Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @StevePoliti
(CNN) -- Victor Cruz had no idea what he would say to a family dealing with unthinkable grief. He just knew he had to be there.
That, on this emotional day, was enough.
The star New York Giants receiver drove to Newtown, Connecticut, this week to meet with the family of Jack Pinto, one of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The 6-year-old boy had been buried a day earlier, wearing the No. 80 jersey of his favorite football player.
Cruz didn't have any speech prepared. He came to deliver a pair of cleats he had worn two days earlier when the Giants lost to the Atlanta Falcons -- he had scrawled the words "Jack Pinto, My Hero" on one and "R.I.P. Jack Pinto" on the other -- but mostly he was there to offer support.
He listened to the family talk about Jack, sitting in the same chair where the boy's father watched the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl 10 months earlier. He played the Madden football video game with the kids, quickly discovering that being there was more important than anything he could say.
"I was a little nervous," Cruz said. "I just didn't know how I was going to be received. You never know, when they're going through something like that, how it's going to go down. Once I got there and I saw all the kids there with my jersey on, the family ... the family was outside, and they were still pretty emotional, crying. I saw how affected they were by just my presence alone."
We hear a lot about the "power of sports," and usually, that phrase is little more than a cliché. But as 2012 comes to a close, there were plenty of examples of athletes using their popularity and influence to make a difference in their communities and beyond.
There were the New York Mets players, past and present, who rallied around a team employee named Shannon Forde. The media relations director and young mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, so the team organized a massive charity dinner and auction. Up for bids: pitching lessons with former Cy Young Award winners Dwight Gooden, Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey; hitting lessons from Mets third baseman David Wright; and signed bats from Yankee stars Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
There was the story of the New York marathon, canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With nowhere to run, thousands of athletes instead spent the weekend in the hardest-hit areas, unloading supplies at shelters or helping to clean up wrecked homes. Some had seen a lifelong dream washed away but instead accomplished something even more fulfilling.
There were the Indianapolis Colts players and cheerleaders who shaved their heads to support cancer research. The team's head coach, Chuck Pagano, was forced to leave the team after he was diagnosed with leukemia. In the months that followed, the team raised more than $250,000, and several local businesses also held successful fundraisers.
And then there was the support after the Newtown tragedy. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson wrote the names of all 20 young victims on his cleats and then scored on a 94-yard touchdown run. Jeter, the iconic Yankees shortstop, called the family of teacher Victoria Soto, who hid her students in a bathroom and died trying to protect them from shooter Adam Lanza.
Simple gestures like these can't make the pain go away. But Giants head coach Tom Coughlin might have summed up their potential impact the best when he talked to Cruz about his trip to Newtown: "That family will remember that all their days. And hopefully, some of their grief might at least temporarily be spent in being able to embrace Victor Cruz."
Cruz first heard that one of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary was a fan through his Twitter feed. He spoke to the Pinto family on Saturday night from his hotel room in Atlanta, making a promise to the boy's 11-year-old brother, Ben, that he would stay in touch.
So on Tuesday, the Giants' off day, he drove with his fiancée and 11-month-old daughter to keep that pledge. He played football in the front yard with some of the other kids in the neighborhood,
"We got to smile a little bit, which was good for them," Cruz said. "It was a time where I just wanted to be a positive voice, a positive light in a time where it can be really negative. They're a great family, and they're really united right now, and it was good to see.
"We reached out to them, and we exchanged information, so we're going to try as much as we can to keep in contact. Just little things, just to say hello a couple months from now, years, and just say 'How you doing?' and stuff like that, just to see how they're doing from time to time."
Sometimes, the little things can show that the "power of sports" is more than just a cliché.