Life, Death, and Sports

Little Laura Heald at 17 (roughly), sporting the softball look.

I haven't blogged in a while.

I sat down to start one a couple weeks ago - on Valentine’s Day - but news of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting began to pour in, and anything I had to say about photography and travel seemed completely pointless in comparison.

Every mass shooting in the United States is an awful tragedy, but for some reason this one struck home. It happened in Florida, at a high school not unlike the one I attended, to kids I could very much relate to.

I, too, went to a great public school. I had teachers who inspired me, administrators who gave me space to grow, coaches who pushed me, and a community of friends who loved me.

I also had traumatic things happen to me in high school. Nothing compared to what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but when young people die - no matter what the cause - it is senseless and tragic.

During my junior year at Allen D. Nease High School in St. Augustine, FL, I lost three friends to untimely deaths. They died as many teenagers do - accidents and suicide. There were no guns involved, just mistakes, emotions, and a strong dose of bad luck.

In the weeks since the shooting, many of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have spoken out. They’ve spoken about guns, mental health, and their struggles with PTSD. When I hear them discuss their inability to focus, sleep, or do any of the basic human functions that used come easy, I can relate.

While I will never fully understand what these students are going through, I have also experienced the unshakeable emptiness that envelopes you when unexpected tragedy hits.

Nothing makes sense when young people die. There is no logic to a life cut short. There is just empty confusion, bottomless sadness, and raw anger.

When my peers died I had trouble sleeping, talking, eating. I felt like a zombie; like I was a shell of a human moving through time and space.

For a long time the only thing I felt was a deep, heavy pain in my diaphragm. It made breathing difficult, and nausea constant.

Two things slowly made it better - time and softball, my sport of choice.

Softball centered me. It gave me something to focus on other than death.

There was a repetition to it - hit, run, catch, throw, repeat. Unlike anything else in my life at that point, it was logical. It made sense.

On the softball field I wasn’t “the girl who knew the dead kids.” I was the third base player, and lead-off batter. I felt needed. It gave me purpose beyond myself.

It became an outlet for my stress and anger (of which I had plenty).

Batting forced me to breath steadily, to focus intently, to forget the world outside me.

Fielding required snap judgements, quick reactions, and a jolt of strength to throw a runner out.

The team itself was an outlet. I was close with several girls on the team, but they weren’t related in any way to the deaths I had experienced. I was able to joke with them in a way I wasn't with my other friends. I think the softball field was the first place I was truly able to smile and laugh again after everything happened.

This was from my freshman - not junior - season, but the feeling is the same.

That year was my favorite year playing. It was also my last.

Still, every spring when the temperatures start to rise, the days get longer, and the orange blossoms bloom, I’m taken back to that place.

The softball field at Nease High School was my safe space.

I think part of my draw to sports photography in college was that experience my junior year. I knew from my own life the power of sport to encourage, unite, and heal.

I was taken back again Friday night.

The Marjorie Stoneman Douglas baseball team is playing in a tournament in Jacksonville this weekend. On Friday they played the TNXL Academy Ducks at 5pm, and I stopped by on my way home.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagles warm up at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.

It was a beautiful night. The temperature hovered around 65 degrees, the smell of jasmine and azalea blew through the air, and a group of boys who have been through hell warmed up as the sun sank.

Shortstop John Rodriguez during warm ups.

I watched as the coaches gave pointers and the boys went through their routine.

I wondered if they, too, found solace on the field.

If playing helped them shut out the outside noise.

If they were able to just be baseball players, and not “the kids from that high school where the shooting happened.”

MSD teammates laugh together in the dugout.

For the living, life goes on.

Even if life feels empty at the time, pitches still have to be thrown, bats still have to be swung, and games still have to be played.

Eventually normalcy returns, even if the sting remains.