Facing Tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Fla.)

PARKLAND, FL – FEBRUARY 23: Ariana Gonzalez is over come with emotion as she visits a cross setup for her friend, football coach Aaron Feis, at the memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as teachers and staff are allowed to return to the school for the first time since the mass shooting on campus on February 23, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Police arrested 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz for killing 17 people at the high school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor

A school shooting on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High (Fla.) campus left 17 people dead, and changed everything for Eagles coach Willis May Jr.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High (Fla.) football coach Willis May Jr. is keeping track of the times he cries his eyes out.

Not just the times he sheds a tear while thinking of a former colleague. He’s counting the times he starts sobbing uncontrollably with a feeling that it’s never going to stop.

“It helps to see each other cry,” May said. “We’re all on the same page. It’s OK for us to see each other have a hard day.”

May’s count of sobbing episodes is up to four, and there’s no telling how many more are in store. He sobbed on Feb. 14 when he finally got home after a school shooting that left 17 people dead on his school’s campus. He sobbed again when he saw the 8-year-old daughter of his assistant coach, Aaron Feis, who died in the shooting while protecting students. The emotions spilled out of May for a third time when he saw the 19-year-old son of his athletic director, Chris Hixon, who also died in the shooting. And finally, he lost it for the fourth time when he saw his offensive linemen serving as pallbearers and carrying the casket of Feis at the coach’s funeral.

“What 16- or 17-year-old kid should have to carry their coach?” May said. “You just don’t do that. It was hard. It hurts every day.”

The healing process for May and the Parkland, Fla. community does not come in the form of a straight line. Some days are better than others; there are setbacks and breakthroughs. Sometimes events and activities that are meant to serve as distractions instead offer painful reminders of the school shooting.

One example came at a recent recruiting trip, organized by May, to Florida Atlantic University. May took 14 student-athletes to a football clinic at FAU to watch the team practice. As they were taking a tour of the athletic complex, a maintenance worker started hammering a nail into a wall.

“My kids were hitting the damn ground,” May said. “That’s our new norm. We have to deal with that.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, May needed to focus on caring for himself. He soaked in the love of his wife, Melissa, and three sons, Jordan, Corey and Jared, before considering his place as the leader of a community that had just been rocked by tragedy. With so many people grieving and the sport of football seeming insignificant in the grand scheme, May could have been forgiven if he scrapped the spring training season and focused on what seemed to be more pressing needs for the players. Instead, he used football to bring the community closer.

“That’s our family; that’s the only thing we’ve got,” May said. “My kids feel like that too, so I’m grateful. We try to make the kids feel wanted and cared for. Yes, I find us hugging more now. We tell the kids we love them more. We’ve got to have each other’s backs, but we can also coach them hard.”

Coach May recently took his players for a training run around the Douglas campus, stopping in the 1200 building – the site of the school shooting. There, he gave players an opportunity to share their thoughts and emotions. The players found the session therapeutic and learned they were all on the same page when it came to managing their grief.

“We need to heal physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” May said. “It’s not a normal year where you’re just trying to improve physically. We have to worry about improving our minds and attitudes. Are we working to make those 17 angels proud? Lying down and quitting is not what they’d be doing.”

Quitting doesn’t appear to have been a word in Feis’ vocabulary. He died trying to protect the students that he served in his role as a Douglas staff member and football coach. He often welcomed college recruiters into the building and led them to Coach May’s office for discussions on players. The day of the shooting, he was supposed to welcome a coach from Nichols College, but instead found himself in the 1200 Building at the time of the “Code Red”.

A Douglas alumnus, Feis played center for Douglas from 1995 to 1998, and returned to the school as a coach in 2002. He is mourned by his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Ariel.

Feis’ desk was right next to the desk of May in the football office.

“We have to get through this together,” May said. “We’re better off if we do it together. We want to go from tragedy to triumph. We want ESPN to come in here and do a story about how we worked harder than ever to get what we wanted to achieve out of life. We won’t let one kid ruin the rest of our lives. These guys are bonded together closer than ever.”


Outreach to the Students of Parkland

The Parkland community has been on the receiving end of many empathetic acts since the tragedy on Feb. 14.

In early March, Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a Miami native and Hialeah Senior High alumnus, donated $10,000 to the Stoneman Douglas High football team to create a scholarship fund honoring Feis. The Miami Dolphins also hosted a youth football clinic with the school in March.

At the NFL Draft in April, Stoneman Douglas had a prominent presence with the Dolphins. Along with 18 graduating seniors from the Stoneman Douglas football team, the family of Feis announced the Dolphins’ draft picks during Rounds 4-7 on April 28.

Douglas High quarterback Tyler Goodman committed to play football a small Massachusetts Division III school, Nichols College, because of the bond he formed with a coach and an administrator from the college during the shooting.

Nichols College recruiter Paul Brower and football assistant, St. Clair Ryan, were meeting with Douglas coach Willis May Jr. and four Douglas seniors on Feb. 14 when the call for a “Code Red” came through over the school’s audio system. They learned through social media that their beloved Coach Feis had been shot.

Do you have a thought about this article that you would like to share? If you do, email managing editor Dan Guttenplan at dguttenplan@ae-engine.com. Tweet us @fnfcoaches.