‘Always There, No Matter What’
Coach Aaron Feis, a Shoulder to Lean on, Laid Down His Life for His Florida School Students
‘He was always there, no matter what,’ said a former student who came to know the Douglas High football coach well.
Coach Aaron Feis is said to have leapt in front of his students to shield them from the Florida shooter’s rampage.
Late Wednesday night, his family was reportedly informed that his final act of kindness had been fatal.
The 37-year-old—an assistant football coach, security guard, and mentor to many students—was shot in the massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
His former students and players took to Facebook in the aftermath of the attack, praying that he pulled through despite the Broward County Sheriff’s announcement that a football coach had died. Their prayers apparently went unanswered.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, the school’s football team announced on Twitter that he had not survived his injuries. “He selflessly shielded students from the shooter when he was shot,” the team wrote. “He died a hero.”
Feis jumped between one student and the shooter, pushing her away from the line of fire, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
Football Coach Willis May told the Sentinel he was in his office when he heard “Code Red” over the intercom and went into lockdown with four players and two recruiters.
Feis was heard on the school’s security radio responding to a call on his walkie-talkie. “I heard Aaron say, ‘No, that is not firecrackers.’ That’s the last I heard of him,” May said.
At a press conference Thursday, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel called Feis “one of the greatest people I knew” and “a phenomenal man.”
“I know Aaron personally. I coached with him. My two boys played for him,” Israel told reporters. “I don’t know when Aaron’s funeral is. I don’t know how many adults are going to go, but you’ll get 2,000 kids there.”
“The kids in this community loved him. They adored him,” Israel added.
“I don’t know the specifics yet, but I can tell you what—when Aaron Feis died, when he was killed tragically, inhumanely, he did it protecting others. You can guarantee that. ‘Cause that’s who Aaron Feis was.”
Ashley Speziale was not surprised by the accounts of Feis’ heroism.
The 22-year-old met Feis her freshman year, when her affable older sister was a senior. Speziale says the coach, who always donned sunglasses and rarely removed them even indoors, took Speziale under his wing.
“Even if I wanted so much as a place to sit, his office was always open,” Speziale 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.”
Back then, Speziale’s stepfather, Richard Wentz, was head of security at the school and worked with Feis.
Wentz was an NYPD detective in 2001, when during the Sept. 11 terror attacks he made it out of the second tower before it collapsed, Speziale says. After 9/11, Wentz moved to Florida and got a job at Douglas High.
“Him and Feis together, they were a great team. They had a bond with all the students. People trusted them,” said Speziale, who lives in Coral Springs, a few neighborhoods over from the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz.
“They were what you wanted in a school,” she added.
When Wentz passed away in May 2013, from an illness related to the toxic materials he inhaled during the Sept. 11 rescue efforts, Feis was there for her and helped set up a plaque in her stepdad’s honor outside the school.
“Richie and Feis, they loved each other,” Speziale said. “They were giving, they were warm. They knew how to balance everything. They knew how to give it, but also knew when to take a step back.
“They made the world a better place,” she added. “If you needed two people to just be better, that was them.”
In November 2013, tragedy struck again. Speziale’s older sister, Kaitlyn Ferrante, was killed by a drunk driver.
Feis reached out to Speziale’s family and came to her sister’s service. He was still a shoulder to lean on, even after she graduated.
“These were the two most important people in my life, and two very important people to him,” Speziale says of Feis.
“He was always there, no matter what. It was like no time went on at all,” Speziale told The Daily Beast. “It was warming to know that he knew my sister and stepdad just as well as I did. He was able to let those memories live on as well.
Fearing the worst before the news of his passing had been confirmed, she said that “Losing him [would be] almost like losing them again.”
Speziale believes Feis, who has a wife and daughter, was selfless and risked his life to save others Wednesday.
According to the Miami Herald, Feis was a graduate of Douglas High himself and was a school security guard for at least eight years. He spent his entire career at the high school, according to a bio on the school’s website.
Speziale last saw the coach in November—the month she returns to Douglas High to give a seminar on drunk driving.
“It’s like no time goes on,” she said. “He would sit in on the seminar and listen, even though he’s heard it a couple times. He sat there like he hadn’t heard it before.”
Another former student, Tonya Sanchez, 22, told The Daily Beast that Feis pushed students to do their best and doled out advice.
“He was like your dad at school,” Sanchez said. “Everyone respected him and he respected everyone.”
Former student Zach Taub, 23, said the coach was a big, funny guy who was known for his sunglasses.
Taub described himself as “a little troublemaker” in class and said Feis would routinely be summoned to pull him out of class. “Now what, Mr. Taub? What do we got today?” Feis would say upon arrival in a school-issued golf cart.
The Parkland campus is so large that security officers drove golf carts from one point to another, Taub told The Daily Beast.
“He was a great guy. He would take me on a little spin around campus. We would talk a little bit before he would take me to the office,” said Taub, referring to the administrative office where he’d be disciplined.
Taub says Coach Feis taught him to be a better person. “He was a great role model. He always wanted all of us to succeed later in life,” Taub said.
“He did anything to help anyone.”
For Kaden Culpepper, Feis was a father figure who set him on the right path.
Culpepper was new to the school district and joined Feis’ football team. “The stuff he did for us was unreal,” Culpepper told The Daily Beast.
Feis paid Culpepper’s football fees because his family couldn’t afford them. The coach also helped Culpepper, who graduated in 2012, snag a Division III scholarship and created a highlights reel to present to recruiters.
“That’s how much he wanted me to get out of the area I grew up in,” Culpepper said, adding that he lived in a low-income neighborhood because it was all his mother could afford. “He just saw things in me that I didn’t even see at that young age.”
“If I didn’t play football, there’s no telling where I would have ended up,” Culpepper added.
Feis often told students to “do your job” and players to “make sure the last one was the best one” when they ran 20 sprints in a row.
The coach was known to help kids who didn’t have insurance, taking them to free sports physicals at another local school, Culpepper said.
“He went way above and beyond, Culpepper said. “He did this before my class, after my class. He just did this for people.”