ORLANDO, Fla. — It was just after 2 a.m. on June 12, and Rodney Sumter was face-down on the floor behind the bar at a packed nightclub, talking to God over the din of assault rifle rounds and thumping dance music.
A few moments earlier, Sumter, a bartender at Pulse, a gay bar near downtown, had been shot three times by an unknown assailant as he started closing up for the night. As the situation unfolded and chaos descended on the club, Sumter had no idea he was a victim in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, but in that instant, context was irrelevant. He knew his situation was dire.
The first bullet from the gunman’€™s Sig Sauer MCX rifle had shattered Sumter’€™s right arm. The second ripped through his left arm, just above the elbow, exposing muscle and bone. The third, a direct hit, pierced his upper back, just below a tattoo of two angels, one for each of his kids.
That final shot left a bloody and terror-stricken Sumter gasping for air, and as he reconciled the fact that what remaining breaths he had might be his last, he turned to the heavens to say goodbye.
“€œThe Bible says to train up your child in the manner in which you want them to go,”€ Sumter’€™s mother, Lenita Sumter, said. “€œSo I tried to train him — ‘€˜Look, if you’€™re at your last moment, your last breath, don’€™t spend it swearing and saying all kinds of crazy things.’€™ You want to definitely connect with God. You want to let God know that you love him and you care no matter what.
“€œSo I was so humbled and so excited to know that in what he thought were his last moments, he began to pray.”
Growing up, Rodney Sumter was always the fastest kid on the field.
An Army brat born in Jacksonville, Fla., Sumter spent his early childhood living in Germany and then in El Paso, Texas. In Germany, Sumter would try to keep up with his mother, a former South Carolina State track athlete, when she went out to train each day. And in Texas, where football is undoubtedly king, he got his first taste of the sport, playing in the front yard with his father, Rodney Sr.
“€œWe€’d toss the ball around, do a little light tackling, and I remember after we would finish playing, he’€™d be like, ‘€˜This grass is itching,’€™ and my wife would say, ‘€˜It’€™s going to give him allergies, maybe you don’€™t want to play with him on the grass,”€ the elder Sumter recalled with a laugh recently. “€œBut I was like, ‘€˜Oh, no, no, no, he’™s going to have to toughen up.”€
By the time Sumter was 8, his family had settled once again in Jacksonville, where Sumter became something of a prodigy on the Pop Warner circuit. Sumter initially played running back, and after taking a few lumps early on, he learned a valuable lesson: He was more effective running around defenders than through them.
“€œI remember the first day of practice, Rodney went up the middle not knowing how to maneuver because he’€™d never played organized football,”€ Rodney Sr. said. “€œSo he’™d go up the middle and get hit. Then the coach kept running it back and he kept getting hit, and on the way home that night, he looked at me like, ‘€˜Dad, I don’€™t want to play this game anymore.’
“€œBut I told him, ‘€˜Son, if you quit this, it’€™ll become a trend of you quitting things in the future, so you’€™ve got to stick it out, and if you don’€™t like it at the end of the season, then you can give it up,” Sumter continued. “€œWell, we go back to practice the next day, coach sends Rodney up the middle again, but what he did was he immediately stopped in the hole and darted to the outside.”
As he grew older, Sumter made the shift to wide receiver, but had few opportunities to stand out as a freshman at Sandalwood or during his sophomore and junior seasons at Fletcher, programs that emphasized the running game. As a senior, however, he joined the team at Nease in Ponte Vedra Beach, where he was paired with one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, Tim Tebow.
“€œWhen he got the opportunity to go to Nease and play with Tim, I just knew he was really, really going to shine,”€ Rodney Sr. said. “€œIn order to be a standout receiver, you need somebody to throw the ball to you, so we were really excited about him having that opportunity and having somebody that could get the ball down the field.”
Unfortunately for Sumter, there was one hiccup that he didn’t anticipate when it came to playing with Tebow.
The team’€™s receiving corps was mostly solidified when Sumter arrived, with future FBS wideouts Ryan Ellis and Austin Silvoy already leading the unit. The only available starting job for Sumter in coach Craig Howard’€™s four-receiver system was as the team’€™s Z-receiver, where the left-handed and somewhat erratic Tebow would have to throw across his body to find him.
“€œHe would catch all kinds of wobbly balls, good balls and bad balls — he caught balls that were uncatchable,”€ Lenita Sumter said of her son’€™s senior season. “€œHe would go up in between two and three defenders, but the credit was kind of given to, ‘€˜OK, well that’€™s a great quarterback that did that.’€™ So to be that great of an athlete and just not have the opportunities was really eating away at me.”
Still, Sumter benefited from all the attention Tebow received from scouts, and originally he received an offer to play at Georgia Tech, where Buddy Geis, the father of his former head coach at Sandalwood, was on the coaching staff. After that fell through, Sumter spoke with several local schools, including UCF, FIU and FAU, about enrolling as a preferred walk-on.
In the end, however, Sumter landed at South Carolina State, his parents’€™ alma mater, where he earned scholarships in football and track in 2006. As a freshman, Sumter competed on the track — he finished ninth in the triple jump at the MEAC indoor championships in 2007 — but he redshirted in football and eventually returned to Jacksonville in 2007 before playing a snap for the Bulldogs.
Homesickness had gotten the best of Sumter, a self-proclaimed “€œFlorida guy,”€ and he wanted to be close to his newborn daughter Jada, now 10.
“€œThe relationship he had with his daughter’€™s mother, he wanted to marry her, but of course he wanted things in order: finish college, then have your life together,”€ Lenita Sumter said. “€œBut it was disheartening that her mother and her had a relationship —€” it wasn’€™t the best of relationships, and he wanted to come back home so that he could make sure everybody was OK.
“€œAsk anybody that knows Rodney,”€ she added. “€œHe’€™s just really a loving person.”
The move paid off, and over the next three seasons, Sumter emerged as a key deep threat for Jacksonville, hauling in 49 total catches for 839 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a senior, he led the team with a 19.8 yards-per-catch average as the Dolphins went 10-1 and led the FCS in total offense and scoring.
However, the season ended in disappointment, as the team failed to receive an at-large bid to compete in the FCS playoffs.
“€œIt was even harder for me than for him,”€ Lenita Sumter said of her son’€™s gridiron swan song. “€œI hated when the last game hit.”
At the time, Sumter held out hope that the pros might come calling, but while Jacksonville held a pro day the following spring, Sumter didn’€™t end up getting any bites from NFL teams.
“€œEveryone that knew Rodney would have bet everything that they had that he was going to the NFL,”€ Lenita Sumter said. “€œEven some of the players from the Jaguars were really hoping that (they) would pick him up. But just because JU was a smaller team, people did not take any of their players seriously. Even though he was running 4.3s and 4.4s, he was overlooked.
“€œThe science seems to be to choose the top players from the top teams, and everybody else falls by the wayside,”€ she continued. “€œIt’s unfortunate because they missed a really good athlete.”
Sumter was later approached about playing in the arena league or the CFL, and even took part in a private workout with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Daytona Beach, but ultimately, he decided to focus his attention elsewhere.
Said Rodney Sr.: “€œAfter chasing that dream for a couple years, going to a couple different places, he realized it wasn’€™t going to work out.”
Plus, by that time Sumter, a whip-smart biology major who once envisioned a career as a pharmacist, had discovered another passion to pursue — bartending.
Once he’€™d finally decided to leave football behind, Sumter moved to Orlando looking for a fresh start.
His son, Rodney III, was born in the area in August 2011, and Sumter wanted to be there for him as he got older, just as his own father was for him. And as he planted roots in Orlando, Sumter also embarked on a career as both a model and a bartender, with both pursuits — and the effort that went into maintaining his physique for them — filling the competitive void in his life.
“€œHe looked at it like, ‘€˜How can I be the very best?’”€ Rodney Sr. said. “€œI remember he would walk around the house or be outside flipping bottles, and it almost became a juggling act. It was like, ‘€˜I’€™m good with my hands, I know I can catch, I’€™ve got good coordination, so I should be able to do this as well.’€™ That competitive spirit and wanting to make everything a sport, I think that’€™s how he took his occupation to the next level.”
Over the years, Sumter served at several clubs around Central Florida, and most recently worked as a bartender and dancer at Mango’€™s, a large, flamboyant, tropical-themed bar in the city’s tourist district. It was there that a friend encouraged him to take a second job at Pulse, a much more inconspicuous venue located between a Dunkin’™ Donuts and a car-detailing shop in a building that once housed an Italian restaurant, to earn some extra money on the side.
He accepted the offer in late May and was working just his third shift at Pulse the night of the massacre.
When the shooting started, Sumter was behind the bar, wrapping up for the night. He’€™d just served last call and was sifting through credit-card slips, entering tips into the computer when he heard what sounded like firecrackers.
€”You don’€™t know if it’€™s gunshots or a speaker broken or something, but the music was super loud, so for it to overpower the music, these are tough bullets,”€ Sumter, 27, told FOX Sports last week. “€œAnd as they kept ringing, that’€™s when you realize, ‘€˜OK, this is a serious situation.’€™ Usually when somebody does something stupid like shoots a gun, it’€™s a couple shots and they run. But this continued, and for it to continue, everybody was really, really frightened.”
As soon as he realized what was going on, Sumter ducked behind the bar, where he was met by his barback and a few scared customers. For approximately five minutes, Sumter listened as the shooter calmly made his way through the dance floor. The shooting stopped momentarily as the gunman peeked behind the bar, but the second he saw bodies, Sumter said, he began pulling the trigger once again.
“€œThe first and only thing I noticed, originally, was my arm moving forward, and it looked like a loose rubber band,”€ Sumter said, motioning to his right arm. “€œHe shot it, and I remember it flying past my face, and then the next thing I know, I couldn’€™t breathe.
“€œIt felt like an out-of-body experience,”€ he added. “€œI was looking at it but it didn’€™t hurt. It was almost like, ‘€˜Is that my arm?’€™ And I was able to keep quiet the entire time. I didn’€™t want to make a peep or a sound or a scream. I just wanted to make sure he didn’€™t continue, and by God’€™s grace and mercy, he stopped.”
Then, as he felt the life slowly draining from his body, breath by shortened breath, Sumter recalled his mother’€™s advice.
“€œI just had a conversation with God and told him to watch over my kids and my family,”€ Sumter said. “€œI asked him to forgive me of all sins and make sure my people are OK. And then as I was talking with God, I felt like I was restored with a new life. I literally felt like I was taking my last breath, and after that I was rejuvenated.”
Still, Sumter feared the worst. The shooter had moved on, but was still unloading clips at a rapid pace. What if he returned to that area? What if Sumter bled out before EMTs could enter the club? But then suddenly, a fellow stowaway behind the bar made what Sumter described as a “€œmake-or-break”€ run for the door.
Sumter felt he had no choice but to follow for as long as his body would allow.
“€œWhen people ask me, ‘€˜How did you pick yourself up?’€™ I have no idea,”€ Sumter said. “€œI don’€™t know how I got up because (my right) arm, literally, was about to fall off. He literally blew my elbow off. And (my left) elbow wasn’€™t in any good shape either.
“€œI’€™m blessed that I don’€™t have any visual trauma, because I didn’€™t see much,”€ Sumter added of his sprint for the parking lot. “€œWhen I got up and started running, it was tunnel vision. I just wanted to get out of there. I don’€™t know how many bodies were lying on the floor, I couldn’€™t hear screaming, so I didn’t know if anyone was dead near me, around me. I just wanted to get out.”
Once outside, Sumter knew he’€™d escaped the chaos, but his nightmare was just beginning.
“€œAs I ran out, none of (the police) helped me,”€ Sumter said. “€œAll of them were so focused on what was going on inside the club, and I just continued running. … No ambulances came for a while, and while I’€™m waiting for an ambulance, I’€™m screaming at the police, like, ‘€˜Hey, can somebody take me to the hospital? I’€™ve been shot.’ “
Eventually, Sumter was stopped by Josh McGill, a Pulse customer who’d escaped the club unhurt. McGill immediately removed his shirt and tied it around Sumter’€™s arm to stanch the bleeding, then remained by his side, calming Sumter until police began transporting victims in their squad cars. McGill then rode with Sumter to the hospital, about a half-mile up Orange Avenue.
“€œWhen I was in the hospital, I felt safe, and I felt God kept me here for a purpose,”€ Sumter said. “€œI think I stopped worrying about dying after I got out of that cop car.
“€œI felt like I couldn’€™t breathe when I was in the car,”€ Sumter continued of his interaction with McGill, who could not be reached for this story. “€œI felt very uncomfortable, trying to lay down, sit up, lay down, sit up, and somebody’€™s talking to me and I’m kind of losing consciousness. But once I got to the hospital, even though I was very uncomfortable, at that point in time I knew I was OK.”
It wasn’€™t until Sumter was admitted and placed in an ER bed that the pain first began to sink in.
“€œWhen you’€™re sitting in a room and you realize, ‘€˜’I’€™ve got a hole in my back that I can’€™t lay on, I’€™ve got two arms that I can’€™t prop up on. So what am I supposed to do?’€™ that’€™s when it started hurting,”€ Sumter said.
There was also immense emotional pain that came with watching the number of patients and the death toll rise. When Sumter escaped the club, he was unaware of the extent of the carnage he’d left behind, but it became clear soon after he was admitted.
“€œYou could see it on the nurses’€™ and the doctors’€™ and the police officers’€™ faces how bad it was,”€ Sumter said of the scene in the hospital as the death toll down the street rose to 49 and those wounded to 53. “€œFrom the stats, I was told only nine people died in the hospital, but you could see that it was definitely a massacre.
“€œOnce I was in that room, all I could do was just hear people screaming, see people running past my door,”€ Sumter continued. “€œAside from that, I didn’€™t see anything else. But you could hear it. There were doctors walking past in tears. There were police officers walking past in tears. So many people were hurt by people they didn’€™t even know. That’s how you knew it was that serious.”
To make matters worse, Sumter was initially unable to contact his parents to tell them he was OK.
“€œNot only did they give us John Doe names, but they wouldn’€™t allow us to make phone calls, and that kind of scared me,”€ Sumter said. “€œI had two police (officers) standing at my door and they wouldn’€™t let me borrow their cell phones. Doctors wouldn’€™t let me use their phones. I was screaming for some pain medication, but they were kind of just leaving us in rooms because they kept getting cop cars and people being sent to the ER.”
Relief came in the form of a detective who entered the room to ask Sumter about what he’€™d seen.
“€œI told him, straight up, ‘€˜I need to speak to my parents,’”€ Sumter said. “€œHe was like, ‘€˜Well, they’€™re going to let you speak to your parents,’€™ but I was like, ‘€˜They told me no, and your two police officers out here told me no as well. I know you want me to answer questions for you, but I cannot say anything to you until you allow me to use your cell phone.’ “
The detective relented, dialing the number for Sumter’€™s mom and putting the call on speaker phone.
“€œAt 5-something in the morning, I get a call from a 321 number, and I said, ‘€˜Well, this is the area code in Orlando,’” Lenita Sumter said. “€œSo I’€™m going, ‘€˜Oh my God, what’s going on that someone’€™s calling me at 5 in the morning?’
“€œI picked up and there’€™s a gentleman on the phone, and he said he was a detective,”€ she continued. “€œI said, ‘€˜Oh my God, oh my God,’™ and he said, ‘€˜No, no, no, no, no, let me let you speak to him. I’€™ve got your son right here.’€™ Then he put my son on the phone and my heart was racing, but I felt better that he was speaking with me.
“€œThen he said, ‘€˜Mom, I’€™ve been shot.’ €œAnd I’€™m like, ‘€˜Shot? Who would shoot you?’”
At the time, Sumter’€™s parents had no idea their son had started a new job at Pulse and were completely unaware of the situation playing out two hours south, in Orlando.
“€œIt just floored me,”€ Sumter Sr. said of the news. “€œI was stunned, I was numb. I’€™m a pretty cool, calm guy, but I just lost it.”€
“€œI’€™ve never seen him break down like that, almost into a shell of a needy kid,”€ Lenita Sumter added of her husband. “€œSo I had to drive all of us there. And of course, I’€™m a prayer warrior, so I just began to pray and pray and pray — ‘€˜Please don’€™t let me get there to identify a body. Please let me see my son.”
The Sumters were finally able to see Rodney later that Sunday afternoon, although several long hours passed before they could gain access to his room.
“€œIt took a while to see him, but by letting him call me and letting me hear his voice, I was more calm than a lot of the other parents,”€ Lenita Sumter said of the wait. “€œBut it was a sad, sad time. There were so many people crying, and that’s when we were like, ‘€˜Oh my God, this is crazy. This is really something big.’”
When she finally did lay eyes on her son, Sumter was relieved, but surprised by his reaction to his parents’ arrival.
“€œIt was everything that I needed,”€ Lenita Sumter said. “€œBut he was in a dark room and he felt so much remorse. … ‘€˜Mom, I’€™m sorry. I’€™m sorry you had to go through this.’
“€œI kept telling him, ‘€˜What are you sorry for?’€™ and he said, ‘€˜So many people are dead, and I feel awful,”€ she continued. “€œHe was worried about the families, and he was worried about us worrying. He was so worried, but I told him, ‘€˜You just need to get better. You need to calm down.’”
From there, another 16 days and five surgeries passed before Sumter could return home, but during his stay in the hospital, Sumter drew regular inspiration from the thousands of messages of support he received and the countless visitors who comforted him —€” many of whom were athletes, as well.
At one point, Sumter was visited by Orlando City soccer star Kaka and former major leaguer Johnny Damon, the latter of whom challenged him to a race. Another day, Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston, Florida State’s head coach and former quarterback, dropped by his room. But the most surprising visit of all came from his former high-school teammate Tebow, who cut short a vacation in the Bahamas to surprise Sumter in the hospital.
“€œHe was just trying to make sure he kept me comfortable,”€ Sumter said of Tebow. “€œHe didn’€™t want me talking about the situation. A lot of people would come into the room and be like, ‘€˜So what happened?’€™ but he knew that I didn’€™t want to talk about it. So he just kept smiling and we started talking about other things, just to lighten the mood. When you see him, it immediately just lightens the mood as it is. He’€™s a really great guy. It’€™s hard to explain. You can’€™t help but smile when you see him smiling all the time.”
Of course, none of that compared to the joy Sumter felt when he was finally able to see his kids — although he was concerned that exposing them to his condition might be revealing too much.
“€œMy daughter is 10 years old, so for her to see me, she’€™s a little more understanding, but my son being four years old, I’€™m not sure he knows what’€™s going on,”€ Sumter said, noting that his family waited a few days before finally bringing the kids to the hospital. “€œSo I was like, ‘€˜You guys, keep him in the family room.’€™ The family room in the hospital looked like a normal living room, and I would walk in there and somebody would kind of walk my IV behind me.”
And while Sumter was uneasy about how his kids would react, he ultimately found some levity in the way they handled the situation.
“€œI think it was simplified to my daughter, but my daughter is very, very smart,”€ Sumter said. “€œShe was at the hotel, and, she comes up to the (front desk) and goes, ‘€˜My dad was shot, can I have a cookie?’€™ The girl was like, ‘€˜Aw, what’€™s his name?’€™ She said, ‘€˜Rodney,’€™ and the girl actually knew me — this is how I found out the story — and she ended up giving her all the cookies she had.”
But even now, Sumter admits that nothing compares to the gift he received from his son exactly one week after the shooting took place.
“€œFather’€™s Day came around, he gave me some gifts, and all the gifts, I kind of held it in, but when I broke down is when I saw this one,”€ Sumter said, holding up a hand-written poster. “€œIt says, ‘€˜Happy Father’€™s Day. Daddy, you are as smart as Iron Man, as strong as Hulk, as fast as Superman, as brave as Batman. You are my favorite superhero.’
“€œHe’€™s 4, and for him to call me his favorite superhero, and for me to have survived that, man, I broke down in front of a lot of my friends. €œIt was awesome.”
Sumter’€™s first step toward normalcy came on June 28, when he was released from the hospital and allowed to return to his apartment. But simply being home was by no means a sign that his fight was over.
In fact, the five weeks since have been a constant reminder of just how much the attack on Pulse has changed him.
For starters, there’™s the physical aspect of Sumter’€™s recovery. Initially, doctors told Sumter a full recovery would take a minimum of six months, if he could make one at all.
As part of his treatment, he’€™s undergoing physical therapy three days a week — always a gym rat, Sumter says he wishes he could go twice a day, five days a week — and while the results have been encouraging thus far, the progress is slow, and often frustrating.
“€œAs you see, I’€™m struggling with this Chick-fil-A sauce over here,” Sumter said, holding a packet with his left hand as he opened the lid with his teeth. “œI’m so used to using my right hand for anything and everything — writing, playing football, bartending, flipping bottles. And it just hurts to know that I can’€™t even pick up a piece of paper without it slipping out of my hands.
“€œI can’€™t grip anything,” he continued, flexing his thumb and forefinger. “œI can barely ball a fist, I’€™m still working on getting my index finger to close, and (I can’€™t hold anything) between these two fingers.”
Never was that reality more harsh than when he tried to scoop a football up off the floor at rehab one day last week.
“€œI came into therapy early, and I saw the football, and I decided to go and grab it,” Sumter said. “€œBut I couldn’€™t grip it with my right hand. I kept trying, I kept trying, and my father was trying to encourage me, ‘€˜It’€™s OK, don’€™t worry about it, it’€™s going to come back.’ And then one of the other therapists, he came up to me — and I don’€™t normally work with this guy, so he didn’€™t know what the deal was — and he tried to give me a smaller football, and I couldn’€™t grip that either.
“€œI immediately broke down, because that was my life,” continued Sumter, who once boasted a 405-pound bench press and has lost 20 pounds since the shooting. “€œFootball was my life. Just like you see Odell Beckham doing one-handed catches in practice, that was me. I used to love catching with this hand, and for me to not even be able to grasp a football? It’€™s a tough pill to swallow, especially not knowing if I’€™ll ever get full function back.”
For the last several weeks, Sumter has also had assistance from his father, a former banker who took time off from his job as a sales manager to be with his son in Orlando.
“€œThe last thing he wants to do is ask for help,” Rodney Sr. said. “€œHe’€™ll give it several attempts. When he has his pants on and he’€™s trying to tie the joggers up, he’€™s trying to do it on his own. He’€™ll struggle and I’€™ll just watch him, and he’€™ll keep going, keep going, and finally he’s like, ‘€˜Dad, can you help me out?’€™ and you can see the frustration in his face. He’€™s very prideful. He doesn’€™t want to ask.”
There’€™s also been a learning curve for both father and son when it comes to getting his regimen of more than a half-dozen medications under control.
“€œIn the beginning, me not having a medical background, not understanding all the 20-letter words of the different medications he had to take, it was a challenge,” Rodney Sr. said. “€œHe had Gabapentin and he had Methocarbamol, all these different meds —€” take one tab every four hours, take two tabs every six. So it was a challenge.”€
Still, arguably the most challenging issue Sumter has faced have been the mental hurdles he’€™s had to overcome — the least of which is trying to feel safe when out in public.
“€œYou can’€™t go anywhere nowadays without looking over your shoulder,”€ Sumter said. “€œI mean, I was working (the night of the shooting). I wasn’€™t partying or getting into trouble. I was working, and somebody bombards our club and starts shooting up the place. Then you see in Paris, people bombard a concert, you see these other areas — where is it safe? You can’€™t even go watch a movie, you can’€™t go to a club, you can’€™t go to a mall.
“œIt just makes you super cautious,”€ continued Sumter, who said he’€™s considered purchasing a gun. “€œYou don’€™t know who that next person is walking next to you at the mall. You don’€™t know what they’€™re capable of, or what’€™s under their jacket. You don’€™t know if they have a bomb, you don’€™t know if they have a gun. So all I can do is keep my eyes open and my head on a swivel and pray to God that he’€™ll encamp his angels over me and protect me at all times.
“€œIt’€™s tough,”€ he added, “aœnd I’€™m not saying that I live in fear, but you should live with your eyes open.”
Perhaps the most telling sign of that struggle came on July 4, when Sumter had a breakdown in front of family at a rental condo outside Orlando.
“€œWhen the fireworks went off, he lost it and began to run,” Lenita Sumter said. “€œHe was in a house full of family members, but he began to run and plug his ears up, and it really sent him over the edge.
“€œIt was so sad to see him like that,”€ she continued. “€œHe just kept saying, ‘€˜Get my mom, get my mom,’€™ and when I came upstairs to see him they were trying to get ear plugs in his ears, and he was shaking back and forth. The fireworks went on and on and on, so I was just kind of massaging him and talking to him and letting him know that it’s OK because we’€™re right here.”
And while Sumter has been making great strides — at one point, he had difficulty watching movies or TV shows that included gunfire — it’™s been a slow build.
“€œIt’€™s something that you’€™ve got to naturally expect,” Lenita Sumter said. “€œHe seems to be getting better and better.”€
“€œIn terms of his will, his fight, I see that, but the jovial, joking Rodney? I haven’€™t seen that yet,” added Rodney Sr. “œAnd that’€™s OK. I’€™m OK with that. I expect that, just because of what he’€™s gone through and what he’€™s fighting. But he’s not the same Rodney right now.”
After all Sumter has been through, one could easily forgive him if he’€™s resentful about what happened, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of his recovery has been his ability to truly leave the past in the past.
Hard as it is to believe, Sumter says he harbors no anger toward the person who did this to him.
“€œI look back on it with confusion,” Sumter said of the incident. “€œAnd if I could say one thing to Omar Mateen I would say, ‘€˜Why?’™
“€œI don’t think Omar Mateen ever had a plan to escape,”€ he continued, repeating the gunman’€™s name. “€œIt was just, ‘€˜I’€™m going to do as much as I can until somebody gets me.’€™ So why? You have a family. You have a wife and kids, and you’€™re going to mess up their lives and other lives because you’€™re taking your own life in a hate crime? What’€™s the motive? I don’€™t understand that.”
It’€™s a lesson Sumter’€™s mom says has been ingrained in her son since childhood.
“€œThe battle is not his,” Lenita Sumter said. “€œIt wasn’€™t a battle that was against him, it wasn’€™t anything personal against him. It’€™s just evil, an evil thing that was in this person. So he has to recognize that, and from birth that’€™s what I’€™ve been teaching him.
“€œHe has to see it for what it is,” she continued. “€œYou made it out, keep it going, and don’€™t hold any anger, because you equate to this angry person if you begin to develop anger or if you hold grudges or if you hold some type of negativity.”
Sumter declined to answer when asked if he plans on someday returning to the scene of the attack, but he remains introspective about the lessons he’€™s learned in its aftermath.
“€œThere are times when I get frustrated, but I look at everything as having a purpose,”€ he said. “€œA lot of good has come out of this —€” a lot of support, me being able to really view life for what it is.”
For Sumter, that’€™s meant more time focusing on his faith, and on being a better father.
“€œThat stuff is rooted in him,”€ Rodney Sr. said. “€œHe comes from a good family, comes from a large family, comes from a strong faith background. Those things are in him, and I think now he realizes, ‘€˜Man, I took those things for granted.’
“€œAnd I think he wants to make a change,”€ he continued. “€œI think Rodney has a lot of tremendous impact on people and influence. Just for the sheer nature of who he is, people are attracted to him. I think he has an opportunity to use this tragedy for good, and I think he’s starting to realize that.”
For now, it’€™s unclear what the long-term future will hold for Sumter, who says he hopes to one day get back to bartending. But as he continues to piece his life back together, it’€™s clear he’€™s emerged from the most horrific ordeal imaginable better for having survived it.
“€œWe can’€™t dwell on what has happened,”€ Lenita Sumter said. “€œIt did happen, and we have to understand that some people didn’€™t wake up. Some people didn’€™t have the opportunity to get better.
“€œI keep instilling that in him, that he’€™s been given this second chance, and to not waste it,” she continued. “€œAnd that’€™s what he does —” he puts two feet down every day and he grinds, he grinds to get better and to make it worth it for him to be alive.”
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