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Faith, family, football

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Ed Thomas leads the Aplington-Parkersburg High School football team onto the field on Sept. 5, 2008.
(AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Justin Hayworth)

PARKERSBURG, Iowa – Dusk and rain fell on this small farming town, and the hum of cicadas ceased. On that soupy evening, the parents of football players at Aplington-Parkersburg High School went about their task much like the football team prepared for its game Friday night – the team's first since its legendary coach was gunned down by a former player.

The game against longtime rival Dike-New Hartford was televised nationally by ESPN. Aplington-Parkersburg won 30-14. But there were no cameras around Wednesday after practice, when, despite the rain and darkening sky, five parents squeezed red plastic cups into a chain-link fence outside the practice field.

After working on wet grass for 30 minutes, they backed up and admired their handiwork, which read:

FAITH … FAMILY … FOOTBALL

They invoke those words to capture the essence of Ed Thomas, the slain coach known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as his love for football. In 37 seasons – all but three at A-P, as they call the high school – he won two state championships, amassed a record of 292-84 and repeated one refrain as ritualistically as they plant and harvest corn here in Parkersburg, which has no stoplights and sits about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.

Thomas' credo is engraved alongside a picture of the coach on a plaque made after his death June 24 and mounted on front of the new ticket booth this week.

"If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach."

The week leading up to the game Friday revealed more about Thomas, who was 58 when he was shot in the school's weight room. And more about a town of 1,800, ripped apart by a tornado just a year earlier, coping with yet another tragedy.

Monday

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Jim Clark staked out seats Monday for his family and the Becker family. He fastened blankets and rain gear to the metal bleachers, a custom among fans who want to reserve seats for the upcoming games.
(Josh Peter/Yahoo! Sports)

The school bell did not ring as scheduled at 8:15 a.m.

The bell did not ring at all.

The intercom crackled, and the 240 students had to gather in the stadium bleachers because there was no other place big enough for the principal, Dave Meyer, to address them. But in Parkersburg, this hardly qualified as disaster. It was almost fitting, in fact, to begin the school year not inside the new $19 million building but in front of the football field named in honor of Ed Thomas and known as "The Sacred Acre."

It is the field Thomas groomed meticulously for more than three decades, and, on the day it was ravaged by the tornado, the coach declared it would be ready in time for the 2008 season opener. He made good on his promise.

The bleacher seats were highly coveted for that game, a jubilant 53-20 victory that marked another step in the town's recovery. The game also marked the beginning of an 11-1 season that further rallied folks who were rebuilding their homes and their lives. But now Parkersburg was grieving, and it was hard to know how people felt about the approaching game – until the students headed back into the building Monday morning and Jim Clark arrived.

He headed for the middle section of the home-side bleachers, climbed up eight rows, one row below the press box, and got to work. Using duct tape and bungee cords, he tied the blankets to the metal benches and, as is customary among A-P fans, reserved seats for the game, this time five days before kickoff.

A section of seats Clark reserved were for the Beckers, the family of the former player who killed the coach. He wasn't just any former player either. He was the son of one of Ed Thomas' first team captains and the older brother of a starting offensive lineman.

Mark Becker, 24, entered the school's weight room early on the morning of June 24 and in front of about 20 students shot Thomas at close range, according to police and eyewitness reports. Court filings show Becker intends to claim insanity and/or diminished responsibility as a defense against the first-degree murder charges. But this week his attorney filed documents stating Becker suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and is unfit to stand trial.

He remains in jail on a $1 million bond while the likes of Clark, a railroad yardmaster who lives in Parkersburg, stake out seats at the Sacred Acre. Clark and his wife are close friends with the Beckers, and two days after the shooting they visited the shattered parents, Joan and Dave. While they were there, Joan Becker took a phone call.

It was Jan Thomas, wife of the murdered coach.

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Aplington-Parkersburg High School players hit the sleds.
(John Richard Photography)

"What a wonderful person," Clark recalled Joan Becker saying.

The Beckers also had received a call from the Wiegmann family that includes Jon, a longtime assistant football coach at A-P; Coy, a senior and the team's starting quarterback; and Dawn, president of a group that includes all parents of the senior players. They arranged for Scott Becker, the younger brother of Mark Becker and a senior lineman, to come to their house.

More than a dozen teammates were waiting.

They'd sent him text messages of encouragement almost immediately after Mark Becker was arrested the morning of June 24. When Scott Becker arrived at the Wiegmanns' house, his teammates embraced him. Then they played ping pong, horsed around and watched movies.

"We had him smiling the whole time," Coy Wiegmann recalled.

The next day, the players went swimming in the pond behind the Beckers' house. But people still worried that Scott Becker, well-liked but quiet, might grow even more withdrawn. When the coaches called a team meeting at the elementary school library that week, Ed Thomas' grown sons, Aaron and Todd, took Scott Becker into the hallway.

Teammates recall him returning to the library with tears in his eyes and a look of relief, as if unburdened by the feelings of guilt or shame. On Aug. 10, the first day of preseason drills, Scott Becker moved into his position as the team's starting left tackle. He listened intently to the Falcons' new offensive line coach, Todd Thomas.

Joan Becker had taken over as secretary of the senior parents' group. She also sat next to Jan Thomas during Sunday services at First Congregational Church.

It was the church they had both attended for decades and where Ed Thomas had served as an elder and counseled Mark Becker. The Beckers sought Ed Thomas' help as their son's behavior grew increasingly erratic.

Two weeks ago, Clark knew the Beckers would attend the game on Friday. But he felt even better when he saw the family at a recent scrimmage and they gave him their blankets. Yes, they wanted seats – 12 of them.

The Falcons would be on national TV, and the Beckers planned to be there.

Tuesday

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The A-P squad sprints to the finish of practice.
(John Richard Photography)

On a field across the street from the building where their coach was murdered, the A-P Falcons went through practice drills in front of a small audience.

One father watched from inside his truck. Two fathers watched from a slope on the grass. And then there was a younger, burly, bearded man watching alone from atop a small hill.

The man had driven past the field a handful of times in recent weeks. But, still haunted by the shooting, he would not let himself get any closer until Wednesday afternoon. He was greeted by the familiar sight of red helmets and red uniforms worn by the Falcons as they slammed into tackling dummies and into each other.

"There's Cody Wiegmann," one of the fathers said when he spotted the burly man.

Virtually everyone in Parkersburg knows Cody Wiegmann, brother of Casey Wiegmann, a center for the Denver Broncos and one of four A-P Falcons playing in the NFL. The Wiegmanns were stalwarts among the legions to play for Ed Thomas. Those numbers kept growing at a pace that defied the school's enrollment of 240.

This past spring, Ed Thomas told people he expected to field one of his largest rosters ever, and he was giddy at the thought of needing an extra bus to get his small-town team to away games. After the shooting, however, distraught younger players talked of quitting. If they couldn't play for Thomas, some told their parents, they wouldn't play at all.

From the top of the hill overlooking the practice field, Cody Wiegmann, who works locally as a carpenter, saw the largest squad in A-P history. Of the 125 boys attending A-P this year, 93 will suit up for the football team this fall.

From his spot on the hill, Wiegmann also heard the familiar voices of Al Kerns and Jon Wiegmann, longtime assistant coaches who'd taken over as co-head coaches. They directed the Falcons through 51 and 52 trap, 38 sweep left and right, 33 dive and 53 blast – the same plays Cody Wiegmann and every other former Falcon knew. There never was any surprise for opposing teams.

The Falcons were coming straight at you.

As practice neared its third hour, the players lined up for wind sprints. Up and down the field they chugged.

"He always had his eyes on you," Cody Wiegmann said. "He had his eyes on everybody."

He was talking about Ed Thomas and the coach's intensity. He felt the absence of both when the coaches on the field stopped the freshmen in mid-sprint and made them run it again.

"How bad do you want it?" an assistant coach hollered.

No one yet quite knew.

Nor did the players know what was happening the next day on their way to the locker room.

Wednesday

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The parents of five players used red plastic cups to spell out the values prioritized by the team's slain football coach.
(Josh Peter/Yahoo! Sports)

As the players arrived to change into their practice gear, school superintendent Jon Thompson stood outside the commons area through which the players walk. He directed them around the building.

Inside, a group of more than 100 people which included teachers, town librarians and law enforcement officers listened to William Steele, a founder of the National Institute for Loss and Trauma in Children.

"If you can take care of yourselves, then you're going to be able to take better care of the kids," Steele told the group. "Because they're going to need a lot from you."

During a brief intermission, someone approached Steele and identified one of the people in attendance. The short-haired woman in the back of the room. It was Jan Thomas.

An EMT who was on call the morning of her husband's death, Jan Thomas was among the first to arrive at the scene.

Steele, who has specialized in trauma for more than three decades, took note of someone else in the room – Aaron Thomas, 30, the slain coach's oldest son. Todd Thomas, the coach's younger son, had left his job as a financial adviser after the shooting and taken over as the team's offensive line coach. Aaron Thomas had taken on even greater responsibility.

It was Aaron Thomas who spoke at his father's funeral and told more than 2,000 gathered for the service that it was OK to mourn that Monday, but on Tuesday they must get back to work, and get there early. That if people truly wanted to honor his father, they would move forward, with a sense of purpose, the same way his father lived.

Three weeks later, Aaron Thomas resigned as athletic director at a nearby high school and took over as A-P's athletic director, a position previously held by his father.

Many in the community said he looked and sounded just like a younger Ed Thomas, only tougher. His strength betrayed any lingering grief, and Steele worried.

"No matter how strong you think you are, trauma is trauma," he told the group inside the commons. "It's a universal experience, and we're all vulnerable to it."

After his two-hour presentation, Steele said he wondered where Parkersburg would be in three years, only then would the grieving process for many here have run its course. He was sure it was nothing football could solve. But he'd never seen a community as tightly knit by faith, family and … yes, football.

A group of recent A-P graduates decided to order red wristbands embedded with those words – faith, family and football – and sell them for $3 apiece, with the money going to the Ed Thomas Memorial Fund.

They ordered 1,500. Sold out in two days.

They ordered another 1,000. Those lasted a week.

They ordered another 1,000. Gone in 10 days.

They ordered another 300, which arrived this week and were on sale on game day.

Thursday

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After practice Thursday, the Aplington-Parkersburg players put special stickers honoring their former coach on the backs of their helmets. The FFF stands for faith, family and football and represented the values of slain coach Ed Thomas.
(Josh Peter/Yahoo! Sports)

Gray clouds. Misty air. Soggy grass. All waited for the A-P Falcons when they returned to the practice field, and the practice was as crisp as the coaches' exhortations.

First a lap around the field followed by calisthenics.

"Square the corners all the way through!"

"Good job. You got it figured out, men!"

"Come on, guys, let's get ready to roll!"

"Hips down, hips down, hips down!"

"Turn it loose a little bit. Turn it loose!"

Initially it was first-team offense vs. first-team defense. A low-contact drill through scripted plays.

"Here we go, here we go, on the hop. Tempo!"

"Good-good-good-good. Way to get off the ball!"

"That's it, that's it, that's it!"

Switched up, first-team defense vs. first-team offense. Another slight-contact drill through set coverage schemes.

"Double out, cover four. Remember, in cover four, you two linebackers are normal. Remember!"

"Lightning, lightning. Single back!"

"Play fast. Play fast out there. You're playing too slow!"

"Vertical, D-tackles. Vertical-vertical-vertical."

Special teams. Two-minute offense. Sprints.

"Everybody in!"

The team huddled around Kerns, who spent more than two decades coaching under Ed Thomas before forced into the position of co-head coach.

"Fellas, this should be a special moment," he said.

They'd been waiting for this moment almost as much as the game itself.

The coaches passed out decal stickers that read "FFF 09." By now, the three Fs and what they stood for were embedded in their brains, if not their hearts.

Faith, family and football.

Players wiped their helmets dry and carefully placed the decals on the backs.

"You've done everything you need to do to get it done tomorrow," Kerns told them.

Then the players gathered in a tight huddle one last time and chanted with a force that would've drowned out orders from the coaching staff.

"Where you from? A-P!"

"Where you from? A-P!"

"Where you from? A-P!"

"Red pride! Work hard!"

Before leaving the field, players had an opportunity to pick up four tickets. Those tickets would be needed by parents, friends or anyone else who hoped to sit in the middle section of the home bleachers.

So much for the blankets tied down five days before kickoff.

As the first game since Ed Thomas was gunned down drew near, a team and its town planned to show a national TV audience and anybody else watching that faith, family and football are more than words.

They did just that.

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