Coach Aaron Feis was a big man with a big heart, and it was his selfless act of shielding students from a shooter on a rampage inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that saved lives on Valentine’s Day.
Feis, 37, died Wednesday from the bullet wounds he sustained while protecting teenagers from Nikolas Cruz, the expelled student who returned to his former school at dismissal time Wednesday with an AR-15 rifle and killed 17 people, police said.
Feis, an assistant football coach, security guard and 1999 graduate of the Parkland school who was devoted to his alma mater, “died a hero,” according to a tribute by the football team in a Twitter post about his death.
“When Aaron Feis died, when he was killed tragically, inhumanely, he did it protecting others,” said Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, whose two sons played for Feis. “You can guarantee that because that’s who Aaron Feis was.”
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Feis placed himself between the shooter and students when he was on the attack in the freshman building, also known as the 1200 building, and Feis pushed a female freshman out of the gunman’s line of sight, students told football coach Willis May.
“I was told by some students that they actually saw Coach Feis jumping in front of kids to get between them and the shooter. That’s when he got shot,” May said of the students’ account. “Some of my football players told me that the girl said Feis jumped in front of her.”
The chaos began at about 2:20 p.m. when smoke from Cruz’s rifle tripped the fire alarm. Students went into fire drill mode, as they had earlier in the day, but when a Code Red lockdown was announced on the intercom system, they rushed back into classrooms or tried to take cover.
“We heard gunshots and somebody got on the radio. I heard on the radio ‘Was that a firecracker?’ I heard Aaron say, ‘That was no firecracker,’ ” said May, repeating the last words he heard from Feis.
Junior Colton Haab, a member of the school’s Junior ROTC program who first thought the fire alarm was activated due to a culinary fire, was trying to help 70 or 80 people barricade inside a classroom in the 500 building. He said he saw Feis running toward the gunfire.
"He was on a golf cart,” Haab, 17, said. “He was flying trying to get there as fast as possible and then he ditched the golf cart and was on foot trying to get there to help people as fast as possible."
Athletic director Chris Hixon was also killed at the school. May said Hixon likely reacted to gunshots as Feis did, by going to the scene.
“When we have something go down — you know, a fight or a fire alarm goes off — those guys are all security,” May said. “They just jump on a golf cart and they go to the place, wherever it’s going on. They just went. I guess they went right in. That’s not surprising. That’s Aaron. I mean, Coach Hixon, too. That’s what they do. That’s what they did.”
Israel said he did not have details but that the descriptions of Feis’ fast and fearless response fit his character.
“I don’t know about the incident yet or what actually his performance was, but I know Aaron personally. I coached with him. My two boys played for him,” Israel said. “I don’t know when Aaron’s funeral is, I don’t know how many adults are going to go, but you’ll get 2,000 kids there. The kids in this community loved him. They adored him. He was a phenomenal man.”
Said May: “All my kids thought the world of him. All the graduates that played for us and even the students. They’d go on and on about how good he was to them and how he always had a smile for everybody. He was part of our family. The kids are heartbroken.”
May was talking with two college football coaches on a recruiting visit and players in his office when the shots rang out. He locked down his office and the gym and said that within 10 minutes Cruz was exiting the school with a crush of students, without a gun and wearing his maroon JROTC shirt.
“He walked by the window, by the basketball courts, and took the back toward the Sawgrass, toward the canal, and walked out West Lakes and kind of blended in with all the kids that were being evacuated,” said May, who was desperately trying to reach Feis and Hixon by phone. Then he got on his walkie-talkie, “I finally say, ‘He walked by my office’ and all of a sudden here comes 10 SWAT guys, and they want to know ‘Where’s he heading? Where’s the video? Where was the last place you saw him on the video?’ They were all over it. They did a really good job.”
May said he never had Cruz in a class, but the kid who called himself “Nikolas the Annihilator” on his Instagram account had a bad reputation at school and among coaches.
“He had a lot of family issues. He had a lot of trouble growing up,” May said. “I knew who he was just because a lot of our coaches have had problems with him as far as he’s been a troublemaker. He was a butthole to one of our coaches.”
Players told May about Feis getting hit and the carnage surrounding them.
“I had football players … stepping over bodies,” he said. “They had bodies in their classrooms. I had a football player who was with a girl who got shot in the thigh. He’s calling me, ‘Coach, I wrapped her leg up and she was bleeding.’ He might have saved her life.”
That player, Charlie Rothkopf, pleaded for prayers for Feis on Wednesday and tweeted a photo of the burly Feis in his black Eagles cap and shirt during a practice.
“Can everyone please take a second to pray for my coach today he took several bullets covering other students at Douglas,” Rothkopf tweeted.
But Feis might have died at the scene, May said, based on reports he received from Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies. May was with Feis’ wife, Melissa, and his brother, Ray, when they were informed of Feis’ death around midnight. Feis is also survived by a young daughter; he often brought her to practice where the players and coaches doted on her.
“She was always by his side,” recalled Aaron Gonzales, formerly receivers coach at Douglas. Feis helped coach the junior varsity team and varsity offensive linemen. “He was the kind of coach who liked to build up kids rather than tear them down. I don’t think I ever saw him get mad or yell at anybody. He had a dry sense of humor. He had a good laugh, a memorable laugh. That school was his whole life.
“When I heard that someone had jumped in front of bullets to protect kids, I instantly knew it was Feis.”
Feis was the first to volunteer to drive the team bus for a variety of sports, Gonzales said.
According to Feis’ Facebook page, he lived in Coral Springs and was a fan of Ronda Rousey and Tim Tebow, the TV show “Duck Dynasty” and the movie “Faith of Our Fathers.” Among his posts were a quote from Billy Graham, “A coach will impact more young people in a year than the average person does in a lifetime,” and tributes to the U.S. military and an advertisement for a “Concealed Carry Jacket” with a handgun poking out of a pocket.
Football players at Stoneman Douglas took to social media to express their condolences. Senior defensive lineman Will Pringle called Feis “the most selfless and caring man I met.
“I can’t imagine not seeing you each morning, or you taking me around school on your cart, or you calling me an asshole when I show up at your door to help [with] your Christmas tree,” Pringle wrote. “All the jokes you made, laughs we shared and all the times when you were the only [one] who still cared and only one who would stick up for me, none of that will be forgotten, you’re a true hero and I love you from the bottom of my heart.”
Senior quarterback Tyler Goodman changed his profile picture Thursday morning to one of Feis and said he will not be changing it until after he graduates.
“I should be driving into senior lot & seeing your smile as we speak,” he wrote.
As thousands congregated Thursday night for a candlelight vigil at Parkland’s Pine Trails Park to remember the lives of the 17 people killed in the mass shooting, the high school's football team clustered near the back of the pack.
An hour before the service began, coaches and players met at the park’s back fields and walked to the service together, joining the rest of their community in remembering those whose lives were taken too soon.
The team especially felt the pain of losing Feis, their selfless assistant coach who always found a way to put others ahead of himself.
On the football field and at practice, players said he was tame. He took a calm approach to teaching them how to correct what they did wrong.
Off the field, he found a way to keep things light. His dry sense of humor and respect for all was a constant.
"He didn't care who you were," said Gage Gaynor, a 16-year-old sophomore and offensive lineman on the team. "He just cared about finding the good in you."
George LePorte, the head coach of Stoneman Douglas' junior varsity football team, said he felt immense disbelief when he found out Feis died.
"He was just a jolly dude," LePorte said, his voice low. "He was always there for everybody, and it showed."
Hixon, formerly athletic director at South Broward High, was also a beloved mentor, May said.
“I was close to him,” May said. “When he likes you and trusts you, you become friends. We were to that point where we were being able to trust each other. We had each other’s back. He’s a good person. He’s good to people.”
Gonzales remembered how even after he left Stoneman Douglas and took a job at a rival school, Hixon was very kind to him.
I came back to watch a lacrosse game and he shook my hand, asked about my wife and let me in for free,” Gonzales said. “He said, ‘Once an Eagle, always an Eagle, come on in.’ ”