PARKLAND — Soft, gated-community kids. That’s what Willis May used to blurt out whenever he wanted to stick a needle under his players.
May is the football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. What the past 3 1/2 weeks have proven to him is how far off-base that stereotype was. When his football team reunited following the most traumatic day of their lives, May promised them they’d never hear him say those words again.
“Y’all are the strongest kids I know,” he told them.
They’re MSDStrong, but not so strong that they can’t use a hand.
Sunday, they got it from the Dolphins. A few days before that, it was the Heat. Before them, the Panthers and the Marlins.
The stars have brought money. They’ve brought prayers. They’ve brought themselves.
They’ve brought smiles.
Sunday, the Dolphins teamed with about 50 football players from Douglas and three other organizations to conduct a football clinic for kids ages 7-16 at Pine Trails Park. It’s the same park where a few weeks prior, thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil in memory of the 17 victims of the shooting at Douglas on Feb. 14.
What was unfolding Sunday was something not even a sudden cloudburst could ruin.
“It’s a blessing,” May said. “I’ve got a fifth-grader myself and he’s seen us come home every day upset for three weeks and he’s like, ‘I’m tired of everybody being sad all the time.’
“And I just saw him and he’s just runnin’ and playin’ and havin’ a blast.”
Being in a big-league region as we are, it’s nice to be able to take in a game year-round. Championship parades — and we’ve had our share — are even nicer.
But if these weeks have opened our eyes to anything, it’s never to underestimate the power these teams and these athletes have to lift us up for reasons more meaningful than touchdowns and baskets and home runs and goals.
Douglas High’s ice hockey team — yes, the Eagles play hockey and they’re state champions at it, thank you — work out at the same Coral Springs rink that the Panthers do. Last Monday, the Panthers invited them to practice at their arena, the BB&T Center, then arranged with the NHL to have the Stanley Cup crash the party. One of the Eagles called it one of the best days of his life. As the commercials say: Priceless.
A couple of days later, Dwyane Wade spent a couple of hours at Douglas, taking selfies with all comers. You probably heard about that, just like the $100,000 the Dolphins donated to the GoFundMe page to aid victims (it’s approaching $3 million). Rest assured there’s plenty more happening that stays behind the scenes to reassure beneficiaries these acts are for the right reasons.
Here’s one that went under the radar: On Feb. 28, the Broward Sheriff’s Office rounded up members of the Dolphins, Heat, Marlins and Panthers, but it was unlike any rounding up you might picture. Coaches and athletes visited five survivors of the shooting at their homes. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was there. So were Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, receiver Kenny Stills and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who live in Parkland.
Another Parkland resident is Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo, whose impassioned on-ice speech before a game went viral on social media. The Dolphins and Panthers have hosted blood drives. Big-league baseball players wore MSD caps in spring training. On and on it goes.
The clinic attracted Dolphins offensive tackle Sam Young, who grew up in neighboring Coral Springs, and guard Jermon Bushrod, who, when he realized he’d be in town, said, “I’ve got to make it out.”
Corey Liuget is a defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers. He has no connection to Douglas — he’s from Hialeah — but he visited the campus and told May he’s starting a $10,000 scholarship fund in the name of Aaron Feis, May’s offensive line coach who was killed trying to shield students from the bullets.
“And other NFL guys are jumping in now, putting money into the fold so we can give scholarships to some of our kids,” May said. “Amazing.”
May couldn’t be more grateful.
“I’ve had a bad three weeks,” he said. “So has everybody in this community. We keep trying to make the people we lost proud.
“Aaron Feis was my assistant coach for six years and I loved him. He’s my brother. You go in my office and he sits right next to me. You open the door on the other side and there’s Chris Hixon (the Eagles’ athletic director, who also was killed). We were always, us three, together in my office and I miss them guys every day.”
Sunday was a fun day, but nobody forgot what brought everyone together. The clinic began with the reading of 17 names and a moment of silence.
Then, the mood changed.
“Look how happy these kids are out here,” said John Bock, the former Dolphins guard who coaches the Parkland Rangers Pop Warner football team. Bock’s daughter, Brooke, is a freshman who on any day other than the afternoon of Feb. 14 would be at Douglas.
“She actually got stunt by a bee and went home at noon,” Bock said. “So it was the luckiest day of our lives. Otherwise she would have been in that freshman hallway” where the shooting occurred.
It’s enough to make you shudder. May’s quarterback, Tyler Goodman, was holed up during the shooting with recruiters from Nichols College in Massachusetts. He wasn’t expecting to go there but developed such a bond in those tense moments, he is now.
Wednesday, the one-month anniversary since the tragedy, will be marked by a 17-minute student walkout to advocate safer schools. Another stand by students who now hear May tell them they’re stronger than kids anywhere else.
“They’ve not been through what you’ve been through,” May tells them. “And the way you’re coming and fighting and staying strong … you’re amazing.
“They amaze all of us and we’re just proud to be from Parkland.”
Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook