make this situation better," he said.
Ball said the Kowalskis have enjoyed their visit so far, although he acknowledged people walk a fine line at not wanting to bring up tragic memories for the family. "I was struggling myself whether to mention (Chase's) name or not," Ball said. "In some ways, they're still grieving. But they want something good to come out of this."