Before the Detroit Lions play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon, the public address announcer will make a special announcement in Ford Field.
A subtle reminder that loves beats hate.
“We remember those who lost their lives and all those forever impacted by the tragedy in Oxford, Michigan, a year ago,” the public address announcer is expected to say, according to a script obtained by the Free Press. “Today, the Lions show their support and recognize the strength and resilience of the Oxford community by welcoming Oxford High School graduate, Ava Swiss, to honor America with the singing of our national anthem.”
Swiss, 18, was in the high school on Nov. 30 when a gunman opened fire, killing four of her classmates — Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Justin Shilling, 17; and Hana St. Juliana, 14.
“I was one of the ones who — I was able to run out before I got pulled into a classroom or anything like that,” Swiss said.
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Members from 42 Strong, a mentoring program created by Myre’s family and friends, are also expected to attend the game as special guests. The organization is named after Tate’s football number and it is based around his traits: being trustworthy, caring, fun, positive, teachable, humble, confident, selfless, hard worker, respectful, accountable and loyal.
“It just makes me so happy to know that they’re going to be there because I know how much that means to them,” Swiss said of 42 Strong. “And I know how much football meant to Tate. He loved football, my brother played with him, and just to think that the Detroit Lions are doing all of this is just amazing.
“I think that it’s important for all of the kids who lost their lives to be remembered. It shows how much good and how much love there is. Not only that, but how strong the love is. I think that’s what people need to know. No matter how hard, no matter how hateful and awful, the good always outweighs the bad.”
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Lions have been a light for Oxford
It seems so fitting for the Lions to be honoring Oxford against the Minnesota Vikings. A year ago, just days after the shooting, Dan Campbell held up a football after his first win as a Lions head coach — a 29-27 victory over the Vikings.
“This game ball goes to the whole Oxford community — all those who were affected,” Campbell said, holding up the ball. He read off the names of the four students who were killed and the seven who were injured.
Both the Lions and Vikings wore Oxford T-shirts during warmups, and a moment of silence was observed before the game, as the names and pictures of the four students killed were displayed on the video screen.
“You hope to be a light for those people,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said after that game.
It was a wonderful, uplifting message. The Lions were trying to offer a momentary relief and distraction. Just trying to show Oxford that they were loved the only way they knew how.
In April, former Lions executive Bill Keenist delivered the game ball to Oxford.
“It definitely had a huge effect,” Swiss said. “When they brought that ball in school, every little thing they did for us, it meant so much. It’s like, no way, it’s awesome an NFL team is doing this for us.”
‘People truly care’
In some ways, this is full circle for Swiss, too.
She used to sing the national anthem before Oxford football games. And three days after the shooting, she closed a massive community candlelight vigil by singing, “Rise Up.” It’s on YouTube, and the performance is impossible to watch without tears coming down your cheeks and a lump forming in your throat.
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“It was kind of like the moment that I realized — I knew singing was always my passion — but that was the moment when I realized that it was my purpose,” she said. “I’ve always known I can heal myself, right. It’s like a self-therapy thing for me. But I didn’t really realize I could use it to heal other people until that moment.”
She was invited to appear on “America’s Got Talent,” singing “Rise Up” and she made it to the semifinal round.
During a performance on the show, she wore a necklace with four hearts in honor of her four classmates.
“The person that made it, when she gave it to me, she was just like, ‘I just wanted to say that this is my favorite piece that I’ve ever made and I’m extremely honored to be giving this to you and telling you that I made this for you,’” Swiss said. “It was really a very special moment. And that’s just another example of like, just the love. It’s just insane how strong it is and how much people truly do care.”
‘We feel your pain’
Earlier this year, on the one-year anniversary, Campbell wore an Oxford hat to a news conference.
“If you’re outside of that community, who was directly impacted, you go about your lives and you forget about it,” Campbell said. “You got other things going on, this and that. I think just for this moment I want them to know we’re thinking about them. And there was just a little bit of thought that went into the fact that, ‘Hey, this happened a year ago and we feel your pain.’ And just because time has passed doesn’t mean those scars aren’t still there. I think that more than anything, we just want you to know, ‘Hey, we see you. We still see you,’ and I think that’s a big thing.”
And that is what will make Sunday so special.
“I go back to that time last year and it was really, there was more to it than just we’re going out to win a game,” Campbell said. “It was about, at the very least you wanted to just take their mind off of some of their pain for a three-hour period and give them something that they could be proud of, something that took their mind off of it, even for a little bit and know that, hey, we were playing for them. And so I was glad that we were able to give that to them, then give them the ball.”
Growing up in a family of diehard Lions fans, Swiss is beyond excited to sing at Ford Field.
“This is crazy,” she said. ”I love that I can represent Detroit. I’ve always loved it down there. And I come from a crazy football loving family. So it’s very exciting.”
Swiss, whose given name is Ava Swieczkowski, has a motto: “Love is stronger than hate.”
“It means everything to me, because it’s really what has gotten me through ever since everything happened last year,” she said. “When something like that happens, obviously, your world is just turned around. And it was for so many people for the whole Oxford community. So when you’re shown all these amazing things that are happening for you and for your whole community, like the Lions, I mean, they did so much for us after everything that happened and it’s just random acts of kindness that keeps me going. To me, it just proves that love is stronger than hate. No matter how bad things get, it’s just important to remind myself of that.”
“It sucks that it takes something so horrible for so much to love to shine through, right? But it does, it does shine through and people do come through and they do support each other, and they do love each other.”
In the wake of this horrible tragedy, out of this darkness, so much good that can be found. From what the Lions have done. To how Campbell has handled it. To the players. To all of us, really, who still ache for and pray for and remember Oxford.
All that love and support and care will crystalize during that national anthem. Remembering the victims. Honoring the entire community. In the angelic voice of a determined 18-year-old survivor, confident and resilient and strong. Oxford Strong.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.
To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.
Next up: Vikings
Matchup: Lions (5-7) vs. Minnesota (10-2).
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday; Ford Field, Detroit.
TV/radio: Fox; WXYT-FM (97.1).
Line: Lions by 2.