There were seven of them in the high school football office when the first shots rang out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School three weeks ago. Douglas head football coach Willis May was gathered with four of his student-athletes, including quarterback Tyler Goodman, plus two representatives from Nichols College: running backs coach St. Clair Ryan and assistant dean for enrollment Paul Brower.
It was supposed to be a standard meet-and-greet where representatives of the college get to know the athletes and tell them why they’d be happy playing sports and studying at the Division 3 school in Dudley, Mass.
But then everything changed.
“We had been in there for about 10 minutes when we heard a fire alarm go off,’’ Brower recalled. “It was very abrupt. A minute later, the Code Red came over the loudspeaker.
“Coach May went and locked down the outer locker-room doors and did all the stuff he was supposed to do and we were all just in the office. You could hear gunshots clear as day. It was probably 60-70 yards away, but we were in a safe place.
“There’s multiple pods to the building, so it wasn’t in the part of the building we were in, but you could hear it. Plus, they had a walkie-talkie in the coach’s office and we could hear the school camera operator and security going back and forth with the authorities.’’
The casual meet-and-greet turned into three hours of fear and tension, as the adults in the locked room tried to keep things calm.
“I felt safe,’’ said Brower. “We weren’t hiding under our desks or anything like that. But I knew I was in a room with a bunch of people who were such a part of this community. It became apparent pretty quick what was going on, and these people we were with really knew all the people, and that’s what I was concerned about.
“Coach May was unbelievable keeping his guys calm. We wanted them to reach out to their families and let them know that they were safe. They reached out to their siblings and friends. Then that changed to them getting social media about what was happening and we were telling them, ‘Hey, guys, it’s not going to do any good. Just focus on letting everyone know you are all right.’ ’’
Brower, 39, who is also the men’s and women’s tennis coach at Nichols, e-mailed officials at Nichols and called his wife in Auburn, Mass., to let her know that he was safe.
Minutes turned into half-hours . . . there was tense small talk . . . some attempts to talk about football . . . a lot of everybody looking at their phones.
While they waited and worried, it was learned that Stoneham Douglas assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who was also a security guard at the school, had been shot.
“Four high school seniors and a football coach learning that one of the other coaches was hurt,’’ said Brower. “I played football in high school and college and I know how close I was to some of my coaches along the way. That was hard.’’
Feis died using his body to shield a freshman girl in the hallway.
Coach May’s office has a window that looks out over the school’s athletic fields. Brower believes he and the others saw the shooter flee from the school grounds.
“We didn’t know it was him at the time,’’ said Brower. “You could see people along the fence lines running as hard as they could. And there was this one kind of random person that came through the middle and was kind of jogging.
“You don’t think anything of it at the time, but then a few minutes later when you hear the camera operator tracked him and said he cut across the basketball court toward the softball and baseball field, and we’re sitting there looking out at the softball and baseball field, and we’re like, ‘Wait a minute — that was the kid.’
“When the name came across later, a couple of the kids commented that they knew him from middle school.
“It finally came over the radio that they were starting to clear rooms. We went into one of the outer offices that had windows facing into one of the big hall areas. We just kind of yelled out so that the authorities knew we were there. We came out with hands up and walked into a gym area.
“There was a mixture of Broward County Sheriffs and Fort Lauderdale SWAT. We saw everyone from the local sheriff to the FBI joint terrorism task force. They did a quick pat-down. They searched my laptop bag. They made sure we were of no danger and proceeded to get us out of the school.
“The hardest part was when they exited us and we were walking through those lines and you see kids see their friends and sharing news. Seeing parents at the edge of the area, going, ‘Where’s my son, where’s my daughter?’ That was the hardest part.
“For us it was a bad day and a scary situation, but their whole world got rocked.’’
Per NCAA regulations, Nichols officials are prohibited from releasing names of student-athletes who have committed to play at their school, but last Friday, Goodman tweeted that he has committed to Nichols.
Goodman told Channel 25 in Boston, “Being stuck with two recruiting coaches for three hours in such a tragic moment, we kind of formed a bond, like something special.’’
At Nichols, Goodman hopes to wear No. 17 — to honor the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 massacre at his high school.Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org