At Stoneman Douglas, football season comes with heavy hearts
PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — The first practice of the new season was over, and the only sound on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was dozens of football players screaming in delight.
It was 2:15 a.m., and they were having a water balloon fight .
At last, on a campus shaken by tragedy, there was joy.
The Eagles — now ambassadors for a school and community still reeling from the Feb. 14 massacre that left 17 people dead, including assistant football coach Aaron Feis , who was killed while trying to use his body to shield students from the cascade of bullets — took the field for practice at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
Under Florida rules, teams could begin fall workouts July 30. The Eagles didn’t wait a minute longer.
“This is the only thing we have to show our respect,” coach Willis May Jr. said. “This is the way we can show our respect to those guys, with our great effort and with our great attitudes. Be leaders within the school. I hope we see all that from these kids this year.”
Douglas has had the “midnight madness” practice on opening day several times before, but this was different. A uniformed sheriff’s deputy was on campus throughout the evening, his patrol vehicle parked adjacent to the field during practice. The site of the shootings — the 1200 building — still stands, cordoned off by a chain-link fence. Many want it leveled, but for now it stands because it’s essentially evidence, a crime scene.
Players, as they walked out of the locker room in rows of two shortly before midnight, had to stroll past the 1200 building on their way to the field for practice. Barely anyone seemed to look its way.
“Our community is still very much in the traumatized healing process,” said Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky, who sat in the bleachers with about 100 other people for the middle-of-the-night practice. “This is not a sprint. This is absolutely a marathon. And we will never forget. No one who was here will ever forget. But we also have to look at a way forward.”
And Monday was a small step forward.
But the reminders of Feb. 14 remain everywhere.
There is one locker with a door painted gold in the locker room — it belonged to Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, one of the 17 victims, the boy who adored Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade so much that his family buried him in a Wade jersey. The fence around the 1200 building is partially covered by banners with messages of support from neighboring schools. Inside the cafeteria, where parents reported for the preseason meeting, another banner still hangs. It’s from the students of Columbine High School, where a similar tragedy took place in 1999.
On the field, there are more signs, reminders to play for Feis and how to be “MSD Strong.” The shirts most of the coaches wore had some reminder of the shooting. May tugged on a new shirt just before practice, one with “17″ in the middle, the reasoning there obvious.
Put simply, there’s no escaping what happened.
A school that was a sanctuary is now, in many ways, a memorial .
“Are we perfect? Are we happy all the time? How can we be?” said Johanna Feis, the younger sister of the slain coach whose desk remains next to May’s inside a cramped football office and hasn’t been issued to anyone else on the staff. “I’m not OK at this moment, but we’re pushing through, so we are OK.”
The Eagles obviously did not want this attention.
They did not want to be asked to play a Canadian team in Georgia on Sept. 1, but now view the trip as a great opportunity. They did not want to see Feis, athletic director Chris Hixon, cross country coach Scott Beigel — all victims on Feb. 14 — honored with the Best Coach award at the ESPYs. They did not want to turn Feis’ name into a motivational acronym, the letters in football parlance now standing for “Fearless, Emotion, Intensity and Sacrifice.”
They would rather see things go back to normal, whatever that was before the afternoon of Feb. 14.
“You represent this high school,” May told his team just before practice started. “Every time you put that Douglas (jersey) on, make it count for something. Make it mean something. When somebody faces us this year, one thing I want them to know is, you ain’t getting an injured Eagle. You’re not facing an injured Eagle that’s just going to let you roll over them. You better bring the best you got.”
The reminders notwithstanding, boys were being boys Sunday night as they waited for practice. They had a team meeting in the bleachers to go over fundraising plans, and whooped for joy when it came time to tape a promotional video.
They returned to the locker room after the meeting to wait for practice, some laying on the hard tile floor, others chilling on benches, virtually everyone on their phones. Music blared. Kids danced. Some coaches had pizza.
It was loud and festive.
It was football season. And for a couple hours, all felt right again.
“I just want to make sure the kids will be OK,” said Johanna Feis, who comes to most practices and helps the program with some clerical work like putting together the roster. “It’s difficult to be here. But at the end of the day, it’s nice that I can go sit in my brother’s chair. These kids, they loved my brother so much and they still do. And I think it’s amazing. They know they’re making him proud.”