Sports

Football coach reported dead after shielding students from Florida gunman

An assistant football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High died after risking his life to protect students from the gunman who shot and killed at least 17 people in the south Florida school, according to a message posted on the team’s Twitter account.

Aaron Feis, who doubled as a school security guard, was shot after throwing himself in front of students as the gunman opened fire Wednesday afternoon, numerous news outlets reported.

Conflicting reports circulated Wednesday night as to whether Feis had survived the attack, which police say was carried out by Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student. But early Thursday morning, the school football team’s Twitter account said Feis had died of his injuries.

“He selflessly shielded students from the shooter when he was shot,” the statement read. “He died a hero and he will forever be in our hearts and memories.”

Feis, 37, leaves behind a wife and a young daughter.

As a youth, he played center for the Douglas Eagles football team from 1995 to 1998, according to his school bio page. After graduating, he returned to the school in 2002 to coach and has worked there ever since.

Willis May, the school’s head football coach, told the Sun Sentinel that Feis’s family had been notified of his death late Wednesday or early Thursday.

May said Feis was at the school on his walkie-talkie when the gunfire erupted. Someone on the other end asked him if the loud bangs were firecrackers.

“I heard Aaron say, ‘No, that is not firecrackers.’” May recalled. “That’s the last I heard of him.”

A code red was declared over the intercom. Students barricaded themselves inside classrooms as the gunman stalked through the building, smashing out windows and spraying gunfire, The Washington Post reported. Some students said they thought it was a fire drill, then scrambled when a guard told them to run outside. Others spent more than an hour hiding in closets.

Police said the suspect, Cruz, was a former student who had been expelled from the school for “disciplinary reasons.” He was captured after a manhunt. He was booked on 17 counts of premeditated murder, according to law enforcement records.

Once the attack ended, May said he spoke directly with a student who told him Feis “jumped between her and the shooter, to push her out through a door and out of the line of fire,” according to the Sun Sentinel.

Several Twitter users identifying themselves as Douglas students offered similar accounts, saying Feis was wounded while trying to protect people from the gunman’s shots. “Can everyone please take a second to pray for my coach today,” wrote Charlie Rothkopf in a widely circulated tweet that included a picture of the coach standing on the field. Rothkopf wrote that Feis was hit several times “covering other students at Douglas.”

Word of Feis’s death prompted an outpouring of tributes from current and former students, who described the longtime coach as a sort of older brother figure and hailed his actions as heroic.

“The Stoneman Douglas Community has lost the most loving & caring man in the universe,” tweeted Tyler Goodman of the varsity football team. “I love this man with all my heart. I love you coach.”

“Even if I wanted so much as a place to sit, his office was always open,” Ashley Speziale, a 22-year-old former student, told the Daily Beast. “He’d sit with me. He’d talk to me. He’d let me be in silence.”

“He was friendly with everybody, but he also knew when not to be friendly and when he needed to be the authority figure,” added Speziale, whose late stepfather worked with Feis in school security.

Feis had a football player’s husky frame, a bald head and was known for sporting dark sunglasses, even when he was inside.

“Big ol’ teddy bear,” said May, the head coach, according to the Sun Sentinel. “Loyalty — I trusted him. He had my back. He worked hard. Just a good man.”

“A good guy that is well-liked by students and his players,” tweeted Brandon Naidus, another former student. “Would talk with him often between lunch and class. Seeing all my former classmates posting about him today shows his impact on MSD is undeniable.”

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