When Nikolas Cruz began spraying bullets onto his former teachers and classmates on Wednesday afternoon, Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach and security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, wasted no time putting the lives of his students before his own.
He was reportedly shot after placing himself between high schoolers and the gunman ― a former Douglas student expelled for “disciplinary reasons” ― using his body to create a human shield. A female student told head football coach Willis May that Feis lunged between her and the shooter, pushing her through a door to help her escape the bullets, May told the Sun Sentinel.
Feis, who attended the school himself and then built a career there, served as a friend, mentor and counselor to students past and present.
Rold Joseph, who graduated from Douglas in 2011, had been close with Feis since the day they first met the summer before he entered ninth grade, he told HuffPost.
“He was one of those people that he didn’t care who you were, he didn’t care the color of your skin,” Joseph said. “He didn’t just try to make football players better, there’s random students he would go above and beyond [for] to keep out of trouble.”
Feis looked out for students who were on the brink of getting in trouble, Joseph added, talking to teachers and administrators on students’ behalf.
“Sometimes when my grades would slip, he would go begging the teachers for extra credit so I was eligible to play,” Joseph said, explaining that students weren’t allowed to play school sports if their grades dipped below a certain level.
Joseph also remembers Feis as a family man, whose wife and daughter spent time at Douglas.
“I remember when he found out that he was going to have a kid and he was so excited. He cherished that little girl,” Joseph said.
Kevin Soto, whose two children attended Douglas, credits Feis with helping his son graduate last year. Soto’s son, like many high schoolers, got lazy and lacked motivation beginning in his junior year, he said. His son’s grades fell enough to prevent him from playing on the football team.
Feis intervened, urging Soto’s son to just show up at practice regardless. From then on, he got his grades up and played on the team for both of his final years of high school.
“You’ve got some coaches who are strictly by the books but he realized that football helped them stay in school,” Soto said.
John Linn, a former Douglas student, said he and Feis were friends in high school. In an emotional Facebook post, he shared his fondest memories of Feis, highlighting the coach’s kindness and devotion to his students.
“Aaron struggled a bit immediately after high school, but when he found coaching, he found his purpose,” Linn wrote. “What I remember of Aaron best explains clearly why he’d step in front of bullets to protect people. He was gruff and resilient. Even in high school, he seemed more like my grandfather than a kid my age.”
Feis’ smile, Linn said, reminded him of “a clearing in the clouds during a Florida sunshower ― he could flash it, and you’d instantly be put at ease.”
He was fond of the sports saying that “the last play is the best play,” Joseph said. “And that’s exactly what he did. He made his last play his best play.”