High school coach symbolized hope

PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- As he stood on the wall of his crumbling foundation last summer, pointing to the soaking-wet pillows that saved his life, Ed Thomas refused to cry. Sure, the 58-year-old high school football coach had had his moments, thinking about the six people who lost their lives in the F5 tornado that leveled half the town. But this was no time for tears.

Instead, this moment was a chance to inspire. To motivate. To spread his lifelong message of resurrection. Ed Thomas wanted to remind people that nothing -- not even a three-quarter-mile-wide tornado with winds in excess of 200 mph -- could tear apart his town. So after he pointed out the pillows, after he talked about the corner where he and his wife Jan prayed it wouldn't be the end, after he told the story about the players he'd asked to help dig those six graves, Thomas stood on his own home's foundation and talked of his future, and the town's future.

"They're going to start rebuilding in a couple weeks," he said at the time. "We aren't going anywhere. Tragedy makes you stronger. It brings people together. And we will be a better community -- a stronger community -- because of what we've gone through. I want to be a part of that."

On Wednesday morning, the coach's words about tragedy took on somber, more personal meaning, one that no one in this town might have imagined. One of his former players, 24-year-old Mark Becker, reportedly walked into the school's bus barn where athletes were lifting weights, pulled out a gun and shot the 58-year-old community icon. Thomas died later at a nearby hospital.

Throughout the day, friends, family and neighbors came to Thomas' home, the place he had talked about overcoming adversity -- to the home that had been rebuilt and stood as a beacon of optimism for this tightly knit community of 1,800.

They came because they lost their friend, their coach and their leader, a man who inspired teenagers and adults, a man who put a town on his shoulders after last summer's tornado and, with the same lessons he'd used in more than 30 years of preaching on the football field, got the town to believe.

Now he was gone, and not everyone knew how to react. It was difficult to know what to say. Outside a rebuilt home, someone put up a plywood sign that read "Our Loss, Heaven Gains." Others just sat on their front porches in stunned silence. As night fell, many wandered the streets, looking for a friend to talk with or a neighbor to hug.

"This is Iowa's John Lennon assassination," said Ken Miller, a radio host in Des Moines. "This is something and someone no one will ever forget."

At a nearby park, people laid flowers and footballs and used red plastic cups to spell the words "COACH T" in a chain-link fence. At the football field named after Thomas, the community gathered for a vigil Wednesday night. But it was at his beige home on Johnson Street, the one behind the police barricade, where this disaster hit hardest.

"That house was one of the first to go up after the tornado," said Maureen Reinert, who rebuilt two blocks away. "Ed Thomas embodied the belief that everything was going to be all right. That we would get past this tragedy. But forget about the F5 -- this makes the tornado look like nothing. I don't know what we're going to do."

The migration began just after 6 p.m. They came by car, bike or foot. They came from Parkersburg, Aplington, Waverly and seemingly every other surrounding small Iowa town. Many wore T-shirts that, in one bold font or another, proudly proclaimed the core values upon which Thomas built Falcons football.

"From Tragedy to Triumph"

"Effort, Tradition, Toughness"

"You'll Have to Do Better Than That to Tear This Town Down"

Many wore their football jerseys, and not just the kids who'd played for Thomas, but the others, the rivals, who rode buses from neighboring towns to attend a vigil on the field where they more than likely had lost.

The players had been asked to not talk with reporters. Several students were too shaken to speak anyway. So they held hands. They lit candles. They prayed. There were hugs. There were tears. There were stares of pure shock. But most of all, 12 hours after the morning shooting, there were heads that couldn't stop shaking and minds that couldn't possibly process what had happened, and why.

"I wish I could give an organ. I wish there was just something I could do," said Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann, who played for Thomas and was in Iowa on vacation and attended the vigil. "I had just signed a new contract; he and I hadn't talked about it yet. And I just can't fathom the idea that he and I won't speak again."

They gathered around the field where Thomas had brought them so many times to cheer; the place where, for a few hours on Friday nights in the fall, they could leave the rest of their world behind.

It was here, on this field, where Thomas and hundreds of others had crawled on their hands and knees last summer, digging out nails and plywood and anything the twister had left behind in the hope of saving "The Sacred Acre."

But on this night, in the shadows of the bright white sign that read "Ed Thomas Field," at the place that had symbolized such hope, there were no cheers, no touchdowns. Instead, stunned silence. Thoughts of "Why?" "How?" The players had joked about Coach Thomas' dying some day. They figured a heart attack. A stroke. Something on the football field.

"We would always tell him to relax, to settle down a bit," said Evan Capper, who graduated from A-P in 2007 and had played for Thomas. "He cared so much, almost too much. We figured one of these days, something might happen. But not like this."

Not by a bullet. Not in a town where people don't lock their doors. Not to the man who seemed to have no enemies. And certainly not to the man who gave speeches about "faith, family and team," and had preached that playing for the Falcons was more about becoming a better man, a better husband and a better father than it was a better football player.

Several former players said Wednesday that Thomas had worked with Becker over the years in the hope of keeping him out of trouble. Becker's father, Dave Becker, was a captain on one of Thomas' first Falcons teams. The two families attend the same church, First Congregational Church, where Ed Thomas was an elder, Dale Becker is a deacon and his wife, Joan, is on the missions committee. On Sunday, according to Evan's father, Dale Capper, Thomas had prayed for Becker after he was arrested Saturday night following an incident at a Cedar Falls home that led to a high-speed police chase.

"Ed Thomas was an amazing man. He would do anything for anybody," Dale Capper said. "If Mark would have called him last night and needed a ride somewhere, Coach Thomas would have been the first one to be there. They don't make them like him anymore. He's irreplaceable."

"He believed in everyone, no matter where they came from, what color they were, what their background was or the trouble they had been in. He believed in everybody," said former Falcons player John Simon. "He believed everybody could not only play football, but succeed in life."

To some in this small town, what hurt most, beyond the loss of Thomas, was the idea that it might have been one of their own -- a player Thomas had tried to reach -- who seemingly never got the message.

"That gets to me," Simon said. "It would have been one thing if it was somebody from town, or somebody he didn't know. But one of his players? I don't know … I don't know what to say about that. It just eats at me."

The streets of Parkersburg look nothing like they did a year ago. Gone are the piles of rubble, the driveways leading to nowhere, the abandoned teddy bears, the lot at the end of town where demolished cars were hauled.

Today, the streets are covered with hope. There is new construction on seemingly every block. There are beautiful new homes complete with pristine green grass, colorful flower beds and Iowa Hawkeyes rain gauges. There's a new bank, gas station and grocery store.

At the high school, scheduled to re-open this fall on the same site as the old building, there are cement mixers, forklifts and stacks of unused bricks. Like at any construction site, everything is covered in mud. Which is a good thing.

"It's amazing," Evan Capper said, speaking on the front porch of his grandparents' rebuilt home. "And none of it would look like this if it wasn't for Coach Thomas. He is the reason this town bounced back as fast as it did. Everybody followed his lead."

Around the corner from where Capper spoke, yellow crime-scene tape served as a reminder that one of their leaders was gone. If this had happened to someone else, if it had been another community leader who had been gunned down, the people of this town would have looked to Thomas. He would have shown them how to move on, how to forgive and how -- even in the face of horrific tragedy -- to not lose faith.

So maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise when 30-year-old Aaron Thomas, Ed's son, stepped up to a news conference microphone Wednesday afternoon, asking people to remember his father not just as a teacher or coach, but as a "Christian man of faith." Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise when the younger Thomas thanked everyone for their support while reminding them to pray for the Becker family, as well. "They, too, are suffering and grieving, and we want the community to embrace them."

"If he was here, he'd tell us not to lose our faith," said Evan Capper, who spent much of Tuesday with Thomas teaching at a football camp. "Keep pressing on. Keep the legacy that he has going. It's up to us to live up to that now."

The 78 boys who suited up for Falcons football in 2008 played for their town. They played for the six graves they helped dig, the field they helped rebuild and the community that needed something -- anything -- to cheer for. The emotional season ended with a 14-6 loss to Emmetsburg in the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs, Thomas' 19th trip to the postseason.

Next year, the responsibility again will fall to of a group of football-playing teenagers to help a community heal. And the talk already has begun as to what that will be like.

"They're going to be playing for what he stood for, for what he believed in," said Simon, his eyes welling. "I so wish I could go back to high school. I so want to be on that team. I want to play for that man. I want to go out on that field, for one last season, and show the world what he meant to us."

As Ed Thomas walked through his devastated classroom that afternoon last summer, as he ducked under the caved-in ceiling and exposed electrical wires, he never complained. He looked at the pictures of all-conference players that dotted his ceiling, he looked at the trophies that still sat on a desk in the back of his room and he spoke about using the tragedy of the tornado to inspire. A year later, his words resonate -- and still inspire.

"I have a greater passion for my mission in life than I ever have," Thomas said that day. "After seeing what's happened to this town and seeing what happened to those six people, I know that nothing is guaranteed. God may only give me a few more years. And if that's the case, I need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. We all do."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.