Faith after shock

Josh Peter
Yahoo! SportsJune 29, 2009
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Flowers left near the Aplington-Parkersburg High School football field in memory of football coach Ed Thomas.

(Special to Yahoo! Sports)

More coverage: Iowa preps
News conference after tragedy (YouTube)
Team's first game after tornado in 2008 (YouTube)
Des Moines Register coverage

PARKERSBURG, Iowa – Not far from the cornfields, in the cool of the morning, Gary Hinders stood waist-deep in a grave. He held a shovel, just like the other four men who took turns digging, first through a foot-and-a-half layer of black dirt, then a mix of sand and clay and finally the stubborn hardpan.

Hinders paused.

"Never thought I'd be digging this one," he said.

"Not in a million years," one of the other men said.

"At least not for this reason," added a third.

This grave was for Ed Thomas, the high school football coach who a year ago served as a driving force behind the town's recovery from the tornado that killed nine people, demolished 288 homes and wiped out one-third of Parkersburg. He rebuilt the ravaged football field at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, led his team to the state semifinals and further established himself as a beloved pillar in the small farming community.

Last week, in front of about 20 students working out in the school's weight room, Thomas was shot to death – about 100 yards from the football field named in his honor and known as "The Sacred Acre." Thomas was 58.

The 24-year-old man charged with first-degree murder is a former player of coach Thomas, the son of a former team captain and the brother of a current player. He is an admitted user of crystal meth and had been arrested on drug-related charges.

In recent months, Thomas had tried to counsel his alleged killer at the request of the young man's family, which attends the same church where Thomas served as an elder, and where the coach's wife and two grown sons accepted condolences on Sunday during visitation. Some stood in a line that stretched for six blocks, four and five people abreast, for 4-1/2 hours to honor the coach. A handful of men pulled red wagons with coolers filled with bottled water that they passed out to those waiting.

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Football coach Ed Thomas was murdered on June 24.

(AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Christopher Gannon)

On Monday, the silver-colored casket was lowered into the grave, which one current and two former players helped dig. More than 2,000 came to pay their respects, including Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz. About 700 squeezed into First Congregational Church, 700 more watching the service on closed-circuit TV at the Veterans Memorial Building, five blocks away, and scores outside the building, listening to the service via speaker.

The pall bearers included four current NFL players who learned the game under Thomas at Aplington-Parkersburg – or A-P as they call it around here. Many still wonder how four corn-fed boys from a town of 1,900 made it to the NFL within the same decade. The players – Jared DeVries, a defensive end for the Detroit Lions; Aaron Kampman, a defensive end for the Green Bay Packers; Brad Meester, a center for the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Casey Wiegmann, a center for the Denver Broncos – credit the work ethic in Parkersburg and Thomas.

His murder will test this community in a way no natural disaster could.

Hinders, a God-fearing man in a God-fearing town, is among residents who believe it's no accident the tornado spared all eight churches in Parkersburg. Nor does he believe it's a coincidence that Thomas – a man known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as for his two state championships and record of 292-84 over 37 seasons – was gunned down.

"You couldn't pick anybody bigger in this town to shoot," said Hinders, 60, who has been the town clerk here for 27 years. "That's evil. …

"It's spiritual warfare. Satan and God are fighting, and in the end I believe God will win."

Early Wednesday, soon after news of the shooting began to spread, residents began asking the same question: How could this happen here, 80 miles northeast of Des Moines and in the heart of Middle America?

Parkersburg is a no-stoplight town surrounded by cornfields and 17 miles from the 99-cent movie theater. The coach's wife, Jan, doubles as the deputy town clerk and deputy chief of the ambulance department. The mayor makes $300 a month.

Fireflies glow on summer nights, and the annual Fun Days festival includes a duck race sponsored by the Lions Club. It's $1 per duck, a number fastened to each before the big race on Beaver Creek begins.

"This is Mayberry in living color," resident Dave Little said.

“It's spiritual warfare. Satan and God are fighting, and in the end I believe God will win.”

– Gary Hinders,
Parkersburg town clerk

Gunshots shattered the tranquility Wednesday morning.

Thomas was supervising workouts in a shed that houses the school's weight room. At about 7:45 a.m., investigators say, Mark Becker walked in and shot the coach several times. Thomas was airlifted to a hospital and died.

Shortly after the shooting, Becker was arrested at his family's rural home. He is being held in a nearby jail on a $1 million bond.

Officials have provided few other details. But witnesses said the gunman ran out of the weight room shouting about the devil.

"Before he got in his car and left, he was screaming about Satan and stuff, yelling random weird things out loud," Tiffany Frey, a 15-year-old student who pulled into the parking lot moments after the shooting, told the Des Moines Register. "Make sure Satan knows! Satan's gotta know!"

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Ed Thomas leads his team against West Marshall High School in Parkersburg, Iowa, on Sept. 5, 2008.

(AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Justin Hayworth)

Soon, the entire town knew something else: Becker had been arrested Saturday night. He allegedly threatened a homeowner in a nearby town with a baseball bat, smashed windows at the home and rammed his car through its garage door. Then Becker led sheriff's deputies on a high-speed chase that ended when he ran into a deer.

He was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation and released the day before he allegedly killed Thomas. Troubling questions continued to swirl.

Why had Becker been back on the streets?

Even though the Becker family is highly regarded, would they be able to remain in Parkersburg?

Could their youngest son, Scott, who will be a senior this fall, possibly rejoin the football team?

And why on earth would Mark Becker allegedly shoot and kill a man who had done so much on Becker's behalf?

In 2003, according to published reports, Becker received a deferred judgment on a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. Thomas endorsed a special court order – signed on Sept. 3, 2003. It noted "the defendant is allowed to participate in football if acceptable to the school." He played that fall as a junior.

In August 2004, according to published reports, Becker was charged with assault and received a four-day jail sentence. He also was charged with underage possession of alcohol, and a month later he pleaded guilty to that charge, according to published reports. That fall Becker played football as a senior, thanks to Thomas.

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Mark Becker is charged with first-degree murder of Ed Thomas.

(AP Photo/Black Hawk County Sheriff's Office via Waterloo Courier)

"The great guy gave [Becker] a second chance," said Jesse Nitcher, a star running back and 2007 A-P graduate who helped dig his coach's grave.

Thomas, who had turned down offers to coach at larger high schools and colleges, apparently found it hard to turn his back on troubled players considering one of his signature refrains: "The only way we win is to look out for one another."

He had a reputation for giving kids chances, and not just stars, or solid players such as Becker, who was a lineman. A few years ago, the honor of leading the team onto the field went to Caleb Meyers, a developmentally disabled student. As a freshman, Meyers had trouble putting on his own uniform. But as a senior, he led the charge and busted through the banner as the A-P Falcons took the field for home games. In lopsided victories, he always played a few snaps.

One day his grandfather, Leland Meyer, approached Thomas. He thanked the coach for letting Caleb play and figured Thomas was just being kind when the coach insisted the boy contributed to the team.

"He kind of put me in my place," Leland Meyer recalls Thomas saying.

Then Thomas told a story.

During halftime one game, Thomas had yelled at his team in the locker room. Caleb Meyer walked up to Thomas the following Monday and looked the coach square in the eye.

"You still mad at us, Coach?" he asked.

After finishing the story, Leland Meyer recalled that Thomas said: "It kind of made me think and put my priorities different."

Leland Meyer also said he'll never forget how Thomas introduced his grandson at the senior awards banquet.

"Here's Caleb Meyer. Unfortunately, he gave more to the team than the team ever gave to him."

Added Leland Meyer: "Just a saint of a man."

Over the course of last week, the town mourned. It also began to heal.

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Local residents walk past a photo of Ed Thomas before a vigil on June 24, 2009, in Parkersburg, Iowa.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

An estimated 2,000 people gathered at the high school football field Wednesday night for a vigil. The Becker family was not present.

The A-P players arrived in their red uniforms with the white numbers and black trim. Players from rival schools arrived by the busload, and they too wore their uniforms. They had come to pay tribute to the coach on his cherished field, "The Sacred Acre," a lush surface as impressive as Thomas' football program.

"To me, there's not a patch of God's earth more beautiful than a high school football field," Thomas wrote for a book that chronicled personal stories from the tornado that barreled through the town at 205 mph on May 25, 2008. "And the one here in Parkersburg, the Iowa farm town where I live, is the loveliest of them all.

"Sometimes on summer mornings, I park my pickup on the hill overlooking the field and just sit for a while gazing out the window at the thick grass, the bright-limed lines, the bleachers that on Friday nights in the fall fill with the fans cheering on our Falcons …

"Our football field is our town square, the place where we connect with each other and with something greater than ourselves. It's kind of like church that way. There's a reason folks have nicknamed the field 'The Sacred Acre.'"

Thomas lost his home to the tornado. But what devastated him more was the sight of the demolished school.

"I picked my way through the exploded trees, broken glass, caved-in trucks," he wrote. "All that was left of the gym was the floor. The main school building next door was a pile of rubble. The field, I thought. What about the football field?

"I stepped through the rubble to the rise that overlooked 'The Sacred Acre.' Debris was strewn everywhere. The bleachers were a tangle of crumpled metal. The goalposts, gone. The scoreboard, shattered in pieces on the ground. And the field, one meticulously groomed field – ripped to shreds. Metal shards, wood beams, tree branches impaled the playing surface from goal line to goal line, sideline to sideline."

Eerily, after the tornado had swept through town, people began to congregate at the field, as if drawn by some unseen force. Thomas stood in shock before he saw a father and son drop to their knees.

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The battered "Falcon Country" sign at Ed Thomas Field at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. The sign was damaged in the EF5 tornado that tore through the area in 2008.

(Special to Yahoo! Sports)

They were picking up debris. They were cleaning up "The Sacred Acre."

"That's when it struck me," Thomas wrote. "It wasn't just our team that had an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit. It was the whole town. … All my years of coaching, I preached strength and togetherness. Out here on the field, I was seeing that principle in action, like never before."

Thomas vowed to have the field ready in time for the team's home opener scheduled for Sept. 5 – even though it would take more than a year to rebuild the high school. The four players in the NFL came back to Parkersburg and helped raise $200,000. They would do anything for Thomas, named the NFL's High School Coach of the Year in 2005 after those four submitted a joint nomination.

Current A-P players and their parents spent untold hours picking up the debris. Rival teams came by bus to help. Two hours before kickoff on Sept. 5, the new scoreboard was plugged in.

The field was ready to go – with a twisted metal sign that read "Falcon Country," the lone memento of what the field had endured.

The Falcons won that night, 53-20. And they kept on winning Friday night after Friday night until they reached the state semifinals before falling to the eventual state champion.

The town rallied around its football team and continued to ride that momentum until Thomas was shot. So far, about 160 homes have been rebuilt and the new high school is expected to be ready this fall. But while the tornado had brought the town together, the murder threatened to tear it apart – depending on how residents reacted to the Beckers.

"Are they going to stay around here?" asked Dean Everts, a quarterback who played for Thomas in the early 1980s. "It's going to be tough to face the people in town again."

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Bob Smeins, a 76-year-old retired carpenter, has taken on extra duties to keep "The Sacred Acre" groomed.

(Special to Yahoo! Sports)

The assistant coaches began reaching out to the players and instructed them not to speak to the media. The players were asked to meet at the elementary school Thursday at 1 p.m. But some of them were working or out of town, and so about 45 players – roughly half of the team – made it. One of them was Scott Becker.

Teammates approached him and offered consoling words, but Scott Becker, still shaken by the shooting, had little to say, according to those familiar with the meeting. But he'd mustered the courage to attend the meeting, and the other players welcomed him back.

They also took heart in an announcement. Nobody could possibly replace Thomas as the head coach, so school administrators called on two men. Al Kerns and Jon Wiegman, the team's longest-serving assistants, agreed to take over as co-head coaches.

At about 10 a.m. Friday, Ron Westerman heard a familiar hum and climbed up a dirt pathway to the field. It was a sight to behold: Bob Smeins, a 76-year-old carpenter, gliding back and forth across the field atop a mower made for golf green. They bought the machine expressly for "The Sacred Acre" because it’s gentler on the grass than a standard riding mower is.

Westerman, who handles maintenance for the elementary and middle schools but also helps with the football field, greeted Smeins with a hug. "Boy, it was good to hear you mowing," Westerman said.

On Wednesday, Smeins explained, he heard a knock at his door. It was Thomas' older son, 30-year-old Aaron. During the summers, Ed Thomas always handled upkeep of the field, sometimes spending up to five hours fertilizing, weeding and watering. In the evenings he walked around the track, not so much for the exercise but rather hunting for unwelcome dandelions.

For six years, Smeins mowed the field three times a week during the school year. But at 76, he enjoyed his leisurely summers. Now Ed Thomas' youngest son came with a request: Will you take care of "The Sacred Acre" this summer?

As if there were any doubt.

On Thursday night, police had taken down the crime-scene tape outside the weight room, housed in a shed where the special riding mower is stored. So there was the mower back on familiar turf Friday morning at "The Sacred Acre," and Smeins talked with Westerman about insecticide, a recent turf convention and specialists from Iowa State who planned to come out and look at the field.

At the nearby elementary school, players and other students met with crisis counselors. They gathered informally too and headed into the country, sitting around campfires late into the night.

By 7 a.m. that next morning, copies of the Des Moines Register were stacked on the cashier's counter at the Kwik-Star, the only gas station in town and the only place to get the Register. A story above the fold fairly screamed at Parkersburg residents.

A judge could have ordered Mark Becker be held longer if law officers had raised questions about his mental condition, the newspaper reported, citing a legal expert's opinion. The comments suggested that by releasing Becker on Tuesday, the day before he allegedly killed Thomas, someone had made a fatal mistake.

Hospital officials claimed they followed procedure. Law enforcement officers claimed they asked to be notified before Becker was released.

Earlier in the week, Dean Everts, the former A-P quarterback, wondered who was to blame. No longer.

"It's too bad," he said. "They can do all the finger pointing they want, but it's done and over."

“He passed on his playbook to all of us. And if you don't know the playbook, then you weren't listening.”

– Chris Luhring, police chief

He said he'd visited the Thomas family, which had requested the media refrain from interview requests.

"They want everybody to forgive," Everts said. "Coach, the man he was, would want everybody to forgive.

"But I don't know if it's going to be that way. I think there are still a lot of people upset. I don't know what's going to happen."

Sunday morning, police chief Chris Luhring stood watch outside of First Congressional Church – where the Thomas and Becker families attended. Usually, there were two services. But now there was one – at 9 a.m.

Five rows from the back, there they were, the Beckers.

The back pew was open until moments before the service started. That is when the Thomas family arrived.

Brad Zinnecker, the head pastor, called on God's mercy for a congregation that had its "guts ripped out." He spoke of Thomas, recalling a man who could be so fiery on the sideline and yet so measured in church. And some of the worshipers quietly wept.

He prayed for the Thomas family. He prayed for the Becker family. He prayed for forgiveness during the hour-long service, and it already had come. The Thomases and Beckers had spoken earlier in the week, people close to the families said. And the coach's younger son and wife urged people to pray for the Beckers, who would gain no closure when Ed Thomas' casket was lowered into the ground.

Dozens of players from teams around the area attended the funeral Monday, wearing football jerseys. Around town, some flags snapped in the breeze at half mast. Shops on the square-block downtown closed. Reporters were prohibited from the funeral because of the large group of mourners.

The people of this tiny farm town face challenges ahead. Mark Becker, charged with first-degree murder, could be headed for trial. The A-P Falcons will head into the 2009 season without their trusted coach. "The Sacred Acre," the field Ed Thomas compared to church when the stands were packed and the players were on the field, will need tending in the absence of its most faithful parishioner.

Luhring, the police chief who played for Thomas and alongside the coach's youngest son, stood outside the weight room on Friday, with members of the crime-scene cleanup team inside.

"Aftermath," read lettering on the side of the van, and those letters might as well have been spread across the water tower on the east end of town. Luhring recalled how Thomas once gave away his playbook to a coach newly hired at another school. Gave away the playbook, Luhring repeated, as if still astounded by the man who would help an opponent even if it resulted in defeat for himself.

Luhring's eyes reddened as he recalled the magnanimous acts of his former coach and one could almost picture all of Parkersburg filing onto "The Sacred Acre" for a game with nothing less than the future of the town at stake. And the beloved coach could only guide them in spirit.

"He passed on his playbook to all of us," Luhring said. "And if you don't know the playbook, then you weren't listening."