Five people entered the car. The drive on the morning of Oct. 6, which began from UNLV’s campus, was a short one, less than 10 minutes from start to destination.
The scenery looked familiar. They drove by the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Their route took them on Las Vegas Boulevard, the street best known in the city as The Strip. They then approached the grand golden building. As Rick Strasser drove to the Mandalay Bay hotel, he and the four student-athletes in the car tilted their heads upward. They could see the broken windows in rooms 32-134 and 32-135, one of the most striking images from the mass shooting on Oct. 1, the largest single-day tragedy in US history.
Strasser, the FCA Director in southern Nevada, doesn’t remember what was said in the car between him and student-athletes from the UNLV Campus Huddle he advises. But when the group arrived at the hotel, Strasser knew several conversations from earlier in the week — from honest discussions to prayers and to vigils — led him and the student-athletes to the hotel.
“Right across the street, it was still all taped off and the FBI (was) there,” Strasser said of the 58 people who died and the more than 500 others who were injured during a concert. “It was still a major crime scene. Just walking through the parking garage to the front desk, (we were) pretty subdued.”
Strasser woke up around 3 a.m. on Oct. 2 when his phone began to buzz. He soon learned an 18-year-old woman he once coached on one of his daughter’s soccer teams was at the concert. She was injured by being shot in the back. His wife, Heather, a nurse for Clark County School District, was called to help.
On UNLV’s campus, Darren Woods Jr. was enjoying the weekend with his entire immediate family when he learned of the shooting. Woods, a sophomore receiver on UNLV football team, had friends who were at the concert, including a woman who was injured.
The next 48 hours for Strasser and Woods, along with everyone else in the city, became a whirlwind. They attended the FCA-led prayer vigil on campus where hundreds of student-athletes circled together to ask God to save and heal the concertgoers. The school also held a candlelight vigil for students. The weekly Campus Huddle on Oct. 3 was an emotional one.
“The mood on campus was somber,” Woods said. “It was still fresh on everybody’s mind. Being able to kind of decompress and find answers through the Word was just real comforting.”
Strasser helped the student-athletes talk through their emotions. Some in the group felt guilt. They declined to attend the concert and felt they should have been there to help. Others felt anger and sadness. Their questions to Strasser were reasonable.
“Some had the, ‘Where was God?’ question,” said Strasser, who has been on staff with FCA since June 2008. “God wasn’t absent. He cried right along with us, but God has blessed us with free will and with that free will came evil. How do you explain evil? Sometimes you just can’t, but you can take comfort in knowing that God is there with us through all circumstances.”
Soon, the discussion pivoted on one question: What could the Huddle do for the community?
UNLV’s Huddle held a prayer vigil after the shooting. Hundreds of student-athletes attended.
As a group, the Huddle thought of all the people in need. Thousands of people had already given blood for those injured in the hospital. Victims’ families and first responders to the shooting received the most attention from those in the city.
Heather Strasser then suggested the staff at the Mandalay Bay hotel, perhaps one of the most forgotten groups in the aftermath of the tragedy. She mentioned how other nurses were called to the hotel to provide support to employees who were struggling with their own set of questions — Did the shooter walk by me? Did I miss something, a clue that could have prevented the shooting? Could anything have been done?
“All the media coverage made it look like the Mandala Bay hotel was the ground zero, almost putting a bad name on the hotel,” Woods said. “We know they have so many workers. They’re going through something, too. Yes, we understand that the story may be on the first responders and citizens. But you’re still looked at in God’s eyes as equal and we’re keeping you in our prayers.”
Together, more than 20 student-athletes wrote encouraging, biblically-based letters to anonymous Mandalay Bay employees. Some of the student-athletes wrote their letters on their knees after prayer to God to find the correct words to use to convey their love and support.
Woods wrote five letters. He referenced Bible verses such as Psalms 46:1, Nehemiah 8:10, 1 Chronicles 16:11 and Psalm 34:11. He wrote how God would comfort them in their time of difficulty.
When the letters were finished, Strasser read each one to ensure it was fitting. The student-athletes put their letters inside small red bags. They sealed each bag with a sticker that read: WE CARE, #VegasStrong, Matthew 11:28.
“Every single one of them touched me in a different way to be put into each one of those bags,” Rick Strasser said of the letters. “It came from their heart. To see the genuineness and the concern and the love, it was really special.”
Three players on UNLV women’s soccer team — Sophie Cortes, Amanda Galbraith and Jordan Sallee — joined Strasser and Woods to deliver 40 letters to a Mandala Bay human resources official.
The bags which held more than 20 letters from UNLV student-athletes for Mandalay Bay employees.
Strasser wanted the human resources department to discern and decide which of the around 7,000 employees should receive a letter. He thought the meeting and exchange with the official would take a few minutes. Instead, once the news of the group’s arrival became known, about 40 hotel staff members, including the entire human resources department and executive staff, came to the lobby to thank Strasser and the student-athletes.
“You have no idea what this means to us for you to be able to show some compassion and love for our employees,” Strasser recalled Chuck Bowling, the president of Mandalay Bay, saying to the group.
During the exchange, hotel staff members hugged the student-athletes. They shared stories with one another. They also took photos together with Bowling in the middle between Sallee and Woods. For a few minutes, everyone could smile.
“We were amazed and shocked that many people were there to receive this,” Strasser said. “It felt like kind of a small gesture for the overall issue that they were all dealing with. What they appreciated was the effort, the sentiment. It impacted the athletes as much as it did those they were trying to bless.”
When the group left the hotel, Strasser could sense the student-athletes’ humility and their love for the Mandalay Bay staff.
“The main message that Rick was saying was it should be like this all the time,” Woods said. “Everybody should show love and support, through the good and the bad. That was a huge, huge part that stuck with me.”
The next day, a notification from Instagram buzzed on Woods’ phone. A hotel employee named Zach posted one of Woods’ letters on his Instagram account to say thank you.
“I wish you nothing but success throughout your career,” Zach wrote back to Woods. “You have definitely gained a fan and I will be sure to look out for you this season! Continue to be the great person you are and nothing but blessings will come your way!”
UNLV student-athletes Sophie Cortes, Amanda Galbraith, Jordan Sallee and Darren Woods Jr. took a photo with Chuck Bowling, the president of Mandalay Bay, and other staff members of the hotel after delivering their We Care bags.
Photos courtesy of Rick Strasser.