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Douglas coach Willis May, left, and St. Matthews Tigers coach Jean Guillaume exchange school jerseys with number 17 to commemorate the 17 victims of the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting. Photo courtesy of St. Mattew's Tigers, Twitter

More than a game: Ottawa team plays against Parkland school marred by mass shooting

  • September 4, 2018

Beyond the competition, football is about brotherhood for the St. Matthew’s Tigers. 

Even after losing 30-6 on Sept. 1, the Ottawa school football team walked away from their first international game at the 2018 Freedom Bowl in Atlanta, Ga., with full hearts, knowing the experience was about much more than playing a game.

“We were honoured to be part of a game for a team that wants to get back on track,” said Jean Guillaume, teacher and football coach at St. Matthew Catholic High School in Ottawa. 

What made the game special was that the Tigers’ opponents were from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School of Parkland, Fla., site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history. On Feb. 14, 2018, a 19-year-old gunman opened fire at the high school, killing 17 students and staff, and injuring 17 others. 

“It took me a bit of time to realize that it was Parkland where there was a shooting,” Guillaume said. “I met with the kids to explain to the guys the context and how important it was and how great of an honour it was to be chosen to play against them.”

One of the victims of the shooting was assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who jumped in front of the gunfire to shield his students. 

It was Feis’ story that stood out for Guillaume and, as he reflected on the tragedy, he realized that he would have done the same thing if he were put in the same situation.

“I know (the team) very well and I’m really, really close to them,” said Guillaume. “So if there would be such a situation, I don’t think I would react differently. That’s why it was so touching…. As a coach and as a leader, you have to protect the kids.”

A week before the tournament, Guillaume reached out to Douglas head coach Willis May. They talked mostly about football and their training programs, connecting with each other through their common love of the game. 

“We spoke for at least two and a half hours on the phone,” he said. “He told me that there were some kids that didn’t want to go back to the school and there were still some kids that were affected by it, but I made sure we stuck to talk about football and giving our kids a great opportunity.”

The Douglas football team has added new routines in preparation for this year’s season. The team observes a 17-second moment of silence before every practice to mark the 17 lives lost earlier this year. They also pay tribute to their deceased coach Feis with a life-size banner that team members pat for good luck before they take the field. 

The tournament marked a fresh start for Stoneman Douglas. 

“There is a whole different feel to this game for us,” May told Score Atlanta. “We’ve never gotten to travel like this for a game…. This is something that the kids see the bigger teams getting to do each season and our kids are really excited about having this opportunity.”

Guillaume said that the best way the St. Matthews Tigers could honour their brothers from Stoneman Douglas was not by focusing on the tragedy but by offering them good competition.

The game was part of a three-day tournament organized to raise awareness for veterans, wounded soldiers and their military families in the United States. 

Twelve teams from high schools across the United States were matched to play six games over Labour Day weekend with St. Matthew being the only Canadian team. 

After the game, the teams shook hands and thanked each other for a great game. Coaches exchanged team jerseys and they ended their meeting by taking a knee and praying together. 

“That’s the one thing I want to instil in them is that in life, you don’t go to God only when bad things happen, but when good things happen, you go to God and thank Him also,” said Guillaume. 

“As Christians, we see the world as a global village and when things happen to our brothers across the border, it happens to us as well.”

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