FORT MYERS, FLA. — Willis May keeps reminders everywhere. A afflicted aggregation photo sits abaft his desk. So does a white mini helmet with an Eagles logo and the cardinal 17 in the center, encased in a artificial cover. Resting on top, a atramentous wristband with adventurous white belletrist spelling “Coach Feis.” In his phone, a final argument bulletin to his best friend, asking, “Where’s the shooter?”
There are added attenuate reminders of the day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Aerial Academy that afflicted everything. The complete of balloons bustling startles him. His new able-bodied ambassador will not let anyone bang May’s bulge or access his appointment during lockdown drills. His mom asks him all the time, “Are you sleeping better?”
Willis May tells her he is, but he doesn’t acquaint her abundant more. What he wants to say to her is award accord is impossible. That he is racked with guilt. That he feels like he let his best accompany and innocent acceptance down. That yes, he is sleeping and yes, he is happier, but no, he will never be actually better.
At least, that is how he feels today, two years afterwards a accumulation acid at Stoneman Douglas larboard 17 bodies dead, including his two best accompany — abettor drillmaster Aaron Feis and able-bodied ambassador and angry drillmaster Chris Hixon. May, the Stoneman Douglas arch football drillmaster at the time, put his own affliction abreast to drillmaster his devastated players through the 2018 season.
Every day of the new academy year, every football bold beneath the Friday night lights, acquainted added backbreaking than the next. May pushed advanced because he bare his players to anticipate aggregate would be OK, alike admitting he acquainted the opposite. Aback the division ended, his own affliction able such an disturbing level, May could anticipate about abandoned one thing: leaving.
So he did. Last spring, May fabricated the heart-wrenching accommodation to leave Parkland, Florida, and move west beyond I-75 to drillmaster at South Fort Myers Aerial School. Aback he arrived, he begin a affairs and players who bare him aloof as abundant as he bare them.
The move has accustomed him to stop thinking, every distinct day, about the horrors of Feb. 14, 2018. But on the added hand, it has been absurd to actually block out that day and how it afflicted what it agency to be Willis May, to be a citizen of Parkland, to be a apprentice or abecedary or ancestor or ambassador at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Aerial School.
May wants to drillmaster football, the way he has for added than 20 years, but he is now a accumulation acid survivor, and with that comes complex, dueling affections that are adamantine to accept, let abandoned understand. He needs to move forward, but affective advanced feels egocentric because 17 others cannot. He wants to about-face South Fort Myers into a accompaniment champion, but he needs his acquaintance apprenticeship Stoneman Douglas to help. His new activity does not abide afterwards his old life, so he armament himself to bethink aback there are canicule he would rather forget.
Says May: “How do you get over it?”
THE SUN STARTS to set on a clammy October day in Florida. Gary May waits on the football acreage for his brother, with accoutrements of red, white, argent and atramentous aerosol acrylic cans on the aback of a golf cart. He already has laid bottomward the Wolfpack logo arrangement at midfield. They allegation to acrylic the field, the aforementioned way they did at Stoneman Douglas.
Willis May emerges from his appointment central the academy building, tells Gary breadth to start, afresh grabs red acrylic and begins to go over the backyard marks. South Fort Myers has a big bold the abutting night adjoin battling North Fort Myers, and the May brothers breach out actuality for four hours authoritative abiding the acreage looks perfect.
At South Fort Myers, Willis May affiliated a proud, adolescent football program. The academy counts Kansas City Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins and Minnesota Vikings assurance Jayron Kearse amidst its football alumni. This affairs knows how to win. But aback May arrived, he said, the affairs was in disarray. The locker allowance and weight allowance were a mess. Players had abdicate on their drillmaster and one accession during a 1-9 division in 2018, and the abhorrence amidst them had seeped into aggregate they did. Classmates and agents fabricated fun of them to their faces. May’s job was to breach it bottomward and body it aback up, to clean and restore.
As he explains what he begin here, it’s bright he’s not aloof talking about his program.
May never approved advice afterwards the shootings. He has not announced with a therapist. He rarely shares what happened. His wife, Melissa, tells him he has survivor’s guilt. He agrees he apparently does.
Sarah Lowe, an abettor abettor of amusing and behavioral sciences at the Yale Academy of Public Health, co-authored a abstraction in 2017 that advised the brainy bloom after-effects of accumulation shootings. The abstraction begin post-traumatic accent symptoms, above abasement and added psychiatric disorders amidst the best accepted outcomes for survivors. While the studies she begin on academy shootings focused mainly on apprentice survivors, abandoned a scattering abundant the appulse on agents and staff.
“We don’t all-important anticipate of the adults and their losses and suffering,” Lowe says. “The adults afflicted by the agony acquire by absence the albatross of allowance their acceptance heal. It can be adamantine to be there for added bodies aback you’re affliction yourself.”
The affair is, May, 52, has never been accession to allotment his feelings. Rather than speak, he acts. He fixes. He makes things about him better, and that makes him feel better. At Stoneman Douglas, he couldn’t achieve annihilation bigger anymore. But he can here, at South Fort Myers.
So he adapted the weight allowance and locker room, corrective walls with his mother, put up Wolfpack decals, tore bottomward old cabinets and bought new carpet, spending some of his own money to get it done.
The abstraction to acrylic a wolf at midfield additionally came from May. He brought his booster club admiral from Stoneman Douglas to advice accession money for new clothes, accessory and more. They bought an inflatable adit with a behemothic wolf at its aperture for players to run through and assimilate the field. His parents helped achieve an “Alpha Wolf” — a bronze of a bawl wolf on a corrective abject they placed abutting to the end breadth for players to rub as they exited the tunnel.
“He put a new brace of shoes on this school, and aback you put a new brace of shoes on any kid’s life, they’re activity to feel like they’re 7 anxiety tall,” South Fort Myers able-bodied ambassador Chris Harris says. “These kids’ aplomb aloof additional up.”
To May, players are players, no amount who they are or breadth they abound up. Therefore, he capital his South Fort Myers players to acquire aggregate his Stoneman Douglas players had. Apperception you, the two schools could not be added afar in breadth or apprentice population.
Stoneman Douglas allowances from actuality in Parkland, breadth average domiciliary assets is $107,000. The Florida Department of Education has rated Stoneman Douglas a Academy of Excellence for three afterwards years.
South Fort Myers is a Appellation I academy with a aerial absorption of acceptance from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It is amidst in Lee County, breadth acceptance acquire the adeptness to acquire the academy they appetite to attend. South Fort Myers offers abstruse training in areas like plumbing, adjustment and automotive to advice allure acceptance absorbed in those fields.
Coaching transcends so abounding of these differences, confined to arrange players adjoin one accepted goal. May afflicted annihilation about his access at his new school. He emphasized discipline, accountability and responsibility. Miss three practices afterwards above-mentioned approval, and you’re no best on the team. Weight allowance sessions became circadian competitions, and players saw jaw-dropping gains, abounding convalescent their squats and lifts by added than 100 pounds in aloof eight weeks.
He alien 40x40s: 40-yard sprints, 40 times, every Monday. The aboriginal time they did them, it took the absolute convenance to complete.
“What he was alms was bigger than what we aloof went through,” abhorrent lineman Jake Band says. “You acquire to buy in 100 percent. The acuteness was on accession level. We all formed so adamantine over the summer, there was no way we were activity to go 1-9 again. It wasn’t accessible with how adamantine we worked.”
By mid-October, the Wolfpack were 6-1 with ascent playoff hopes. His new aggregation had appear so far in six months. Football began to beggarly article afresh to his players, his academy and his community. They had support. Fans showed up. Adroitness showed up. His players believed in him, but added than that, they started to acquire in themselves.
Surely, he is blessed now. So you ask: Are you blessed now?
May pauses. He has no abstraction what to say.
MAY GREW UP in Logan, West Virginia, and spent 19 years at Hurricane Aerial in Hurricane, West Virginia, including eight as arch coach, demography one aggregation afterwards accession to the playoffs. He had aloof gotten the affairs a new accommodation acreage in 2011, assured to accomplishment his career there and retire.
But his wife got a job action in South Florida that would abundantly access her pay and responsibility. They hated to move, but believed it was in their best interest. So the Mays and their three sons larboard for Florida, not actually alive what to expect. May interviewed at a few aerial schools in the Fort Lauderdale area, but accession told him he affliction to analysis out Stoneman Douglas because its drillmaster was from West Virginia, too.
May admired the school. He believed it was safe and the best fit for his family. He active on to be an abettor for the 2012 season, and his average son becoming a atom on the football team. But afterwards the season, then-Stoneman Douglas able-bodied ambassador Mitch Kaufman replaced drillmaster Rick DiVita with May.
That was how and why a self-described country boy from West Virginia begin himself bound in his appointment in Parkland six years later. May had helped balance the football program, activity 28-21, but there was still assignment to do to hunt bottomward an ambiguous playoff spot. He anticipation they were accepting closer. Plus, he was happy. Two of his sons were apprenticeship with him.
His brother Gary would drive from his home in Fort Myers on Thursdays to advice him acrylic the acreage for home games. His parents would drive from Fort Myers on Fridays for every game. May preached ancestors to every aggregation he coached. Stoneman Douglas was ancestors now. Stoneman Douglas was home. He never capital to leave.
May was hosting academy recruiters on Feb. 14 aback a above apprentice absolved assimilate the Stoneman Douglas campus with a semi-automatic burglarize and opened fire. May heard accession acknowledgment the complete of firecrackers on his walkie-talkie afore the academy went on lockdown. May bound anybody central his appointment and beatific a argument bulletin to Feis, a academy aegis guard, abettor football drillmaster and his best friend.
Feeling active and helpless, May larboard the appointment to analysis the abutting hallway. He heard absent shots. Afresh the SWAT aggregation told him to get down. Shortly after, as the academy was actuality evacuated, one of his players ran up to him.
“Coach Feis is dead!”
May banned to acquire it. He absolved off the academy area and stood at a aboideau forth the perimeter. He saw a sheriff’s administrator who was the ancestor of accession player. May said, “Tell me the truth. Is Aaron dead?”
Feis was the aboriginal actuality May met at Stoneman Douglas, and they formed a bound bond. Every morning, Feis would accord May a ride on his golf barrow from the parking lot to their appointment on the added ancillary of campus. Their desks were abutting to ceremony other. Chances are if you spotted May on the football field, Feis was not far away.
In the weeks and months that passed, annihilation acquainted normal, no amount how abundant May capital them to be normal. He lived in abeyant reality. One night, he saw the aperture to Hixon’s appointment accessible and anticipation for a abrupt moment that his old acquaintance was about to airing out the aperture to acquaint him something.
It was the janitor.
May had to admonish himself all over afresh that his accompany were gone.
You alpha to catechism your acumen in these moments, maybe added than the hows and the whys and the bent of it all. Yet as adamantine as it was for May to advance with the tragedy and loss, he knew it was far harder for his adolescent players. May vowed to accumulate his players together, no amount the amount to his own health.
As the new academy year formed around, the acid became such a alienated issue, curve were fatigued and no one could allocution advisedly about how they felt. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Aerial Academy Public Assurance Commission was set up. Investigations were launched. Lawsuits were filed. Douglas was beneath a microscope, and cipher knew who was in charge. By November, three abettor principals and a aegis specialist were reassigned, and Broward County Sherriff’s agent and academy ability administrator Scot Peterson accommodated amidst furor that he did annihilation to abate the attack. (He was afterwards answerable with 11 counts of abomination carelessness of a child, amiss apathy and perjury. He has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending.).
The admission freshmen could not possibly acquire what their beforehand classmates had been through, and the bawdiness amidst some devastated others.
A book thudding to the arena set off after-effects of panic. May saw this post-traumatic accent acknowledgment in his players beforehand in the spring, aback he took them on a appointment to Florida Atlantic football practice. The pop of a attach gun from a architecture artisan in the football ability antechamber beatific them abject to the floor, attractive for cover.
A woman continuing abreast them angry to May with a puzzled attending on her face.
“We’re from Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” he said.
She started bawling.
No amount how the acceptance at Stoneman Douglas dealt with the tragedy individually, May capital them to acquire article to collectively acclamation — their football team. May and his players committed their division to the 17 bodies who died, putting the cardinal central the Eagles logo on their helmets. He fabricated an acronym out of Feis: “Fearless, Emotion, Acuteness and Sacrifice.”
Every day at practice, May reminded his players they were strong, and if there was one affair they would consistently have, it was their football family. But the assessment of the tragedy advised on May. Every day on the way to his office, he absolved able the atom breadth Feis was murdered. He absolved able the now-empty architecture breadth acceptance were murdered. Every day central his office, he stared at the abandoned board abutting to his, and the abandoned appointment on the added side. Every Friday afore their games, accession well-meaning academy would action their own prayers and tributes, active up a blast of affections all over again.
He pushed it all away, activity as if he had no best but to accumulate activity — for the players, their division and for Feis. He didn’t appetite to be the one to cull them apart. So he kept coaching. Afterwards a black 5-5 division ended, he took banal of the above-mentioned nine months. He admired his players dearly, but he hated activity to work. Some days, the campus acquainted like a prison. The answerability fabricated actuality central the academy alike worse. He should acquire run out to advice Aaron, he told himself over and over. Why didn’t he aloof avoid the lockdown and run out to advice him?
“He couldn’t save Chris, and he couldn’t save Aaron, he couldn’t save anyone, so I anticipate he acquainted like it was his assignment to advice the players through all of their firsts,” says Mandy Goodman, who runs the Stoneman Douglas and South Fort Myers Booster Clubs. “The aboriginal day, the aboriginal football game, the aboriginal anniversary, I anticipate he pushed himself apparently to his own brainy and affecting damage to get the kids and the affairs through all that.
“Something clicked with him afterwards the aboriginal anniversary. Once he got these kids through all their firsts, I anticipate he gave himself permission to breathe and to grieve.”
GARY MAY WAS the aboriginal to acquaint his brother that the South Fort Myers job was open. So Willis got his resume calm and beatific it, not alive what to apprehend or whether he actually capital to leave.
South Fort Myers arch Ed Mathews, a above football amateur himself on the actual aboriginal Florida Atlantic football team, was intrigued. He, Harris, bookkeeper Kenny Revels and a apprentice on the chase board awash into Mathews’ appointment for the antecedent buzz alarm with May.
“As he got on the buzz and we started talking to him, we all looked at ceremony other, like …” Mathews pauses, comatose his arch and smiling, recreating the aggregate reaction. “You could feel the passion. It was an affecting connection.”
Mathews abutting South Fort Myers in 2016 in the deathwatch of a sex aspersion that had impacted both the academy and football program. A 15-year-old babe and assorted macho students, including football players, had sex in a academy bath afterwards dismissal, and videos of the appointment afterwards broadcast on amusing media. Sixteen acceptance accustomed suspensions, one apprentice was answerable with animality to a adolescent and control of atrocious material, and the academy commune launched an investigation. The arch was reassigned, and Mathews was alleged to the position. Ultimately, arch football drillmaster Anthony Dixon was abeyant afterwards pay afore actuality reassigned to accession school, and an abettor absent his job on the football staff.
Mathews bare to restore conduct and accountability, as able-bodied as student, affectionate and association pride in the academy itself — in accession to about-face its alfresco perception. He fabricated himself a arresting attendance on campus and knew aback it came time to bushing the football opening, he bare accession as committed to the acceptance as himself.
Mathews arrive May to campus for a appointment to attending about the school. He asked the football aggregation to accumulate in the amphitheater to accommodated him. May told them a little about himself and awash them on his vision: They would be a family, and they would assignment adamantine and represent their academy with pride and they would actually win again.
He brought a affection and acuteness that the players responded to appropriate away. Afterward, a amateur absolved up to May and said, “Coach, I achievement you appear and be our drillmaster because this is all I’ve got.”
Mathews capital to appoint him, but May was torn. He was afflicted at Stoneman Douglas, but he consistently put his players first. Should he booty affliction of himself, or to booty affliction of the Stoneman Douglas acceptance who still bare him? As he absolved out of the school, his buzz rang. It was his dad.
“What did you think?” Willis May Sr. asked.
May told him he admired the academy and believed the players had a drive to win, and he could be blessed there.
Without missing a beat, his dad asked, “Can I appear to convenance every day?”
May had his answer. But it was not easy. He would acquire to go aback to Stoneman Douglas and acquaint his players he was leaving. May fabricated abiding his arresting coordinator, Quentin Short, would get answer to arch coach. His players knew Short, and they trusted him.
“It wasn’t a accustomed ‘coach demography accession job’ blazon deal,” Abbreviate says. “There were no adamantine animosity from anyone. Anybody actually understood. I’m animated he acquainted like it was in acceptable easily abrogation it with me. He did such a abundant job architecture this program. I achievement that the move fabricated it easier for him, as far as recovering.”
Though May believed his abandonment would be bigger for the affairs and the players, answer this to boyish boys, still addled from tragedy, spurred a new beachcomber of guilt.
“They didn’t booty it well,” May says. “I’ve consistently approved to achieve my teams be like family, us adjoin the world, and they acquainted like I was abrogation them. I was abrogation them out to dry. I wasn’t afraid to my word. I was activity adjoin what I preached all the time, and that agitated me. I said, ‘I can’t booty it anymore, and it’s not you all.’ They knew I was miserable. They knew I absent Aaron, they knew I absent Chris.
“I didn’t appetite to be sad no more. I didn’t appetite to feel like I was consistently at a burial every day. Best everybody’s gone. They got a new administration, a lot of the agents larboard because maybe they acquainted the aforementioned way I did, and I acquainted apologetic for the kids. They’re authoritative the best of it. In four years aback those freshmen are gone, maybe it will be better. I don’t know.”
“He didn’t carelessness these kids,” Goodman says adamantly. “He gave them aggregate he had and afresh some. Acquire they acquainted that way? Probably, but they’re teenagers. He presents himself as 10 anxiety alpine and bulletproof. I anticipate aback you get bottomward to it, the kids didn’t apperceive how to articulate, ‘Oh man. Our superhero’s human, too.'”
Like every superhero, May wants to be the one to save the day. It’s why he’s in Fort Myers now. It’s why he still has so abundant guilt. It’s why he tells his coaches, his players, his parents, his wife, everybody who knows him that he already has a plan if he’s anytime in the aforementioned situation.
He ability acquire larboard Stoneman Douglas, but he larboard it for accession aerial school. He ability acquire chock-full cerebration about the acid every day, but he additionally knows ceremony day he goes to work, accession could get into the architecture with a gun and accessible fire.
“No academy is safe,” May says. “It can appear in the blink of an eye anywhere, I don’t affliction what you do. I don’t affliction if you’ve got 10-foot-high fences all the way about it. If they appetite in, they will acquisition a way to get in.
“And if I apperceive article like that’s activity down, I beggarly it with all my heart, I will annihilate them or they will annihilate me. But I won’t alive through that again.
THE CROWD SLOWLY trickles in for the Friday night home bold adjoin North Fort Myers. Rain is expected. Up in the bleachers, the May ancestors sets up camp. So do Abbreviate and Goodman, who were chargeless to achieve the two-hour drive from South Florida because Stoneman Douglas played Thursday night.
South Fort Myers adroitness can go on the clue about the acreage to watch games. Tim Greenwell, a adjustment instructor, stands with his bubble umbrella. “I can’t say abundant about Drillmaster May,” he says. “He’s fabricated such a huge aberration in such a abbreviate time.”
South Fort Myers takes the advance into halftime, but too abounding second-half mistakes doom them. May sees old habits edge aback in again, all mental. As anon as they hit a application of adversity, his players let one bad comedy drain into the next. Admitting South Fort Myers loses, they never accord up, and May refuses to be upset. He gathers his players on the acreage afterwards the game. He tells them he loves their fight, and they will see aback they watch the band how abutting they came to winning. The little mistakes will bother them. He reminds them they are still in the playoff mix, too, but to get there they acquire to bethink one thing:
“It ain’t one. It’s all,” he says. “They breach their ataxia with “Family!”
It has taken some time for May to ability the point of active those words here. At first, he backward mostly to himself. He rarely spoke, and cipher asked him about what happened at Stoneman Douglas. They ample he capital to leave all that behind. Working with abettor coaches he hardly knew, May generally took over drills or ran convenance on his own.
His administration acquire wondered, “What is he doing?” Arresting coordinator Matt Holderfield, who led the aggregation to a 9-2 almanac as acting drillmaster in 2016, assuredly absitively to say something.
“I alleged him and said, ‘You’ve got to abdicate actuality bottomward on yourself,'” Holderfield says. “‘You acquire to acquire we’re activity to booty affliction of all this.’ I anticipate he bare somebody to say, ‘It’s activity to be all right.’ It was about like adhering him afterwards adhering him.”
May has alone his bouncer some. He smiles more. Laughs a little more. Acceptable helps. But afterwards the North Fort Myers loss, the Wolfpack’s playoff affairs were about gone. On the final Friday of the approved season, South Fort Myers bare a win, and it bare Barron Collier to lose.
Players heard a account amend on the loudspeaker while they were on the acreage in their own bold — Barron Collier was up big at halftime. Some of them prayed. Fortunes changed. Barron Collier lost. South Fort Myers won. On Saturday, the playoff acreage was announced: at 7-3, South Fort Myers pulled a stunner, demography the final at-large atom in its region.
“I was acid my backyard aback drillmaster texted me. I about collection into a ditch,” bouncer Isaiah Hood says. “My uncle comes alfresco and starts screaming, ‘What are you doing?’ So I scream back, ‘We’re activity to the playoffs!'”
May went all out to accolade his players. He and his agents catered a pregame barbeque. They accountant buses for the 40-minute ride over to comedy Naples High. May capital them to acquire that authoritative the playoffs was special, and far altered from demography a chicken academy bus to a game.
“The additional we stepped on the acreage in Naples, it was a able new feeling, article I never acquainted afore arena football,” Band says.
On the actual aforementioned Friday, at the actual aforementioned time, on the added ancillary of Florida, Stoneman Douglas kicked off its playoff bold adjoin Miami High. Abbreviate had led Stoneman Douglas to an 8-1 regular-season record, its aboriginal commune appellation in 18 years and its aboriginal playoff actualization back 2007.
You could say May helped two teams achieve the playoffs.
“It was meant to be,” May says. “It was absolute for everybody. I’m actual appreciative of them, appreciative of what they able and appreciative of what we did. I capital to appear in and set the apple on blaze and acquire everybody acquire me and anticipate I did a acceptable job and I was a adamantine worker, and man, we’re activity to about-face this abode around.”
Both Stoneman Douglas and South Fort Myers absent their playoff games, but that didn’t outweigh their accomplishments.
In December, May put on an busy feast for his aggregation that players declared as unforgettable. He gave shadowboxes to the seniors with pictures from the season, and dog tags to his players with their names and numbers, and the phrase, “The backbone of the wolf is in the backpack and the backbone of the backpack is the wolf.” They accustomed blankets and new T-shirts that artlessly said “FAMILY” beyond the front. The abutting day at school, players proudly wore their new shirts.
“When he aboriginal came in the allowance talking about changes he was activity to make, Drillmaster May accomplished his prophecy,” receiver Joel Rene says. “He fabricated us acquire that we could do anything.”
After the season, May confused on to his abutting priority: accepting his players recruited. He has formed adamantine to accent academics and the SAT. No grades and no analysis account would beggarly no scholarship possibilities. Back his arrival, about every amateur has fabricated cogent bookish gains, and several accustomed offers they did not acquire previously.
“You asked me if I was happy,” May says. “I’m happy. There’s a lot of potential, and I adulation advancing to assignment because we’re accepting better. I’m accepting better.
“I’m healing, accepting this to assignment on. It allows me to set my apperception on article that needs me. I’ve got things I appetite to achieve here, bodies to achieve appreciative here, to do appropriate by here.”
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