On a day filled with back-to-back youth football games on the Eastern Hills High School Field, it was the 8-year-olds’ turn to square off. And, at least for the first half, the matchup was fairly normal — a little emotional on the sidelines, but normal.
Parents from the competing Fort Worth Longhorns and the 81G Bulldogs were rooting hard on Saturday for their own kids, and around halftime, an incident set some of them off. Jamee Kneeland, whose nephew is on the Longhorns, said two players from the opposite teams got into a scuffle that was quickly broken up by the coaches. That alone wasn’t unusual, she said. But what happened next was.
Standing underneath a tent with other Longhorns fans, Kneeland, 34, heard loud, angry arguing coming from the sidelines. She said she could make out a few words from a woman that cut through the others:
“We’re gonna spray this (expletive).”
She shook it off, thinking it was hyperbolic smack talk. Then, about two minutes into the third quarter, it happened: The football field where children had been playing became an arena of sudden, repetitive gunfire.
She heard a succession of pop-pop-pops — too many to count, but around 30 in the course of 30 seconds, she thinks. Bullets pinged and ricocheted off of the metal bleachers, the wire fence.
Some people ran while others ducked for cover, witnesses said. Adults scooped up frightened children from the ground. Players in the game laid down on the field.
Kneeland fell to the ground, crouching, and wanted to make sure her three children at the game — a 4-month-old boy, 6-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl — were safe. As she tried to move, though, she realized she couldn’t walk. A bullet was in her left leg.
“At that point, I started crawling toward the concession stand in the middle, just waving my hand, saying, ‘I’ve been hit,’” Kneeland said on Tuesday. “From that point on, everything just started happening fast.”
Coach Rory Johnson, the president of the Longhorns association, was standing at the front entrance gate when the shooting started. He dropped to the ground and began moving toward the gunfire, making sure kids were safely covered on his way.
Johnson, 38, could see a man in a red hoodie, his face covered with a black and white skeleton mask, firing downward from the top of a hill toward the crowd. The man fired the rounds for about 30 seconds, he said, before he dropped his gun, picked it back up and took off running.
“It was fast,” Johnson recalled Tuesday from his Fort Worth home. “It was probably one of the scariest moments of my life — to see all the kids hit the ground like that...and then you don’t know for sure who’s hit.”
He and several others then tended to Kneeland, helping her until she was transported via ambulance to John Peter Smith Hospital. No one else was injured except for Kneeland’s 12-year-old daughter, who was grazed by a bullet and required little medical attention.
Fort Worth police said on Tuesday they believe a mother placed a call and her son later came to the scene to carry out the shooting. No arrests have been made in connection with the shooting, police said, but an arrest warrant was issued for the mother on the charge of making a terroristic threat.
Police said they anticipated filing an arrest warrant by the end of the day Tuesday for the man who fired the shots.
The fact no one died and more people weren’t hurt, Johnson and Kneeland said, is a sign God was watching over their peewee football game. But the effects of the game will linger, possibly for a long time, they both know.
“There’s a lot of people right now traumatized,” Johnson said. “You know, you’ve been around so long and do what you can for the community and the kids, and all of a sudden it’s taken away like that.”
The league, TexaSports, reached out to Fort Worth police, and at least one officer will be at future league games, Johnson said. He hopes the added security helps them feel protected, he said, but he knows it won’t be easy.
The game has left parents contemplating conversations with their children they didn’t imagine they would have to have — about bad people, guns and the effects of trauma and of PTSD. They’re wondering how the kids are going to go back on a field again, and finish the season.
The coaches want to give the kids the chance to get back out there, one game at a time, starting this Saturday, Johnson said.
Or the kids could decide not to play, he said, and that’d be fine.
“The game is not that important,” he said. “Their life is to me.”
‘A hit on a peewee football game’
Saturdays in the TexaSports league, which has about 30 to 40 teams across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are stuffed with games — one after another, from about 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. It begins with the 6-year-olds, who play flag football, and then the 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11-year-olds play their tackle games, in that order.
On Saturday, the various Longhorns and Bulldogs teams were set to face off against each other at Eastern Hills High School. Kneeland’s son played in the first game, and she had nephews in other games, so she decided to stay all day.
When the shots rang out around 3:20 p.m., she said her immediate instinct was to get down, and to protect “the babies.” She realized quickly she couldn’t get to her 4-month-old in his stroller due to her gunshot wound, but she saw her sister-in-law pick up the child.
Her 6-year-old boy was near the concession stands, safely away from the shooting, Kneeland said. And her 12-year-old daughter was on the ground next to her, crawling for safety.
Kneeland, moments earlier, had been sitting in a chair with her 4-month-old baby on her shoulder, until she put him in the stroller.
That chair, she said, was then directly hit and destroyed.
“If I hadn’t moved out of that chair or put my baby in his stroller,” she said, “I believe we both would’ve been gone.”
She and Johnson said people’s instincts seemed to kick in the moment the gunfire began. Adults all over the field could be seen running and hiding, they said, and picking up kids to make sure they were safe.
The children, too, became aware they needed to get to safety, Johnson said.
“The minute we start hearing bullets, you just start seeing everybody, A) drop to the ground or B) try to run,” he said. “I think it’s a natural instinct.”
The shooting, he said, was perpetrated by a parent from the Bulldogs team, and it seemed to be essentially “a hit on a peewee football game,” he said.
But that only represents one or two who took actions into their own hands, he said.
He said he talked with the Bulldogs president over the phone for about five minutes on Monday night. They spoke of their initial hesitance to return to coaching, and why they knew they had to.
“This is the work that we’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “Everything that everybody tries to turn into a negative, we’re going to try to make positive.”
The Bulldogs had a team meeting Monday night, open to kids from all teams and their families, addressing the incident Saturday. There were four or five therapists on-hand from the Crowley and Fort Worth school districts as well as other agencies.
They could speak with a therapist, if they needed to, and arrange future meetings.
The overall message of the night, Johnson said, was simple: Life isn’t as it was before. But it will be OK.
“It’s OK to be hurt. It’s OK to not be OK,” Johnson said. “We just didn’t want to leave it out there and just let it happen and then we just go back to practice like nothing happened. It happened, and now we have to deal with it as a community.”
There haven’t been any practices for the Longhorns this week, Johnson said. On Tuesday night, all of the coaches from the league met to discuss the issue of security at future games.
“I think when they start seeing the police officers and the security at the game, they’ll be a little more like, ‘OK, we’ve got security here,’” he said. “But at the same time, they’re going to be traumatized.”
“The last time they went on a football field, shots rang out.”
‘We’ll figure it out together’
Kneeland’s 6-year-old son — the one who was near the concession stands — hasn’t been the same since the game.
He used to pride himself as a tough kid, Kneeland said, but he’s seemed quiet and distant, with apprehension in his eyes. He also used to be like “a teddy bear” to his mother, but he wasn’t hugging her at all on Saturday or Sunday, she said.
He finally gave her a big hug and a kiss Monday.
“Our bond is a little different,” she said. “Do I know he still loves me? Yes. But can you tell he’s been affected? Most definitely.”
Her 12-year-old has fared a little better, appearing to be less affected even with white scarring on her back. She plans to talk to all her kids about the incident, when they’re ready.
“I’m going to be 100 percent honest and share my feelings with them,” she said. “They’ll share their feelings with me.”
The wound in Kneeland’s leg has been healing, after doctors removed the bullet on Saturday, and she’s been relying on crutches. She hasn’t yet returned to her job as a caregiver at the Ashwood Court assisted living facility in North Richland Hills, and she hopes she’ll be allowed some time off.
She believes, however, physical therapy can help her get back to full strength in due time, she said. Her mother has come from North Carolina to assist her and her children.
Kneeland said she’s experienced some lingering trauma, such as when a neighbor bangs into their shared wall and she, for a moment, mistakes it for gunfire. She thinks, one day, she might buy a gun to have for her family’s protection.
But, for now, she plans on going to the remaining four games this season, and cheering her heart out.
She hopes her son will get back to his normal self, she said, and she plans to help all of her kids on their paths to recovery.
“Being at the games is going to show them: I’m here, and you can do your thing,” she said. “And things will be all right in the future.”
Longhorns players are set to get together on Thursday, and coaches will see how they’re feeling, and if they feel ready for Saturday’s games, Johnson said. If they don’t want to return to the field, he said, then they won’t.
Even if they decide halfway through the game Saturday to stop, then they will, he said.
He wouldn’t think twice about it.
“We can be winning 10-0, 5-0 ... it don’t make a difference to me,” he said. “We’ll figure it out together.”