Back in the days when he attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Joseph LaGuardia had a good friend who was working his way through some tough times.
But there were two constants that his friend could count on -- football and church.
The friend was Aaron Feis, who would later become a security guard and football coach at his alma mater. Feis has emerged as one of the most heroic figures in the school massacre in Parkland, Fla. Students said he used his massive frame to shield the innocent and was fatally wounded while doing so.
The national press has paid attention to the Feis story, with lots of quotes talking about his unique and powerful bond with students and his commitment to his work. He died in a local hospital, while friends sent out waves of social-media appeals for prayer on his behalf.
Today, LaGuardia is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, north of West Palm Beach. I don't know how the local newspaper found him, but his warm words about Feis added some interesting and poignant details to his life story.
The bottom line: Bless be the ties that bind.
As often is the case, there may have been a faith angle in all of those appeals for prayer. In a way, that's the theme that ran through this week's "Crossroads" podcast, which followed up on my earlier post about the Ash Wednesday-Valentine's Day shooting. Click here to tune that in.
But back to the TCPalm.com story about Feis, as seen through the eyes of this pastor who knew him well.
LaGuardia ... said Feis was a couple of years behind him in school, but the two grew close through their church, the New Covenant Church on the Lake in Pompano Beach.
“There were three of us friends who spent most weekends together,” LaGuardia said. “We were very active in the youth group, kind of always there when the doors opened. And his wife was also part of the youth group as well.”
Feis, he said, was always involved with high school football.
“The football program was kind of what saved his life because he came from kind of a hard background,” LaGuardia said. “His football experience was very meaningful because his coach kept him accountable for his grades and kept him out of trouble.”
The pastor said the big man shielding students with his own body was just being himself.
“Aaron had a big heart, and he’s an extremely loving person, very quiet and a good sense of humor, but I’m not surprised that he did what he did,” LaGuardia said of Feis. “I know you may hear this from other people at funerals, but he was genuinely and sincerely a very compassionate person.
“That’s why I knew my friend Aaron would be in the fray,” he added, “because he was part of the security team and I knew he wouldn’t stand back.”
So, am I saying that this was a "religion story"? Of course not.
Am I saying that newsrooms, when dealing with this kind of story, should have someone check local churches to look for relevant religion angles?
Yes, I am. Did anyone think -- after the events Wednesday afternoon -- to have reporters quietly visit Ash Wednesday services that night in the close-knit Parkland community? Did anyone pay close attention to the tributes to Feis and others at the community memorial services? Were there FACTUAL DETAILS in those presentations that would have helped flesh out reports about the victims and those who stood in harm's way?
Well, The Palm Beach Post did cover one large, emotional prayer vigil and memorial.
This is the full report:
After authorities released the names of 17 people who were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, hundreds gathered for a candlelight memorial service at Pine Trails Park.
As 17 angel figures stood lit up on the stage of the park’s amphitheater, Fred Guttenberg addressed the crowd. His daughter, Jaime, was killed in the shooting.
“I don’t know what I do next,” he said, his voice breaking up. “Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as gun violence. It happened in Parkland.”
That's that, I guess.
Meanwhile, we were left with -- in the case of Feis -- features with faith-shaped holes in the middle of them. Take, for example, The Los Angeles Times story that set out to tell the Feis story in close detail, under this headline: "Victim and hero: Florida football coach ushered his students to safety before the gunman came for him."
Sense anything missing in this lengthy passage?
... In the immediate hours after the killings, Feis quickly fulfilled the role of hero for a community badly in need of one.
Feis was a familiar sight to many of the 3,000 or so students at the school, where he also worked as a security guard, patrolling the open-air hallways in a golf cart. He was a true Eagle -- the school mascot -- having attended Douglas, playing center on the football team. He graduated in 1999 and returned as a coach three years later, eventually settling in nearby Coral Springs with his wife, Melissa Feis, and their 8-year-old daughter, Ariel, who would sometimes accompany him to practice and run onto the field.
"He was the nice coach -- the one who never yelled at us," said 17-year-old Yohance Williams, a senior who plays linebacker. "He was more of a friend than a coach to us. We all loved coach Feis."
Imposing. Sympathetic. Loving. Committed. Courageous. Kind. A family man. You get the picture. Anything else?
I sure hope that some newsroom sends some reporters to key local churches in the Parkland area this Sunday.
I would start with the New Covenant Church on the Lake in Pompano Beach and First Baptist Church of Vero Beach.