With the 2018 high school football season getting under way, if there was ever a team in South Florida that really needs to get out on the field it would be the Eagles of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
After the horrific events of Feb. 14 that claimed 17 lives including that of assistant coach Aaron Feis and athletic director Chris Hixon, to say Eagles football players and head coach Willis “Peanut” May have been through the ringer would be putting it mildly.
Spring practice last May helped the healing process. But Douglas players agreed on one thing: a need to get out on the field and simply start playing football.
“I’m sure everyone can understand we had some anger and emotions built up, so being on that field and being able to let that out, especially around your friends and your family, it means everything to us,” Douglas offensive lineman Gage Gaynor said. “This upcoming year is huge for us. That number 17 means everything to us. We want to make them proud. We know somehow they’re watching us and we know they’re with us. They were at every game when they were at the school, and we know they’re still going to be with us at every game. That support really helps motivate us to do better every day.”
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Gaynor and the Eagles traveled to Daytona Beach to play a Kickoff Classic and will take a road trip to Georgia to square off against St. Matthews in their regular-season opener.
But Sept. 7 will be a significant date because that’s when Douglas will have its home opener.
And could there be a more appropriate opponent than South Broward? That’s where Hixon spent many years as the athletic director and wrestling coach and where his widow, Debbie Hixon, still works as the school’s magnet coordinator.
“It’s just more important than anything else right now,” said May. “We’re worried about making a good team and having a good season, preparing for the whole year. We walk past that 1200 building almost every day and I’m sure they think about the past, but we’ve got a big future in a short period of time here that we’ve got to be prepared for so we’ve got work to do.”
And while he knows there is now football to be played in between the lines, May acknowledged that there will be delicate balance between that and honoring the memories of the fallen.
“We’ll never forget the 17,” said May. “There’s nothing we can do to change that. ... We’re not going to lay down and quit. We’re not a bunch of hurt little Eagles. We’re going to need to come out and fight every Friday night and need to give everybody a game and do the best we can because that’s what Feis and Hixon and the other 15 would expect out of us and want us to do.”
According to May, the symbolic tributes to the 17 will “be all over the place” this season. The Eagles will wear the number on both sides of their helmet as well as on their jerseys. The number 73 will also be on there as a tribute to Feis’ number he wore when he played at Douglas. A “CH” will also be on the back of their helmets recognizing Hixon.
“We know how big it is on our shoulders and how it could weigh us down but we instead have chosen to take it through a positive route and really use it to motivate us and push us to a better season,” said Gaynor who, despite only going into his junior year already has interest from schools including Louisville and Marshall. “Want to take it one step at a time and win every game we can but making the playoffs would be the ultimate goal.”
Indeed as the playoffs are a place the Douglas program has not been since 2007.
“That would be it without a doubt,” said May when asked about his goal this season. “We’ve had some good teams in recent years and been knocking on the door so nothing short of the playoffs, a place we haven’t been in a long time is clearly the goal.”