It's the last Friday in August, which is great news for many high school football players around the country. It means, finally, the drudgery of long, hot summer workouts is over — and it's time to play football.
Throughout small-town America, the Friday night ritual begins with entire communities showing up for the opening game. That will certainly be the case in Parkersburg, Iowa, where high school football reigns supreme. But the opener Friday promises to be bittersweet.
For the first time since 1975, the iconic coach of the Aplington-Parkersburg Falcons won't be there to lead his team onto the field. Coach Ed Thomas was shot and killed in June.
The inexplicable tragedy left the town of 1,800 people numb. And it happened as residents were still digging out from another tragic event: In May 2008, a devastating tornado hit Parkersburg and claimed eight lives.
As the season opens in Parkersburg, the story is not just about football. It's also about grief — and the resolve to get up and move on.
On Monday, Aplington-Parkersburg High School opened for the new school year, which is an understatement. It's more appropriate to say the building was reborn.
Dave Meyer, the high school's principal, loves to show off his gleaming, not-quite-finished building. A new commons area also serves as the lunchroom. A new media center is open, and throughout the school, there are 55-inch flat screen televisions for video-streaming. Classrooms are spacious and bright, although the teacher's names outside the rooms are, for now, on pieces of paper taped to the wall. While the academic sections of the school are up and running, a 620-seat auditorium, a competition gym, a fitness center and a weight room — that will double as a storm shelter — won't be open until the end of October or the first part of November.
All this stands on the site of the old high school, which was flattened by last year's powerful tornado. The school is a symbol of the community's resolve to come back — quickly. The school opened its doors a mere 15 months after the storm. As Principal Meyer takes a visitor on a tour, he stops every now and then, looks around and talks about a man who was the driving force behind Parkersburg's comeback — former head football coach Ed Thomas.
"I think he'd be proud of the fact that we're under construction, we're still working toward completion of the building," Meyer says. "He would've loved to see it completed."
How Meyer refers to Thomas in the past tense still seems so strange in Parkersburg, especially across the school parking lot, up the hill, at the football practice field. Surrounding the field, there's a chain-link fence where someone stuffed red plastic Dixie cups that spell out "Coach T.," and the shape of a heart.
Thomas' voice no longer echoes around the field. Instead, it's his longtime assistant Al Kerns, now a co-head coach who, along with his staff, exhorts and scolds and teaches the players. A whopping 92 of the student body's 250 are on the football team.
"To motivate people the way [Thomas] did," Kerns says, "to get effort out of young men the way he consistently did, that's a challenge that we've thought about, and we don't know yet how that's gonna work out."
Another Dark Day In Parkersburg
Two months ago this week, 58-year-old Thomas started his day as he often did — having coffee downtown with his longtime buddy Tom Teeple, the Parkersburg barber.
Gray duct tape covers worn spots on the arms of Teeple's barber chair from 44 years of clients sitting and talking and getting clipped. Teeple remembers that morning of June 24; Thomas was starting to get antsy, as usual.
"He was always doing this," Teeple says, turning over his arm several times, as if looking at a wristwatch.
"I asked him, 'What's going on at 6:30 in the morning?' He said, 'I gotta get to the weight room and get that weight room open,' " Teeple says. "[Thomas] got those kids to buy into it. He had them convinced with the weight training — [that] it made them bigger, stronger and better."
The two men, who had known each other since 1969, said their goodbyes. Teeple went off to the barbershop, Thomas off to the bus barn on campus, which also served as a weight room. About 45 minutes later, the phone rang in the barbershop. On the other end was another friend of Teeple's.
"This friend said, 'We just got a call, Tom. What's going on at the weight room?' And I says, 'What are you talking about?' " Teeple recalls. "The friend says, 'We just got a call, and someone said there was a shooting — at the weight room.' "
Teeple told his friend, "No. Maybe a weight or something dropped and it sounded like a shooting." The friend assured him that there was a shooting — and that it involved Thomas.
Teeple raced up to the school and got there just as Thomas was being taken away. Thomas died later, at the hospital.
A former player, Mark Becker, was arrested and charged in the shooting. He's been in custody since. Initially, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. This week, he is being evaluated to see whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.
The shocking news of Thomas' murder reverberated through Parkersburg, throughout Iowa and throughout the nation. Thomas had achieved national prominence by being named the 2005 NFL High School Coach of the Year, and four of his former players currently play in the NFL.
A Town Reacts
Since the shooting, Parkersburg residents have been left to ponder what became a string of tragedies.
"These are the types of things seminary doesn't prepare you for," says Brad Zinnecker, senior pastor at Parkersburg's First Congregational Church. "It doesn't prepare you for a tornado to wipe out half your town, then 13 months later, a murder."
Many of the people in Parkersburg are devout Christians, but while they may be people of the book, there is little talk, publicly at least, of plagues or the suffering of Job. As one person put it, there's no pity party here. Some of that attitude is because of home-grown Iowa realism. But a big part of that is Thomas' influence.
"If you keep feeling sorry for yourself, you're not going to get anywhere," says Alex Hornbuckle, a senior running back on the football team. "Coach always said you gotta pick yourself up, and you gotta go. You gotta move forward. He always said that after the tornado happened. So just take what he said and apply it to [his death] ... and we'll get through it."
For all his accomplishments as a coach — the two state titles, the many winning seasons, the national recognition — for all that, many put at the top of the list his words and actions after the tornado. He rebuilt his own house, which had been destroyed, but he worked just as hard to help his neighbors. He had his football players dig graves for the dead. And he vowed to clean up and repair the damaged football field and stadium in time for the season three months away. In fact, the field's restoration became a symbol of the town's return — and when, true to his word, the Falcons played their first home game on schedule, it was a vitally important boost to the town, a sign of normalcy amid the rubble.
Since Thomas' death, his son Aaron has shown the same kind of leadership. He had been living and working out of town for several years, but he came back home and took over his dad's job as the Aplington-Parkersburg athletic director. Aaron helped set a tone in Parkersburg. At his father's funeral, Aaron made an emotional appeal — in true Thomas fashion — for local residents to pick up and move forward as better people.
Many also credit Aaron for tamping down anger about the murder. The Thomas family and the family of the alleged killer were closely intertwined. Mark Becker's parents were good friends of Thomas and his wife, Jan. Becker's brother also played for Thomas, and the coach thought highly of him. He continues to play for the football team now.
Hours after Thomas was shot, Aaron made a public appeal: "We also want to make sure we express our concern and our compassion for the Becker family," he said at a news conference, adding, "We ask that people pray for them as well."
For Some, Prayer Is Not Enough
"We have been so busy trying to put things back together, we never really stopped and said, 'How'd this make you feel?' " Those are the words of Paula Buchholz, a biology teacher at Aplington-Parkersburg, as well as the head softball coach.
Her concerns about unexpressed feelings found a forum this week. The school brought in a trauma and grief specialist to talk to teachers. The idea was to help teachers so they can help students deal with stress, especially the 20 or so young people who witnessed Thomas' murder.
At the session, some of those stoic Iowans shared some deep feelings related to the tragic events. People talked about anger, guilt, fear and a lack of control — particularly regarding the murder, for which there is no known motive. Buchholz encountered that sense of helplessness with her own 12-year-old son. One day he said to her, "Mom, I've decided that if someone wants to kill you, it doesn't matter what you do. They'll just do it."
For Buchholz, it was a sad thing to hear from a 12-year-old, especially in a small town where people generally feel safe — or used to. Buchholz says she couldn't disagree with her son, and told him, "I guess that tells us that we have to live our life right, and we simply have to take advantage of every single day and do our best so we're ready when it's our time to go."
Choose to live right, and be your best every day — sounds like Ed Thomas.
More Than A Game, Again
For the second straight year, the season-opening football game for the Falcons will be fraught with meaning. Last year, the game was a symbol of the town's recovery. It was a proud moment — the Falcons won. An emotional Thomas talked after the game about its significance.
A year later, it will be another emotional home opener, but one so different: This one is tougher.
"It'll be an emotional roller coaster," Pastor Zinnecker says. "Every time we score, there'll be cheers and rah-rah. But I'm sure there'll be times when one of the coaches will be yelling at the team and everyone will think, 'That's not Ed's voice. Where's Ed? Oh, yeah ... Ed's not here.'"
Many of the Falcons players are calling Friday the most important game of their lives. The coaches worry about the pressure the players might feel, trying to "win it for Ed." Plus, they'll be playing in front of ESPN cameras. The network is showing the game nationwide.
Who knows what Coach Kerns will say to his team before the game. Because many in Parkersburg seem dedicated to doing things "the way Ed would do," here's what he probably would do: Lead his players to the front of the new ticket gate, a stadium addition he envisioned, and show them the new plaque dedicated to him. Tell them to relax, and read carefully what it says:
"If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach."