When Leavenworth resident Michael Connell's brother, Ray, called him from his home in Florida on Valentine's Day and asked, “Do you know what's going on?”
By RIMSIE McCONIGA
When Leavenworth resident Michael Connell’s brother, Ray, called him from his home in Florida on Valentine’s Day and asked, “Do you know what’s going on?” Michael had no idea he was about to experience one of the most tragic days of his life.
His younger brother, Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach had been shot trying to save the lives of students in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Michael received confirmation in the early hours on Feb. 15 that Aaron had died while shielding students from gunfire. He was 37.
The shooting resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three coaches who had each tried to shield students.
Michael and other members of Aaron’s family will travel to Los Angeles July 18 to honor their loved one at the ESPY awards, where tradition for this year’s Best Coach Award will be broken so that the three fallen coaches will be honored posthumously.
Aaron loved Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He graduated from the school in 1999. In 2002, he became an assistant football coach at the school and had been there ever since.
Aaron was so happy to be coaching football in a school that he loved,” says Michael. “He had attended all grades in Parkland and he became embedded in that community. It’s like he found his calling there, which I think is great – not everyone gets to find that kind of thing.”
When Aaron wasn’t coaching, he stayed busy with lots of extra jobs such as cutting grass to make ends meet and ensure that his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Ariel, had everything they needed.
Aaron was Michael’s half-brother, but Michael never thought of his kid brother as anything other than his brother.
“We were brothers, it always felt unnatural to call each other half-brothers,” says Michael.
Their bond had always been strong when they were growing up. When Michael joined the Army in 2003 and began traveling a lot and was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, the brothers would have long conversations by phone.
“Some of my favorite times when we became adults were these conversations,” Michael said. “We would just call each other and talk. He was always there to talk and listen. When we were little, we also got along really well. I was the band geek and he was the jock. I would go to his events and he would come to mine. I was in the marching band. We were involved whenever we could be. We always supported each other.”
Michael remembers and cherishes Aaron’s kindness and empathy. Those qualities are the first things that come to mind for most people who knew Aaron, says his brother. Aaron had a particular soft spot for students and helping them in any way possible was paramount in his coaching career.
Everyone remembers him as being kind,” says Michael. “He was always keeping his eyes open if somebody was in a bad place, always trying to show love to people. He was extremely aware emotionally of what was going on around him and if someone needed help. He would always look for the people who felt they were being cast to the side, the outcasts.”
Aaron would constantly be on the lookout for students who seemed to be detaching. Michael says his brother would look for the students whose teachers had kicked them out of class. He would find them and ask them to take a drive with him and ask them how things were going and how he could help.
“A lot to times when they had complaints and said life was getting them down he would ask them ‘What are you going to do about it? Don’t get stuck in that mentality where everyone and everything is against you and you feel like you can’t do anything,’” Michael said. “One of his trademark phrases was ‘What are you going to do today?’ He was trying to make students feel empowered, like they can make a choice about what’s going on in their lives. They can make a choice about making an effort and it’s not hopeless.”
Signs of Aaron’s limitless empathy and protective nature surfaced when he was a little boy. One day when Michael had acted up, their father, Lou, indicated that a spanking for Michael was getting closer.
Aaron jumped on my dad’s back and distracted him and the whole situation was diffused,” says Michael. “He was protecting his brother. We were very young and he took action, he didn’t wait. There was a glimpse of his protective nature even as a kid.”
One of Aaron’s favorite things about coaching was getting students to learn teamwork and to make them realize they were capable of so much.
One student came up to me at the wake and said Aaron knew how important football was to him but Aaron had to take him off the team,” says Michael. “Aaron said you can’t play right now. You need to focus on school and it helped him to come back the next year to play on the team because he wasn’t at that point mature and mentally ready to play. He was good at using disciplinary guidance. The extra year made the student focus on what was important. Aaron looked at the whole picture. He didn’t just look at a kid and think this kid would make a great blocker. He would look at what the problems were and never tell them what to do but guide them toward it. The student said because Aaron did what he did and talked to him everyday he didn’t shut him out. He knew Aaron wasn’t doing it as a personal attack on him. He was trying to help him focus and find balance. He had a natural talent and gift for finding what their real issues were and helping them focus on what they could do about it. Many of the kids had problems at home. He was the person who was always there for those kids. They felt that they always had someone to talk to.”
When Nikolas Cruz was expelled from the high school at 17, Aaron had tried his best to help him and went out of his way to try and connect with him so he would get the assistance he needed.
But two years later the troubled teen walked into the high school and shot and killed 17 people, including Aaron.
The Sheriff’s Office in Parkland had received numerous calls about threatening behavior by Cruz. Former classmates said he had anger management issues and that he joked often about gun violence.
Michael believes that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School football team will remember Aaron as a mentor and inspiration.
The team is a winning football team, almost always in the top five or top two in the state of Florida,” says Michael. “This might make the team stronger and solid and make them that much more of a force in honor of Aaron. I’m hoping you won’t see the effects of this tragedy as far as winning and losing. I hope they get who they need as far as a coach to inspire the team. Kids will use it to become stronger and win games for Aaron.”
When Michael went to Parkland for his brother’s wake, more than 2,000 people were there on the first day and on the second day there were 1,500.
“It was a testament to his kindness and caring,” he said. “No one was surprised that he shielded three girls from the gunman. I like to believe I would do the same thing, but you never know until it happens, you never know. I know that if Aaron had survived the shooting, a week after he recovered, if he was in the same situation, he would have gone and done the same thing again. He never looked for reward or recognition.”
While Aaron’s family has had good days and bad since the shooting, they are looking forward to seeing their loved one honored at the ESPY awards.
The upcoming ESPY award show will air live on ABC and will be hosted by Danica Patrick.
While the award has usually gone to coaches of professional teams, this year ESPN decided it will be given for heroism off the field.
ESPN's Vice President Alison Overholt called the Florida men heroes, saying they are being honored for "their immeasurable bravery in the face of danger and for their ultimate sacrifice to protect the lives of countless students."
In remembrance of their loved one, the family created The Coach Aaron Feis Foundation to continue his legacy and work, by helping youth to ensure they are able to realize the potential in themselves as coach Feis would've seen it, through mentoring, student outreach, including clothing, nutrition and education. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/groups/474879389632965/
As far as the issues of mental illness and gun control that resurface after each mass shooting, Michael believes that, like the hope his brother instilled in so many students at the high school, we should all give each other hope.
“The world would be better, we are so politically divided,” says Michael.
“As a kid we didn’t have to worry about this sickness in the heart – it’s a heart problem. We keep blaming it on guns and life circumstances. I grew up not having to worry about these kinds of things. I was involved in all kinds of schools from very mixed schools to not very mixed schools. Schools with a big spectrum of people being poor and being rich and you didn’t have to worry about people being shot. Today we do. There’s a core heart value problem. The value of life, the value of each other, the value of yourself. I think what sort of destroys the value of life and the value of each other and lifting each other up is a sense of entitlement and a sense of victimhood, whatever is popular these days. If we can focus on the heart and lifting each other up, we wouldn’t have to worry about this, regardless if there are guns or not. I think Nikolas Cruz was a mental health failure. I think the whole system that was tracking him, that knew he had these problems allowed someone who had clear mental health problems to just walk through the system. It’s ridiculous the amount of people who were tracking this whole event, this person who did this, all the stuff that led up to it. I can’t believe it. We’re talking about someone who was identified clearly with mental health problems before he finished high school. People need to feel responsible for doing their job. As my brother would say, ‘What are you gonna do today?’”