Assistant football coach Aaron Feis died as he had lived -- helping students

Jake Zalka places flowers at a memorial for Aaron Feis, his former assistant football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Courtesy Jake Zalka

On most days, Aaron Feis would be there on his golf cart, working security at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. He would open the gate for college recruiters to enter, then exchange pleasantries and information about players on the football team. Feis loved his job as an assistant coach at his alma mater for many reasons, but, chiefly, he wanted all of his players to further their football dreams wherever they could find a college home.

Just last Wednesday, Nichols College recruiter Paul Brower embarked on a day filled with recruiting stops across Broward County. On that day, Brower brought a new football assistant, St. Clair Ryan, on his first day recruiting in Florida. As the coaches from the Massachusetts college prepared to head to their final stop, Brower told Ryan they would see Feis as they entered Douglas.

But Feis was not there; he was off in another part of the school instead. So Brower and Ryan checked in at the front office, then made their way to see head football coach Willis May in his office, tucked inside the school's locker room. They chatted with May for a few minutes, going over players who could potentially be a fit for their Division III football team. May suggested four seniors come down to the football offices to visit.

So the seven of them spent the next 10 minutes talking. Then the fire alarm sounded before abruptly turning off. Brower thought it seemed odd. They kept talking for about another minute, until a "Code Red!" alert came across the loudspeaker, prompting a campus lockdown. May left his office to lock the doors to the locker room and then the coaches' offices.

Brower, Ryan and the four players looked at one another, trying to understand what was happening. May walked back into the office and told them he believed there was an active shooter on campus. But they were in perhaps the safest building in the school and needed to hunker down. That, however, did not stop one player from opening a side door to try to hear what was happening.

That's when they all heard the faint sound of gunfire. The player closed and locked the door, and they all sat and waited. The players texted their parents to let them know they were OK. May, Brower and Ryan tried to keep the players calm. Soon the four athletes started getting text messages from classmates in different parts of the school. They learned through social media that their beloved Coach Feis had been shot.

"The hardest part of this whole thing was watching the students as they were seeing each other and going through the crowd and exiting," Brower said recently in a phone interview. "These kids are learning about pillars of their community in their day-to-day lives, and it was just brutal to watch. The kids are 14, 15 years old, and they have to endure that. Then as we walked further, we saw moms and dads lined up, asking: 'Where's my son? Where's my daughter?' There weren't a whole lot of words."

It hit Brower afterward that he never got to see Feis on his visit.

Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge sat in a defensive staff meeting in Pittsburgh that Wednesday afternoon when he got a text message telling him there had been a shooting at Douglas. Partridge grew up in nearby Plantation, Florida, and went to high school with the principal at Douglas. He had recruited from Douglas at various stops over the years, and his ties to the school strengthened when he worked as Florida Atlantic University's head coach from 2014 to 2016. May's son, Corey, served as a volunteer assistant for him.

Partridge immediately called Willis May. His memory flashed back to Feb. 1, when Partridge made a recruiting visit to Douglas. On every visit, Partridge knew he would see the same three people: May, Feis and former Douglas head coach Elliot Bonner, a mentor to Feis. He saw all three that day.

"I saw Coach Feis, and I can't get the vision to leave my conscious state," Partridge said in a phone interview. "He was sitting on his golf cart as nice as ever. We talked about a couple kids, said a nice couple words, then the head coach took me into the weight room."

The visit that day went the way it usually did. But no visit there will ever be the same.

Partridge waited on updates last week, watching the news in disbelief, shock and sadness. He finally heard back from May at 1:09 a.m. Thursday morning.

Feis had died.

There are many words that could be used to describe Aaron Feis: Selfless. Giving. Loyal. Resilient. Those words are likely to be used repeatedly at his funeral Thursday morning. But when it came to his everyday life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the word "ubiquitous" might fit best.

Feis had an all-encompassing presence that athletes and nonathletes knew and loved. This extended beyond the school walls to college recruiters who eagerly anticipated seeing him on visits with prospective players. In the hours that followed the shooting, the world learned that Feis was shot as he shielded students from gunfire at the school in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people died at Douglas, including athletic director Chris Hixon and cross-country coach Scott Beigel.

Not one friend or former player interviewed expressed surprise that Feis would take a bullet for the students at his school, the place where he played football, graduated in 1999 and returned to help his beloved community. They want you to know: This is who Aaron Feis was -- every minute, every day.

"I know that he probably thought in his head this is not going down in my school without me doing something about it," said Jake Zalka, one of his former players. "That's how he cared."

Feis thought about others more than he thought about himself. College recruiters got to know Feis because he made it his business to know them. And he made it his business to know them because he wanted his players to find opportunities to keep playing.

He did this not only for Douglas players, but also any player in need of some extra attention across the county. Before programs allowed players to upload their highlights to the internet automatically, Feis spent countless hours with a friend, Julie Corona, making highlight DVDs for anybody who wanted them. He did this on his own time, on the same salary he made as a school security guard.

"Aaron wouldn't charge a child one dime to do anything," Corona said. "It didn't matter if he was at Douglas; it didn't matter if it was a child at another high school. He's the unsung hero, and Aaron never talked about anything he did. He just did it."

Corona estimates Feis helped get 50 to 70 players into college who might have fallen through the cracks. Partridge said Feis would often give him a stack of DVDs: those of his own players, plus others at different schools. He'd say, "Here's a DVD of a player who needs help. If he doesn't fit at your school, Coach, could you please help talk to your other colleagues and help him find a home?"

"It's definitely rare for a coach to do that," Partridge said. "That's how he thought. That's how his mind worked."

Among those Feis helped was Wayne Lyons, who played defensive back at nearby Dillard High School. Corona noticed him at a camp his junior year. She asked whether he had a highlight tape. He said no, so she introduced him to Feis.

"I remember, I was on the couch, he had his shades on, he was in that zone," Lyons said in a phone interview from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Feis showed Lyons step by step how he would edit his video. He put Lyons' 4.8 GPA on the opening screen, and in the first clip, Lyons knocked his opponent's helmet off. Lyons loved it. The highlights went up on YouTube, and by the time he was a senior, he had more than 50 Division I scholarship offers.

Lyons graduated from Dillard in 2011 and went to Stanford to play for then-coach Jim Harbaugh. After graduating from Stanford, Lyons followed Harbaugh to Michigan as a graduate transfer and finished his college career with the Wolverines. He holds degrees from both schools and mentors students in the Ann Arbor area. Lyons credits the help from Feis -- a man who didn't coach him or have any affiliation with his school.

"It just shows me there are great people in this world, and we should keep the faith alive that we can be angels like he was," Lyons said.

Douglas has players at FBS programs, including brothers Chris Gaynor (TCU) and Corey Gaynor (Miami), and spread across smaller Division II, III and NAIA programs, too -- places like Concordia Chicago, Marian University and Alderson Broaddus.

Zalka was an undersized linebacker when he played for Feis at Douglas. Feis made his highlight tape, put it on YouTube and worked tirelessly to get him recruited. Zalka went to Elmhurst College, where he spent a year before returning to South Florida and eventually working alongside Feis and May at Douglas.

"I had a lot of talent but didn't fit the profile of what colleges look for," Zalka said. "But Coach Feis, he'd talk to me about colleges, he'd come to my house. Coach Feis was a big part of getting me recognized, but he didn't just do it for me. He did it for everyone.

"Coach May said he didn't have to die to be a hero. He was a hero every day."

Ryan Allison was an undersized receiver when he played at Douglas. But Feis never gave up on him, either. After Allison's senior season ended, Feis and May asked seniors who wanted a chance to play at the next level to come to the football office. Allison showed up and said he would go to any small school that would give him a chance.

Feis and May attended a small colleges fair, where they talked about Allison and showed his highlights. Soon Allison had between 25 and 30 schools interested in him. He chose Concordia, and he leaves as the school's all-time leader in receptions. Allison said six players in his class played football in college, all thanks to Feis and May.

"To be honest, if I didn't have the help from Coach Feis or Coach May, I probably wouldn't be where I am today," he said. "It was either going to be me having to do it by myself with no connections or being able to go through them, who had all the connections I needed."

Feis made sure he was well-connected in the South Florida high school coaching community, too. Years ago, he asked Corona to introduce him to Damon Cogdell, the longtime head coach at Miramar High School, south of Parkland. Cogdell, now defensive ends coach at the University of South Florida, recalls that Feis just wanted to pick his brain about football.

"That gentleman was always seeking knowledge," Cogdell said. "He always wanted to give back to his high school. He wanted to give back to that community. A security guard doesn't make that much money, but it wasn't about money for him. He busted his butt to get to where he was. It's like a dream come true to go to your alma mater and have an impact."

Just consider all the ways Feis did that every day. Whether he was taking his players to football camps, making them highlight tapes, connecting with recruiters or merely patrolling the school grounds in his golf cart, he constantly made an impact on those around him -- one they will take with them wherever they go.

"They lost the heart of the community the day that happened," Corona said. "Not everyone has that heart, and I can tell you Aaron was born with that heart. He had done many things. He'd never take no. He'd just keep going. He'd say that today: 'Don't cry for me, go do, keep going, think of me but go get your dream, remember what I told you.'"