Week of covering Douglas High nightmare redefines strength for Miami Dolphins reporter

Alyssa Kramer, 16, (center) is hugged by her mother, Tonja Kramer, at the candlelight vigil in Parkland to honor the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

PARKLAND — When Edna Buchanan wrote a compilation of the most intriguing crime stories she’d covered in her Pulitizer Prize-winning career at The Miami Herald, she called her book “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face.”

It’s the kind of flip title you come up with after you’ve dissected 5,000 murder cases, each one chipping away at your reflexive horror until all that’s left is as cold as the corpses themselves.

Me? I’m a sportswriter. Except this past week, I wasn’t a sportswriter. I was among the throng of reporters covering the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

A former student went on a rampage. Just like that, my career count of murders covered went from zero to 17.

I don’t know what the magic number is before one becomes numb to such things. I don’t know where the line blurs between professional objectivity and personal compassion when confronted with so much tragedy. I do know I never intend to find out.

[RELATED: Dolphins donate $100,000 to fund for Douglas families]

[RELATED: Dolphins send delegation to vigil to honor victims]

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At the candlelight vigil the day after the killings, I had relayed to Jarvis Landry, the Dolphins’ receiver, this was the worst week in my 40 years in journalism. He knew where I was coming from. He has a year-old daughter, the same age as the son of safety T.J. McDonald, who also attended the vigil. What were these new fathers to think? That by the time their children start school, things will be better? Or worse?

“To lose your kids, something like this, it’s hard to speak about,” Landry said.

Speak, another father did. About 24 hours after learning of his family’s loss, he took the microphone, his voice cracking, telling mourners he could not recall if he said “I love you” to his daughter before she rushed off to school for the last time.

What, exactly, is strength? Is it being able to push a 300-pound man out of your way on a football field? Or is it this father paying public tribute to “my baby”?

“I’ve got four girls and I couldn’t imagine how I would deal with it if I had lost them,” said Nat Moore, the former Dolphins receiver and a current senior vice president.

Thursday had begun, for me, by meeting Olivia Prochilo, a junior at Douglas who’s as eloquent as she is brave. And strong. Standing near the yellow crime tape, she described running to a secluded area outside her classroom with hundreds of others, all hoping they had picked the spot that the shooter wouldn’t. Two of her friends, elsewhere on the campus, met a different fate.

“Imagine the families of the children who were in front of the school, waiting for their children to come out, that didn’t come out,” Prochilo said.

Yes, this was a teenager talking. At least, later, she sounded like a teenager is supposed to. She was describing how she and her friends spent a break between classes Wednesday morning, comparing how many chocolates and how many hearts each had received. It was Valentine’s Day, she said, “a day of love.”

Former Douglas student Rachelle Borges sits near a candlelit cross during the candlelight vigil at Pine Trails Park in Parkland. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Thursday afternoon took me to a multi-denominational prayer service at a church near the school. Next to me, a distraught boy spent a portion of the service with his head buried on the lap of his mother, who tried to comfort him. Nearby, a mother, mouthing along the words to scripture, clutched a newborn who someday may tire of hearing “I love you” every morning.

When the pastor asked everyone to put their hand on the shoulder of the person next to them, I felt one on my right shoulder. Journalists are trained to be objective, but I was glad her hand was there.

After the service, I learned about the boy named Alex, who had loved the Patriots. Cara loved the beach. Luke, chicken nuggets. Alaina, volunteering.

Then, I went off to write about how we lost them, ending up at a Starbucks near the school. As I opened my laptop, I realized this likely was the Starbucks where, the kids had told me, “Coach Feis” liked to sit by in his golf cart after school, making sure all the students got home safely.

Aaron Feis

A lot of kids got home safely Wednesday because Aaron Feis shielded them from gunfire, sacrificing his own life so they could go on living theirs.

Again, what is strength?

Maybe it’s Feis’ players on the Douglas Eagles football team, who a year ago played a season with a teammate who was successfully fighting cancer. And that boy was playing while doing so.

Strength is Thursday night, the girl behind me at the vigil, her cheeks somehow remaining dry as her candle illuminated a face of despair you never forget. Before I left, I turned again, only to see her in a group hug with two of her friends. Strength in numbers.

Red eyes and tears of children — I saw enough to last a lifetime. Occasionally, only occasionally, I encountered teenagers smiling.  “Remember the time … ” You had to think that’s what brought them their moment of respite.

Some kids were questioning how they could ever go back to school. Eventually, they’ll have to find a way to re-enter their world.

I know I can’t wait to re-enter mine.

[Dolphins feeling good about where they stand at cornerback–for now]

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