Willis May scrambled through South Fort Myers High School’s halls for a blood pressure cuff.
It was July 24, five days before the first fall football practice of the season. Five days before four months of preparation would end with real players on a real field. His final step was guiding players to their preseason physicals.
Students handed May medical forms, and his gray eyes scanned the text. He led a group down the hall, keys rattling in cargo shorts. He wore a red Wolfpack hat with a tucked black Wolfpack T-shirt.
With each step, May strode away from South’s newly refurbished weight room, a proving ground for the new program he’s trying to build, and an office stuffed with reminders of the one he left behind.
May, 51, coached at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland for seven years. His new office has an Eagles poster on the wall and a photo of May on the sidelines during a game. May’s life rotated around Friday nights when he fulfilled what he considers is his purpose: to coach.
But last April, May resigned. He had to get away. On Feb. 14, 2018, a gunman walked into the school and shot and killed 17 MSD students and faculty members.
May followed protocol and locked himself in his office. He listened to reports on the radio, unaware to the extent of the loss, suddenly one of the thousands in America connected to a mass shooting, a number which grows seemingly every week.
May said he wished he looked for the shooter, like assistant football coach Aaron Feis and MSD athletic director Chris Hixon, two of the victims.
Confusion and anger eventually gave way to guilt. May coped by coaching. Meanwhile, players, family and friends noted that the trademark May “spark” vanished. Every day, May walked through campus wanting the 1200 building burned to the ground because he couldn’t bear looking at it anymore. His own office sandwiched by Feis’ untouched desk and the empty office of Hixon.
“I felt hurt and injured. I needed to heal,” May said, “… I hated being in school. I hated football.”
The community held vigils and the country grappled with gun control debates. May appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper. E:60 filmed a special on the football team, and May played a starring role. He tried to help his team, and then the entire nation, understand a tragedy while never dealing with it himself. When the South job opened up, he jumped at the opportunity to move closer to his parents, Willis Sr. and Kristine, wishing that the physical distance would lead to closure.