On Friday night, the football team from Aplington-Parkersburg High School in Parkersburg, Iowa, took the field without its legendary head coach for the first time since 1975.
The Aplington-Parkersburg Falcons won the season-opening game, beating rival Dike-New Hartford 30 to 14. It was an emotionally charged victory, coming a little more than two months after Falcons coach Ed Thomas was shot and killed while overseeing a weight-lifting session for school athletes. One of his former players was charged with the murder.
The game against Dike-New Hartford drew more than 3,000 people — -remarkable, considering that the population of Parkersburg is right around 1,800. Among those in attendance were hundreds of former players who showed up to honor coach Thomas. Terry DeGroote, 42, wore the red #44 jersey from his senior year in 1985, when he was a defensive back/wide receiver.
"I've seen people [here] I haven't seen in 20 years — over 20 years," he said.
When asked what he remembers most about Coach Thomas, DeGroote answered without hesitation, "compassion. He had compassion for anybody, everybody — whether it was football, whether it was school [where Thomas taught social studies], whether it was in town. That's why so many people are here tonight."
Thomas's compassion — and leadership — were particularly evident within the last year. In May 2008, a tornado devastated Parkersburg, killing eight people and destroying many homes and businesses. Thomas was instrumental in leading the town back from that disaster with his actions and his optimistic attitude.