Commentary

Aurora Tribute car means something

Updated: August 11, 2012, 1:38 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Sandy Phillips answered the telephone in a meek tone. Her voice was resilient and graceful. It spoke to a pliable resolve, bent to threshold but unbreakable.

It was not defeated. It was meek.

It was a Thursday night, sometime around 7 p.m. in San Antonio, Texas. It had been an especially difficult day in the weeks full of difficult days since her only daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in a Colorado movie theater by a gunman toting four weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition.

Jessica was one of 12 who died in the barrage of bullets that night.

But hers is the face of the tragedy.

Her mother, naturally, can't make sense of it. Rarely is there sense to be made of the inexplicable. And for Sandy, the aftermath of this tragedy leaves the unexpected very tangible.

"You don't know what to expect or when to expect it," Phillips said of her wide range of emotions since the July 20 shooting. "It's not a roller coaster -- it's the top of Everest to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It is a living hell."

[+] EnlargeRegan Smith car
Marty Smith/ESPN.comRegan Smith's special paint scheme memorializing the victims of the Aurora, Colo., shootings last month was emotional for many, including the victims' families.

Mother and daughter were the best of friends. As a parent of three, that is among my life's greatest hopes. When my children are grown, I want to be a hero and a friend to them. Sandy had that in Jessica.

And on this day, Sandy's first thought upon waking was a crushing blow: I don't have a daughter anymore.

Somehow Phillips' faith is strong. She noted to me her belief in God's plan, however difficult.

"Things happen the way they're supposed to," she said. "God's timing is always perfect, but right now that's very hard for me to accept."

Sandy does not know me. But she speaks like an old friend who could use a shoulder. She took this call only because her son, Jordan, suggested she should. Granted, Jordan doesn't know me, either.

A friend of his -- a TV producer from Texas named Brett Baker -- asked me on the day before the Brickyard 400 to capture a photograph of Jessica's name on the side of Regan Smith's No. 78 Aurora Tribute Chevrolet.

Jessica would be buried later that day, and the photograph, Baker said, would be special to the family. I didn't hesitate. I was honored to be asked.

I walked out in the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It wasn't quite 8 a.m. It was hazy and humid, but a spectacular morning. I entered the garage, leaned down beside the car and captured the photo of the victims' names.

Names line either side of the car. Seven on one side of the wheel well, five on the other in vertical lists. Jessica's name was atop the list of five names, the closest to Smith as he sat in the cockpit buckling in for practice. That is somehow fitting, although Jessica, Phillips said, wouldn't see it that way.

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"It wasn't just my daughter -- the car remembered all the victims," Phillips said. "That was very important. My daughter was lucky. First of all, we knew immediately she was gone. Second, she was involved with media. So she became the media darling in all of this.

"To have her honored for something she loved to do, she'd be blown away. She'd be amazed that somehow she was attached to all of this. But she would also be absolutely overwhelmed and appreciative that it's not all about her, that it's about everybody that's been affected in this horrible disaster."

The movie theater in Aurora is just seven miles from the Furniture Row Racing shop. Team staff members live in the town. It hit home.

"We were really proud to be the ones to carry those names," Smith said. "But at the same time it was sad, the reason why we had to carry them. The one goal for us was to give the folks in Aurora something to watch on Sunday and say, 'Hey, that's our car. It's out there for us.' We all live there now, myself included. So it meant a lot to salute those heroes and to remember the folks that lost their lives that day. It was a big deal for us."

That racecar was brand new, built specifically for Indianapolis. It sits in the team shop now, just as it rolled off the racetrack at the Brickyard.

"I don't believe that car will ever be raced again," Smith said. "It meant a lot to [team owner Barney Visser] to be able to run that on the racecar. He's an awesome guy. He cares a lot about people. He loves Denver, was born and raised there, and he didn't want to peel the decals off of it. He didn't want to change it. He wanted to leave it like that."

Shelving that car is an amazing tribute for a team that has an uphill battle every week.

Jessica loved hockey. The speed-fed fury of the game lured her in and gripped her tightly, Sandy said. And it wouldn't let her go. She'd enjoyed wonderful opportunities in San Antonio as an intern, interviewing NBA players who faced off against the hometown Spurs. She'd interviewed LeBron James, for example. But there was no hockey in San-Antone. No big-time hockey, anyway.

If she wanted to chase the puck, the Alamo wasn't the place.

Mentors urged her to move west to Denver, finish her degree there, and they would open industry doors for her. She approached Sandy at Christmastime with the prospect.

"I said, 'Fly birdie, fly,' " Phillips said. "And she didn't just fly, she soared. She had incredible experiences and met incredible people. And she had a following. She had a sense of humor. The girl could take a phrase and run with it for a week or two, make it hers."

Jessica wanted to help children who couldn't afford to play sports. It was a dream of hers. Kids, after all, deserve to play. That dream is now her family's dream, one that lives on in death.

It is called Little Things, and on Sept. 8 in an event at Denver's Pepsi Center will debut in partnership with A Precious Child, an existing Colorado-based charity that benefits disadvantaged and displaced children. A Precious Child donates new or gently used sports equipment to underprivileged children. Little Things will help, with a focus on the victims of the recent Colorado wildfires.

By partnering with A Precious Child, Phillips said, they weren't required to start a new charity in order to achieve Jessica's goals for others.

Tom Sullivan lost his son, Alex, in the shooting. Alex's name rests just under Jessica's on the No. 78 tribute car. He was confirmed dead on his 27th birthday. Alex was a hockey goalie, and Tom opened the Little Things donation pot with his son's gear.

All who are personally affected by the Aurora shooting are family now.

"These people are connected," Phillips said. "Jessie would be so proud that, maybe because she was in the sports world that that racecar was decorated not just with her name on it, but because of the connections we share as human beings. We are all connected. She would be so appreciative of that and cognizant of that circle. She wouldn't take it as, 'Oh, I'm on a car.' She'd be proud that everyone was remembered and that this country is remembering them.

"Good always outweighs evil. Always. And we as a society really have to tap into that when evil happens. She was a believer in that. Even that small little touch. It was a small touch, but it meant a lot."

As I listen to Sandy, I am compelled to tell her that, while mired in this unspeakable hurt her world must seem very isolated and very small, but her grace transcends. Her approach and her son's approach speak to the world with pride and humility that make us closer as members of humankind.

"Devastating is a trite word," she said. "I have a son left. That is my focus now. To have a wonderful relationship with him that is healing. He has been through hell. He went to Colorado to protect me. He had to deal with the press and arrange for her cremation, and he's the one that three days after turning 26 became a very mature man overnight.

"That's my focus now. But my daughter and I had an extremely close relationship that all of her friends were amazed by and envious of. Knowing that is permanently gone from our daily life … there are no words. There are simply no words.

"She had that brass ring in her grip. And it got snatched away."

Earlier on this day, Phillips received word from the district attorney that James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter, was in court and what that may or may not mean. She doesn't like to say his name.

"It's not about James Holmes. Frankly we don't like to use his name," Phillips said. "It's about society, and the choices people make in society. My daughter has her own issues in life. We all do. And Jessie always struggled to find the high road and a better road and to do things morally and ethically correct.

"This young man took a path my daughter would never even have considered for herself. We try our best not to think about him. He was just a conduit."

Jessica will be a conduit, too. Her legacy will provide an example of the merits of a passionate approach to life, and to the willingness to believe big dreams can forge a rich reality.

And she will be a conduit to remembrance, and the good in the human spirit.

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