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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was Aaron Feis’ second home. He was guardian of the gates as longtime security monitor at his alma mater, and although he did not know every single one of the 3,200 students, he tried to connect with as many as possible, greeting them as they arrived on campus and saying goodbye in the afternoon. He’d invite them to sit next to him on his golf cart for a chat about their problems and dreams.
Feis was intimidating at first glance, a burly, bald man with a fiery red beard, but students described him as a big teddy bear who bailed them out and set them straight.
“Everyone knows him from the smile, the smirk,” said MSD graduate Allyson Rusnak. “You’d be late or in trouble and he’d save you. Then he’d teach you to do the right thing.”
Feis fell near his familiar post, shot to death Feb. 14 by ex-student Nikolas Cruz, a troubled kid he called Niko whom he had dealt with often. Cruz entered the school with an AR-15 rifle at dismissal time and began shooting people in classrooms and hallways. He has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the worst school shooting since Sandy Hook.
Feis was among the first to respond to the gunfire, racing to the scene in his golf cart, then sprinting toward Cruz on foot. He shielded students from the bullets and pushed at least one girl out of the shooter’s line of sight, students said.
Feis, 37, was mourned during a powerful funeral service Thursday at the packed Church by the Glades in Coral Springs, praised for his selfless, tender, loyal nature.
“We throw around the words hero and heroic pretty easily,” pastor David Hughes said. “We’re not just celebrating a husband, father, brother, coach and friend. We’re celebrating a hero.”
Feis, a 1999 MSD graduate and offensive and defensive lineman on the Eagles football team, started working as a custodian at the school and was promoted to security guard. He was a popular assistant football coach who coached the varsity offensive line and junior varsity team.
“He talked about moving on, different jobs, earning better pay, but he just could not leave,” said Elliot Bonner, an MSD coach and security guard for 20 years who was a close friend. As he spoke, dozens of students came up to hug him and offer memories of Feis. “He knew he was making a difference. He was like a life coach. We tried to teach kids about life after Douglas, life in the real world.”
Feis drove a 1977 Chevy pickup that was constantly in need of tinkering. He ran a lawn care business on weekends to make extra money. He liked to cook — and sample his creations — and was known to share his meatballs at school. He called himself the mayor of Parkland.
“I can’t remember anyone calling him Aaron. It was Feis — kind of like saying LeBron or Michael,” said Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who was a volunteer football coach when his two sons played at MSD. “Head coaches have come and gone but what’s the one constant? Big Feis. Kids would do more for Feis because they never wanted to let him down.
“That’s how you honor Feis — by coming back in the fourth quarter, when it’s not a blue sky, flat sea day. Step up for Feis. In heaven, a lot of athletes are doing up-downs right now who were not expecting to. And the Lord, looking Feis in the face, had two words to say to him: Well done.”
Israel said Feis protected the students he cherished.
“Before you even heard how he died you knew he died putting himself in harm’s way to help others, running toward danger,” Israel said.
Feis is survived by his wife, Melissa, and daughter Ariel, 8, who was a regular at football practice. She was either at her father’s side or handing out water to players.
“She grew up at the football field,” Bonner said. “She was his princess.”
Bonner, who said Feis was “like a son to me,” said Feis had such a wonderful rapport with students that he was able to defuse Cruz – whom he described as “scary quiet and nonconfrontational” — when Cruz was enrolled at MSD.
“When I coached Aaron he had red, red, red Bozo the clown hair that hung out of his helmet and made him look nasty,” Bonner said. “But we knew him as a humble, sweet person who loved his school and would do anything for the kids.”
Brandon Corona told how Feis cut him from the JV team “which I didn’t even know was possible,” he said, laughing. “I was embarrassed and hurt and he took me aside and said, ‘I don’t see that you believe in yourself yet, but when you do you’ll be starting for me next year.’ He had a vision for me that I didn’t have.”
Corona recalled how Feis spent hours making highlight videos for players and sending them to college coaches. He drove the team bus for various sports. He fed kids, gave them rides home.
“This big bear of a man looked tough on the outside but he was a mama’s boy on the inside,” Corona said.
Feis was so big that “St. Peter said they had to make the gates of heaven a little larger for Aaron to come in,” said pastor George Callahan, Feis’ minister during his youth. “Everybody called him Feis. I called him the gentle giant.”
Feis was so big that when former MSD coach Mike Verden took Feis tubing on a lake in Idaho last summer, he barely fit on an innertube meant for four and had to wear a life jacket around his neck rather than his chest.
“Aaron Feis has been a hero to many people for a long time,” Verden said. “The beauty of Feb. 14 is how the world gets to know him.”
Feis’ brothers Raymond and Michael and sister Johanna said Feis had a way of lifting people out of sorrow and doubt. His father Louis read a letter he received from a stranger in Spokane, Wash., who heard about the shooting and was moved by Feis’ “act of bravery toward the students who saw evil in its purest form and then saw love in its purest form from Mr. Feis.”
Feis’ childhood friend Joe LaGuardia, who said his own father was killed in a mass shooting five years ago, offered comfort to the family: “The crowds may wane, the cameras will go away but know that you’re never alone. In that dark moment, the flicker of Aaron’s life shined brightly.”
Also among those in attendance were Gov. Rick Scott and former Miami Dolphins Jason Taylor and Sam Madison.
Seventeen candles were lit in honor of the 14 MSD students and three teachers who died. Four of Feis’ pallbearers were football players wearing their jerseys. A cartoon drawn by Canadian artist Pia Guerra in honor of Feis was displayed; in it, a little girl beckons to the the large, imposing figure of Feis to join a gathering of children and teachers that Guerra said represents other school shooting victims, saying, “Come on, Mister Feis, so many of us want to meet you.”