‘Hardest thing I’ve ever had to do’: Cubs’ Rizzo reflects on returning to hometown after school shootings

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo returned home to speak at a vigil after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. He met with reporters Monday after returning to the Valley for spring training. (Photo by Ethan Gaines/Cronkite News)

MESA – Anthony Rizzo didn’t just attend the Florida school that faced unthinkable tragedy. He played for the football coach who lost his life when he jumped in front of students to shield them from incoming fire.

“Whenever I go back, I always saw coach (Aaron) Feis,” the Chicago Cubs first baseman said. “Every single one of my best friends from high school, we all have memories of coach Feiss. For him to lay his life down like that and save kids just shows the type of person he is. He’s a true hero. There was this monster coming in, shooting up a school, and he jumps in front of kids and saves their lives. It’s sad, but I hope he continues to be recognized for that.”

Rizzo was back at training camp Monday after attending a vigil at his alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in the aftermath of a school shooting there last week.

“It impacted my family in a lot of ways through a few different people who unfortunately lost their lives,” Rizzo said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, just going back. You just got to be there for people in these times.

“There’s really nothing you can say, nothing you can do but just be there and show that you care for them and you’re there for them. I didn’t lose anybody who was direct family but I felt like I did because I’m from there.”

Rizzo spoke Friday at a vigil, where he voiced support for the victims, their families and the Parkland community. He said he hoped to provide a local voice that could help comfort the victims.

“These kids just went through a lot, and I just wanted them to know that I was with them,” Rizzo said. “Instead of hearing a lot of people standing up there, quote unquote campaigning for themselves, they can hear it from someone that went to Douglas. That played football there, played baseball, studied in those classrooms, had those teachers. Maybe they could feel it a little more than someone random just saying some stuff.”

Cub’s chairman and owner Thomas Ricketts said that Rizzo has handled the tragedy well and demonstrated who he is as a person.

“Anthony’s character has always been one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in baseball,” Ricketts said. “The amount of effort he puts into his charitable efforts is remarkable. Obviously last week he just took it to the next level. He responded like a person of true character and you just can’t say enough things about what a great person he is.”

Rizzo won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2017 for his community involvement.

Asked about the issue of gun control, Rizzo was quick to point out that he had not used the word “gun” in any of his statements about the shooting, and he said he felt as though some in the media were misconstruing his words. He did say he thinks some sort of “change” is necessary, though he didn’t specify what kind of change he would like to see.

“My opinion is my opinion, and I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other,” Rizzo said. “I think my focus is definitely on baseball. My focus is on Parkland and the community there, supporting them. But for me, it’s hard enough to hit a baseball.

“It’s definitely going to be hard trying to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”