For a few hours, it felt normal again
Stoneman Douglas football team holds traditional midnight practice, honours coach slain in massacre
PARKLAND, Fla. — 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.
At 2:15 a.m., they were having a water balloon fight.
Finally, on a campus known for tragedy, there was joy.
The Eagles — now ambassadors for a school and a community that in many ways is 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, since under Florida rules teams could begin their fall workouts on July 30. So they didn’t wait a minute longer.
“This is the only thing we have to show our respect,” Eagles 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.”
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, as it is known — is still there, cordoned off by a chain-link fence. Many want it levelled, but for now it stands because it’s essentially evidence, a crime scene.
“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.”
The reminders are every- where. There is one locker with a door painted gold in the locker-room — it belonged to Joaquin (Guac) Oliver, one of the 17 victims who was buried in the jersey of Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. The fence around the 1200 building is partly covered by banners with messages of support from neighbouring schools. Inside the cafeteria, where parents reported for the pre-season 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 banners with reminders to play for Feis and how to be “MSD Strong.” The shirts most of the coaches wore had some reminder of the shooting.
Put simply, there’s no escaping it. A school that was a sanctuary is now, in many ways, a memorial.
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 to open the season, but now view it 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 — honoured with the Best Coach award at the ESPYs.
They would rather see things go back to normal, whatever that was before the afternoon of Feb. 14.
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. Back in the locker-room afterward, some laid on the hard tile floor, others chilled on benches, virtually everyone on their phones.
It was loud and festive. It was football season. And for a few hours, it felt normal again.
Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School football team pray together as they began practice just after midnight on Monday in Parkland, Fla.