Sophomore catcher Jackie McKenna celebrates her first career hit at Mississippi State, a single into left field against North Alabama on Friday in Starkville. Photo by: Austin Perryman/MSU Athletics
February 18, 2020 9:24:32 AM
STARKVILLE -- The words are written on Jackie McKenna's glove. The memory is etched into her heart.
Along the side of the bulky maroon first baseman's mitt she carries, below the logo of the school she now calls home, there's a message memorialized in looping teal cursive: 954 #MSDStrong.
Two years ago Friday, when McKenna was a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida -- area code 954 -- 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school, walked in with a semi-automatic rifle and opened fire, killing 17 people. McKenna and her brother Chris survived unhurt, but among the dead were friends, classmates, teachers and coaches.
So before her freshman season at Mississippi State, McKenna had her glove customized in honor of the people who died that day at Stoneman Douglas. Two years later, as McKenna has tried to move past what happened -- and as she dealt with another shocking tragedy -- the memory of those she lost remains inscribed on her glove, never too far away.
"It obviously means a lot: just knowing that they're always there," she said.
It was Valentine's Day, so Tina McKenna put out chocolates in the morning for her kids, Jackie and Chris.
Jackie drove her brother, a freshman, to school, just like she did every day. Stoneman Douglas had a fire drill that morning, she remembers. McKenna read with a friend in her second-to-last class of the day, then headed off to culinary class with their teacher, "Chef" Ashley Kurth, for fourth period. She had a softball game scheduled for that evening.
Around 2:20 p.m., with just a few minutes left in the school day, Chris excused himself from his class in the school's freshman building to use the bathroom. As he walked down the stairs, he saw a young man he didn't know hiding in the stairwell -- and loading a gun.
Stoneman Douglas softball coach Brian Staubly recalled Cruz's chilling message to Chris: "'You might want to get out of here, because things are gonna get really bad in here.'"
Chris ran out of the building to neighboring Westglades Middle School, which was soon placed on lockdown when Cruz finished loading and began shooting into classrooms in the high school's freshman building. Chris ran on to a local Walmart, then to a friend's house near Stoneman Douglas.
"He's kind of the luckiest kid I know walking the face of the earth," said Chris and Jackie's father, John McKenna Sr., who recently retired after 32 years at the Drug Enforcement Administration and promptly went to work for the Broward County Sheriff's Office a few days later. "I've always said he had two angels on his shoulders that day."
Before reaching his friend's place, Chris called his dad, then the assistant special agent in charge of the Miami field division of the DEA, to tell him what he'd witnessed. Chris gave McKenna Sr. a full description of the gunman.
McKenna Sr. called a sergeant in the narcotics department of the sheriff's office, relayed the information Chris gave him and told the man to check his police scanner. As McKenna Sr. raced from the DEA office in West Palm Beach -- a 45-minute drive away under normal circumstances -- to Stoneman Douglas, he was still on the phone with his friend at the sheriff's office, and he was texting his daughter any updates he had on Cruz's location.
"I probably shouldn't have been doing it, but I was doing it," McKenna said.
By the time he arrived at the school -- Jackie said he made the trip in 15 minutes, though her father doesn't think it was quite that fast -- police were on the scene and had set up a perimeter.
Jackie McKenna, caught up on what was going on through her father's updates, was still in a large utility closet in Kurth's culinary room, in an adjacent building from where Cruz was shooting. In the hallway, Kurth grabbed students from a nearby P.E. class and pulled them into the closet with her own students, filling the closet with 65 kids in all. The lights were off, but Kurth had her computer, and the shooting was already on the news. On the screen, McKenna and her classmates watched helicopters circling overhead.
Then the texts started coming in. McKenna was corresponding with each of her parents, but cousins, aunts and uncles wanted to know if she was safe. The softball team's group chat exploded. McKenna's older brother John, a baseball player at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, even tried to FaceTime her.
"I was like, 'Not the time to FaceTime me,'" McKenna said.
But when her phone battery finally died, she took a bold step to maintain communication -- after ensuring Cruz was still in the freshman building.
"I was like, 'OK, that's not my building,' so I kind of ran out and got my charger and came back," McKenna said. "I probably wasn't supposed to do that, but I had to."
By the time the SWAT team broke down the door to let everybody out, it was nearly 6 p.m. McKenna was in the corner, crouched behind the metal table she had used as protection.
Kurth yelled "Get down!" as the glass broke, not knowing who had breached the seal.
"When it happens, you're not supposed to say a word," McKenna said. "When we saw them, we were all like, 'Thank God. We're good.'"
'I just couldn't do it'
McKenna ran out with her hands up as the SWAT team instructed, making it a mile and a half before meeting her parents at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza in nearby Coral Springs. There, they waited until nearly 8 p.m. for the barrier around the school to clear so Chris could join them and they could go home.
Around 1 a.m., police came by the McKenna house to talk to Chris. Cruz's name and picture had been public for hours, but the cops showed Chris mugshots of possible shooters and asked him how confident he was that he had the right man. Since Chris had never met Cruz before, he called in his sister, who had attended middle school with the shooter.
"Everyone knew him as 'the crazy kid,'" McKenna said.
That night, no one could sleep as the McKennas tried to piece together who Cruz had taken from them.
Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach and a security guard at the school, died shielding students from gunfire. Feis, who drove the softball team to away games, was "literally our biggest fan," McKenna said.
He also manned the gate at the school's senior lot.
"He wouldn't let us out early, except he'd let me out early all the time," McKenna said.
Athletic director Chris Hixon, who often attended baseball and softball games, was killed, too. McKenna also knew seniors Joaquin Oliver and Meadow Pollack well. Just that morning, she had class with Oliver, who sat nearby and was always talking about sports. She'd known Pollack since fifth grade, and they hung out around each other often. Now both were gone, along with Feis, Hixon, freshman geography teacher Scott Beigel and 12 other Stoneman Douglas students.
McKenna and her parents came to the vigil held at Pine Trails Park the next evening. Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a Stoneman Douglas graduate, came back to speak; 17 crosses and Stars of David were set up there and at the school for the victims. Footballs decorated Feis' altar, McKenna said.
She and her parents attended Feis' and Hixon's memorial services over the weekend, but even though a lot of her friends went, Oliver's and Pollack's were "just too much for me," she said.
"I just couldn't do it," McKenna admitted. "I was just like, 'No more.'"
Many students left to take online courses or transferred to another school, but when John Sr. and Tina asked Jackie and Chris whether they wanted to return to Stoneman Douglas when it reopened, both of them agreed: They were going back.
On the school's orientation day -- Sunday, Feb. 25 -- each student received a new, clear backpack and a new school ID, which would be checked every morning. Dozens of policemen filled the campus, and a small fence had already started to rise around the edge of the school.
"Security was on point after," McKenna pointed out.
Therapy dogs -- which McKenna and her classmates loved -- were on hand, along with grief counselors for students in need. Not much got done academically for the rest of the year, McKenna said: "We were all just together."
Softball helped, too. McKenna and her teammates used the sport as a means of distraction, though what happened was hard to avoid.
The Eagles held moments of silence and wore patches with "17" on them to commemorate the victims. Opposing teams signed T-shirts and brought flowers for the Stoneman Douglas players, and Alabama was one of a few college programs who sent the team a signed banner.
"Wherever we went, whoever we played, the softball community was tremendous," Staubly said.
The Eagles had a solid season, too, finishing with a 16-6 record after playing just one game before the shooting. Their next contest was played March 1, two weeks and a day afterward, and Stoneman Douglas beat Monarch 9-3. The Eagles went undefeated in district play before an extra-inning loss in the first round of the playoffs.
The daily routine of the sport provided a structured life for McKenna, her father said -- beneficial to distract from the tragic circumstances. For Chris, a standout on the school's baseball team, the effect was the same.
"I'm convinced that having an outlet like sports helps them -- no doubt," McKenna Sr. said.
To Staubly, playing out the season was good for all of his players alike.
"It gives them a sense of doing something that they love to do," Staubly said. "Something normal."
On Aug. 24, a little more than 18 months after the shooting, McKenna was on the softball field when another tragedy struck her.
She was fielding ground balls in practice at Nusz Park in Starkville with Mississippi State teammates Mia and Montana Davidson when she got a two-word text from a friend back home: Hannah died.
"'Who's Hannah?'" McKenna thought to herself at first. "I had no idea who she was talking about."
But it didn't take long. McKenna soon realized the text was about Hannah Bonta, one of her best friends, a softball teammate and a 2017 graduate of Stoneman Douglas. Early that Saturday morning, Bonta and her mother, Jan Kirkland, were stabbed to death by Kirkland's boyfriend, Jason Dale Roseman, in their home in neighboring Coconut Creek. Bonta's boyfriend, Craig Newman, was also attacked but survived.
"When I figured out it was Hannah Hannah -- my friend, Hannah -- I lost it on the field," McKenna said. "It was just like one thing happening after another. It just felt like it was never gonna stop."
She called her parents, who were visiting John in New York at the time. McKenna Sr. and Tina were similarly shocked -- they'd known Bonta since Jackie was in sixth grade, when the two met.
"Hannah used to come to my house a lot," McKenna Sr. said. "I saw her grow up."
He and Tina consoled their daughter and told her, 'Get that dog,' remembering how Jackie had loved the therapy dogs at Stoneman Douglas.
Three days after Bonta died, McKenna adopted a Goldendoodle named Champ.
"I kind of needed a dog," she said. "He's just the best. He's been very helpful with all that stuff."
To her father, Champ was a good way for McKenna to distract herself from this new tragedy.
"It kind of keeps her mind off it, now that she's had somebody else to care for," McKenna Sr. said.
McKenna needed help from other sources, too. For five or six weeks during the fall semester, she saw Dr. Angel Brutus, Mississippi State's director of counseling and sport psychology, for 15-minute weekly sessions. Brutus did all the talking, McKenna said, but it still helped.
Her teammates helped as well, perhaps more than anything. McKenna will often hang out at Mia Davidson's place or Annie Willis' or Grace Fagan's, ordering food and just enjoying the company.
"I'm never home," she said.
When McKenna Sr. made the four-hour drive to Clearwater to watch his daughter play in the NFCA Leadoff Classic from Feb. 7-9, he felt like he knew the Bulldogs well already: His daughter had often called him or FaceTimed with him while her teammates were around.
"They spend so much time with each other," McKenna Sr. said. "They're like the best of friends."
Head coach Samantha Ricketts offered McKenna a chance to fly home for Bonta's memorial service Sept. 6 in Coral Springs, but she declined. McKenna and her parents knew going through the emotions of the service would be hard and would not change the outcome, so staying in Starkville with her teammates would be for the best.
"I didn't want to get on the plane, go home," McKenna said. "I was like, 'I want to be here. I chose to be here.'"
That goes back to her connection with her teammates and her school, McKenna Sr. said.
"She loves it at Mississippi State," he said. "I don't even think she wants to come home sometimes."
Coming back and moving ahead
McKenna does come back to Parkland often, spending time there over college breaks. When she's home, she'll hit up former teammates Abby Dowd and Jordan Ratner -- both seniors at Stoneman Douglas -- to throw and hit at the school's softball field.
But the experience is different. As part of the school's stringent security measures enacted after the shooting, a large gate surrounds the baseball and softball fields. McKenna has to call Staubly to come and unlock it for her.
The fence around the campus has grown, and there's only one point of access to the school -- an attempt to crack down on future invasions.
"Now it was one of the safest schools," McKenna pointed out.
But as she came to notice, many of the new safeguards at Stoneman Douglas are missing at Mississippi State. In her classes, the doors usually remain unlocked; McKenna always makes sure she knows her exits in case of an intruder.
"It's not that it's unsafe," she said. "It's just a normal college campus."
School, in general, is one of the few things that can bring back memories of the day of the shooting. McKenna is "still not a big school fan," she said.
It's something that can easily trigger the unpleasant thoughts McKenna has never quite been able to block out after the shooting.
"That's something that you'll never forget, but it's something that you've also gotta live and you've gotta cope with," her father said.
McKenna Sr. said his daughter's willingness to talk about what happened to her rather than avoid it has helped mitigate the trauma. To Staubly, it's a testament to McKenna's "strong character" that she's doing as well as she is.
"I cope with it very well," McKenna said. "It kind of got me ready for the real world and all that stuff."
A criminology major, McKenna wants to specialize in a field related to the tragedy she survived in Parkland. She made the honor roll at Mississippi State, her father said; grief could not dull her academic excellence.
"She's very talented in softball, but she's also one of my favorite players," Staubly said. "Great kid. Team leader. She'll excel at anything she does."
As a sophomore, McKenna has already started that process on the field, taking on a larger role with the Bulldogs in 2020. She's played in five of Mississippi State's 10 games and has gotten two starts. Against North Carolina State in the final game of the team's Florida trip, she started at catcher and threw out two baserunners.
And Friday, in the sixth inning of a home game against North Alabama in the Bulldog Kickoff Classic in Starkville, McKenna singled to left field for her first base hit in a Mississippi State uniform -- two years to the date after the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas.
"First career hit on a very special day," McKenna tweeted afterward. "For the 17."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.