There’s been a handful of moments over the past three months when Willis May hasn’t been able to hold back the tears, when the pain and sadness over what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day has overwhelmed the veteran football coach.
The day his players served as pallbearers at the funeral of assistant coach Aaron Feis might have been the hardest, May said. Seeing Feis' young daughter, Arielle, at the funeral tore his heart out. Seeing the young son of athletic director Chris Hixon cry out at his father's funeral did the same.
Thursday night’s spring football game against North Miami Beach – Douglas’ first game since 14 students and three teachers were murdered in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history – didn’t evoke that kind of emotion for May or the 56 Eagles players who suited up.
It simply reminded them yet again of what was lost and what May calls “the new normal” at Douglas.
“It was rough to be honest with you,” May said of coaching his first game since Feis and Hixon died trying to protect students from the bullets unleashed by a 19-year-old troubled former student armed with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle.
"I can't speak for the kids, but for me, I missed Aaron," he continued. “So many things that Aaron did -- little things that I always didn't think about and I really thought about tonight a couple times. We’d come to the bench after the national anthem and Aaron was always sitting there giving me my headset. He would hand me and everybody who needed a roster a roster. At the end of the half he was always standing there taking my headset from me. He's always got the tee.
“I missed seeing Chris. He was always running around on a golf cart. Win or lose, he always had a word of confidence to say to me and then he would go back to work picking up the pylons. It's just damn -- you miss those guys. It's never going to be the same.”
There was plenty different since Douglas' final regular season game last November. For starters, a little more than a half dozen police officers strapped with guns and bullet proof vests watched the game from different vantage points within the school’s small stadium while more cops stood at the schools' gates checking cars as they entered the school parking lot.
As Douglas’ players entered the field for pregame warmups and touched the Eagles’ statue as is tradition, a makeshift memorial for Feis with his signature white towel, retired No. 73 jersey and a photo were attached to the statue.
Before the game (NMB rallied in the fourth quarter with a pair of late touchdowns to beat the Eagles 24-12), there was a moment of silence – exactly 17 seconds long – to remember the 17 who died and the other 17 who were wounded but survived in the shooting.
Referee Phil Serfass and the other four members of the Broward County Football Officials Association who officiated Thursday’s game wore caps with the number 17 and a red ribbon embroidered on them.
The coin used for the pre-game coin flip was one specially made for Thursday's game with Stoneman Douglas' school logo on one side and the names of the 17 killed on the other along with the words #NeverAgain - March For Our Lives.
The Eagles on Thursday played with plain white helmets. During the regular season that will change. To honor the 17 victims who were killed in the shooting and the 17 who were injured, May said, the football team will wear a decal with the number 17 on one side of its helmet and an Eagle on the other.
To honor Feis in the regular season, the team will have the offensive lineman that has the best week of practice wear No. 73 (Feis’ old jersey number) on game days. On Senior Night, May said, Feis' jersey will be retired and never worn again.
A sticker with the No. 73 will also be adorned on the back of players’ helmets. The team already went through spring practice with posters hung up in the weight room and on the practice field with a photo of Feis.
“Every time we get to work they rub his belly,” May said of his players, who rub Feis' belly in the photo. “All of our team warmup shirts have Feis Up on it. It’s our motto for the year and an acronym. Do what he would want us to do – play fearless with emotion, intensity and sacrifice for the betterment of the team. Just play as hard as we can and make him and all the other ones proud.”
Feis’ younger brother and sister, who have always attended games at Douglas, were at Thursday’s exhibition.
Johanna Feis, 23, said being at Thursday’s game was “very bittersweet.”
“It’s good to be out here, but I wish it was different,” said Feis, who is listed as a stat coordinator on Douglas’ team roster. “But it’s good to be able to be out here to keep the traditions alive and keep his legacy going especially with the players. We’re all hurting the same.
“My brother was here working for 18 years of his life and prior to that he was here for four years of life. This school was a second home and these were his kids. That’s why he did what he did. He protected his kids.”
Patrick Scullen, a 6-4, 330-pound junior offensive tackle, played for Feis for three years and was a pallbearer at his funeral. Scullen said there aren’t many days that go by that he doesn’t think about Feis.
“Honestly he was just a guy who brightened up the room,” Scullen said. “He’d walk into the room and was just happy. Out here on the field when it came to getting work in he was a great coach. I learned a lot from him. I worked with him every single day at practice. We’d go out and go on the boards and do o-line drills every single day.
“For him not to be here anymore is just insane. It’s your coach. It’s basically family to you. You know that person like its bread and butter. Once they’re gone, that stuff really hits you.”