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Student defeats lingering pain of Columbine

''This is what high school is supposed to be like,'' says Brian Sommer, whose family left Littleton, Colo., after the shootings.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2003

"This is what high school is supposed to be like," says Brian Sommer, whose family left Littleton, Colo., after the shootings.

TRINITY -- Baseball caps mean many things for Brian Sommer -- a symbol of the happiest aspect of his life, an exciting part of his future, and at the same time, a vivid memory from a difficult past.

He doesn't need a ball cap to remind him of April 20, 1999, but for the Mitchell High School senior, it still does.

The world watched in horror as news unfolded about two students walking into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and opening fire, killing 12 students and a teacher, then themselves. Sommer didn't watch the footage on television because he was two miles away from the carnage, an eight-grader huddled with classmates in a middle-school gym.

"I've thought about it a couple of times a day, every day since," said Sommer, who spent his freshman year at Columbine when the school reopened four months later. "I catch myself thinking about it all the time."

After one year at Columbine, Sommer moved with his family to Florida, and now he is an 18-year-old senior at Mitchell High School, constantly reminded of the school he survived but more proud of the school he will graduate from next month.

* * *

The memories come from simple things like ball caps. Mitchell has a dress code policy that keeps students from wearing caps to school, a touch of irony for Sommer. The Columbine shooters were said to specifically target athletes who wore caps, and when the campus reopened in fall 1999, Sommer was a proud baseball player, wearing a cap to school in defiance of any fear the shooters sought to create.

"I think I combed my hair three days that year, and one was picture day," Sommer said. "We all wore the hats to school my freshman year. I was proud to be able to go there. No matter what, it was still a great school, and there were a lot of great athletes there."

He'll never forget his first day at Columbine -- the big pep rally to usher in a hopeful new era there, the way the school had been remodeled with new floors and shiny new lockers. "It was crazy how nice it was," he recalls, but that was small consolation.

"It was obviously on your mind," said Sommer, who counts friends among the Columbine victims. "You try to forget about it, but it's just impossible. I don't think anybody functioned normally for the first four or five months of school there."

Sommer made the junior varsity team as a freshman and later pitched for Columbine's varsity. Coping with the tragedy at Columbine was a challenge, but the aftermath was just as trying.

That spring, two Columbine students were shot and killed at a Subway restaurant blocks from the school, and just after the one-year anniversary, a junior at Columbine whom Sommer knew well, an "unbelievable" basketball player who had cradled a dying teacher's head in his hands in the hours after the shootings, committed suicide.

Sommer wondered if he'd be better off leaving his hometown behind.

"That sent a lot of people over. It's probably what sent me over," he said. "It seemed like nothing would ever stop, just one thing after another."

His mother and stepfather, Jeanette and Jack Steele, had planned on moving to Florida after Sommer graduated from high school, but why wait when the warm climate would allow their son to play baseball year-round? They made their decision, and three months later, the family had moved to New Port Richey.

"He's really a very strong person," his mother said. "I think if we would have stayed in Littleton, he would have been fine. We would have made it through it. But sometimes you feel in your heart like you have move on, and this has brought out the best part of Brian."

* * *

For a 15-year-old seeking a fresh start, Mitchell High was perfect. Everyone on campus would be a new kid, and Sommer flew down to visit the new campus, hitting it off with Mustangs baseball coach Phil Bell.

"It's probably the best thing I've ever done, moving here," said Sommer. His parents said they saw an immediate difference in him as he developed friendships at his new school, becoming more outgoing and more involved in school activities.

"I love that school. It's an awesome school," Jeanette Steele said. "I love the teachers, I love what they've done for Brian. It's neat to have a kid say 'I really love high school.' Most of the time, they just want to get out."

He can tell you there are 18 days of school remaining, but he's enjoying his senior year too much to count them down as most students do. As the starting catcher and captain of Mitchell's varsity baseball team, the county's most improved squad for the second year in a row, he has a new reason to wear a ball cap with pride.

"This is the best year of baseball I've ever had, and the reason is the people I play with," said Sommer, who took the bold step of switching from the outfield to catching, even though he'd never played the position. "I'd rather play ball with these 15 guys than any 15 in the world."

Bell can appreciate the changes in Sommer over three years, from a 210-pound sophomore who had put on weight after a skiing injury to a trim 170-pound senior. He's also seen him go from an understandably shy newcomer to an outspoken clubhouse leader and a driving force in Mitchell's emergence in the past two years.

"This is not only the nicest young man you'll ever meet, but the hardest working kid, too," Coach Bell said. "Whether he stays with orthopedic medicine, as he wants to do, or whether he owns a construction company, he's going to be great at whatever he decides to do."

Before the season, Sommer accepted a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Tampa, a perennial Division II powerhouse. He has helped hold a young Mitchell team together after two key players were dismissed early in the season, and next week he'll lead the Mustangs in pursuit of their first playoff berth.

His high school experience might have started in the wake of a student's worst nightmare, but it's finishing exactly the way he once dreamed it would.

"This is what high school is supposed to be like," said Sommer, who still visits friends and relatives in Littleton several times a year. "A lot of kids might take it for granted, but I appreciate it, especially just school life and everything that goes on with that. I like it here, and it's felt like home since the first year I got here."

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