Before the eulogies, before the testimonials and before the prayers, the tone for the services for beloved football coach Aaron Feis was set Thursday morning with the subtle sweep of a hand.
As singer Tracy Gaynor came to the closing line of the national anthem, “ … And the home of the brave,” her left hand lowered, directing eyes toward the flower-draped coffin of Feis, who died on Valentine’s Day shielding students from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
David Hughes, lead pastor at the Church by the Glades, then opened by telling approximately 1,700 in attendance and another 21,000 viewing online, “We celebrate a hero.” The hero was 37.
It was a theme echoed by each speaker as they honored a mountain of man with a heart just as large.
“Anybody who knew Feis knows where I’m coming from: Before you even heard how he died, you knew he died putting himself in harm’s way to save others,” said Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who spent many Friday nights in the booth helping Feis call plays for the Eagles.
Feis coached the offensive line for a variety of Douglas head coaches, all of whom could have cleaned house when they were hired but instead all concluded this Douglas alum and institution was the only man for the job. That included former head coach Mike Virden, who described Feis as the kind of go-to person who may as well have been mayor of Parkland, even though he sometimes worked two or three jobs to provide for wife Melissa and daughter Arielle. Israel gave him grief about the beat-up truck he drove, but he didn’t care.
“He’s the least-paid employee at Douglas High School,” Virden said. “He wasn’t a teacher. He had to drive a bus to get by. He did everything he could to take care of his family.
“But look at this. You guys know Aaron. You know the impact he made. And he was given so little. That man was given so little and he gave so much — way before the 14th. Aaron Feis has been a hero to many people for a long time. And the beauty of today, and the beauty of the 14th, is the whole world gets to know that now. Now they could understand.”
Before the service, attended by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Dolphins Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, two video boards flanking the stage presented a slideshow of Feis’ life. Particularly wrenching: photos of him kissing Arielle as a baby. Church staffers, anticipating how trying the two-hour service would be, were seen carrying in dozens of tissue boxes before ushering in the crowd.
The stage of the expansive church was adorned with 17 candles — one for each person killed in the tragedy. Behind them, on the main video board, was a portrait of Feis, taken with him wearing the maroon coaches’ polo shirt of Douglas High.
Feis’ stature was such, Israel said, “Nobody called him Aaron. It was ‘Feis.’ Like LeBron or Michael.”
The football players, wearing black Eagles game jerseys, entered the church in twos, holding hands in a sign of solidarity.
“For you offensive linemen who made a mistake when Feis was in the booth,” Israel told them, “it’s a good thing you didn’t hear what he said about you.”
Israel confessed that at times, he would point out errors in the booth that hadn’t actually happened “just to see Feis get red.”
Assuring no one got the wrong idea, Brandon Corona, a former Douglas player who formed a brotherly bond with Feis, also addressed the football players: “Even though you know what he meant to you, can you imagine what you meant to him?”
The week since the massacre brought a nonstop stream of testimonials on Feis’ dedication to kids. ESPN detailed how Feis would compile highlight videos to help countless players, who might have been overlooked, obtain college scholarships. Many were from Douglas, of course, but Feis’ pull with college recruiters was such that athletes from other schools sought him out and never were turned away.
Actually, there was one player whom Feis did turn away. He cut Corona from the junior varsity (“I didn’t know that was possible,” Corona said). Feis explained he was releasing Corona because he didn’t believe in himself — but at the same time, he dangled a carrot.
“You’ll be starting for me next year,” Feis told him.
Thursday, Corona stepped to the microphone and described Feis as his mentor and his hero. He said initially he was intimidated by him. Later, he was intimidated at the thought of what if he’d gone through life without having met him.
George Callahan, a pastor from Bluffton, S.C., and a longtime friend of Feis’, was applauded when he referred to the thousands of students throughout South Florida who have walked out and spoken up to demand lawmakers take action to end school shootings.
“Praise God for those young people who are finally taking a stand and saying enough is enough, and are going to be making an incredible impression,” Callahan said. “And parenthetically, if our governmental agencies and people do not listen, we may have a local, state and national government filling with teenagers who are willing to make a difference.”
Turning attention back to Feis, Callahan said, “I called him the gentle giant. In fact, just before the service started, I received a phone call. It was from St. Peter. And St. Peter said that they had to make the gates into heaven a little larger for Aaron to come in.
“He was a big man. And his heart was as big as his frame.”