Aaron Thomas personifies courage

PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- Ed Thomas used to tell his adult Sunday school class a story. He kept it on a slip of paper in his Bible. It was about two boys, two friends. One was killed in a car accident; the other went to jail for vehicular manslaughter. The father of the dead boy forgave the other kid. Someday, Thomas told his pupils, he hoped to have the same grace that the man showed. He prayed about it. Someday, Ed Thomas had said, if he ever lost a loved one at the hands of somebody else, he wanted the strength to forgive.

In his shoes

A young man with blond buzz-cut hair and a dash of white on his temples lifts his head up from a corner desk in a cavernous office. He is closing the book on the longest year of his life. The media trucks have come and gone, reporting the horrific stories of Parkersburg, Iowa, marveling about how a town of 1,800 can be so resilient and forgiving. Aaron Thomas, the man behind the desk, doesn't have an answer for them. He thought this was just the way people were supposed to act.

You'll remember young Aaron from last summer, standing in front of a microphone, asking a town to pray and forgive. A few hours earlier, his father, Ed -- Aplington-Parkersburg's football coach -- had been gunned down as he supervised a morning weight-lifting session. Aaron buried his father, then returned to his hometown and accepted the most daunting of tasks: He left a neighboring school and took the job as A-P's athletic director, his father's job. The town needed him.

Aaron wouldn't say it then, but he didn't exactly jump at the opportunity. First of all, nobody could replace Ed Thomas, not even his progeny. The man taught social studies, driver's ed, and the meaning of life. He built one of the state's biggest football powerhouses, led the town back from an EF-5 tornado and was a best friend to just about everybody in this northeast Iowa community.

"When the job was offered," Aaron Thomas said, "I knew the easy thing to do would be to [say no].

"But in the grand scheme of things, the big picture, I just thought coming back was the right thing to do and what needed to be done."

He settles into a chair, underneath some framed snapshots of his father. There's an unspoken responsibility that goes with being Ed Thomas' kin. It's being 31 years old, and suddenly having about 2,000 sets of eyes focusing you. It's being strong when the inclination is to cry.

Life, for Aaron Thomas, changed at precisely 8:07 a.m. on June 24, 2009. He was driving down Interstate 35, almost to a morning leadership conference when his cell phone rang. It was his mom. Jan Thomas wasn't crying -- she's an EMT in Parkersburg and the toughest person he knows -- but he could tell immediately that something was seriously wrong.

"Aaron, somebody came in the weight room and shot your dad," he recalls his mother saying, "and it's not good."

Aaron knew it then, that he'd probably never see his father again. They had so much in common, their mannerisms, their strength, their penmanship. Aaron decided by the third grade that he wanted to be a coach because that's what his daddy did. He memorized all of Ed's sayings. "Life," he'd tell his boy, "is 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you respond."

The way the Thomas family responded made national headlines. Jan comforted the mother of Mark Becker, Ed's killer, hours after the shooting. And her sons took leadership roles in the community to help the town heal.

On Wednesday night in Los Angeles, the Thomas family will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS. More than 30 people from the tiny Iowa community will be there to watch the Thomases accept the award, which Aaron says belongs to his father.

They're ordinary people, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Last week, Jan Thomas wondered what she would wear to the event. She consulted with Joan Becker, Mark's mother. The families still remain friends.

"A lot of us didn't know how to react," Aplington-Parkersburg superintendent Jon Thompson said. "Should we be angry at the Becker family? Should we be angry in general? Seeing role models like Aaron and Jan and the whole Thomas family come up and handle this in such a fantastic way. … I think it set the tone for the community."

The family foundation

Ed Thomas raised two boys who worked hard, played sports and feared just one thing in high school: they might slip up and do something to disappoint their dad.

Todd was always the more emotional one, the younger brother who was a little less comfortable in the spotlight, but, if pressed, was not afraid to show how he felt. When he spoke at Mark Becker's sentencing hearing in April, he asked Becker to reflect on what he stole from the family. Todd's words were so powerful that the judge reportedly began to cry.

Jan, the love of Ed's life, was the family's foundation. She rode around Parkersburg after the tornado two years ago, helping neighbors while her house lay in ruins. She still serves as an EMT in town and, like her late husband, still reaches younger generations.

The local newspaper in Parkersburg does a senior snapshot section that asks the class of 2010 a list of questions. One of the categories: Who do you admire the most? Most kids say their parents. But this year, a number of girls had a different answer.

They said, Jan Thomas.

At church, at school

The notes could make a grown man cry. Ed Thomas wasn't much into computers, so his filing system was antiquated. He scheduled games and referees years in advance, but recorded it all on handwritten sheets of paper. Aaron spent part of the year sifting through those notes, trying to make sense of what needed to be done, searching for comfort in his dad's messages.

Going to church was the toughest. A hymn would play, and it would remind Aaron of his father, who always sat at the end of the pew next to his grandkids. Aaron occupies that seat now, but it's not the same.

"[Church] was a place that was important to Ed," said pastor Brad Zinnecker. "I mean, Ed lived his faith out in all areas of his life."

Aaron, who was the athletic director at Union High School in La Porte City for four years before his dad's death, used to talk to Dad every day. He struggled in his first days on the job in Parkersburg. Everyone in town called him "Aaron." It bugged him at first, because at Union he was known as "Coach" or "Mr. Thomas." Then he realized why they did it.

To them, there was only one "Coach Thomas."

Within days of Ed's death, a couple of A-P's football coaches talked to Aaron. They knew how badly the school needed someone to fill the void of such a powerful presence in town. They knew they needed another Thomas.

"He's uniquely his own person," Thompson said. "But the name he wears on the back of his shirt and who he stands for and what he stands for, I can't even put a value on how important that has been for us.

"I don't know how best to describe it … it's comforting. It gives us hope, it gives us a feeling of security that we'll be able to move forward more easily with Aaron's presence."

Thomas says he doesn't ask why Parkersburg has been hit with so many tragedies in the past couple of years. In 2008, the day after the tornado tore through town, Ed Thomas decided his team was going to play its football season no matter what. The townspeople worked side-by-side, got the field ready, and the Falcons went 11-1.

When Ed was killed, it was Aaron's job to pull everyone together. If he hadn't, Joan Becker doesn't know where her family would be right now.

"I don't know how we could've ever stayed living here if we didn't have that compassion, that grace, shown to our family," she said. "I really think by them reaching out, they gave the community permission to reach out with passion as well."

Living the "new normal"

Life, in these parts, is almost back to its normal crawl. Folks settle into a seat at Tom's Barber Shop on Third Street and talk about the heat, the crops or football. By late December in Parkersburg, they're usually ready to start talking football.

It's what they call the "new normal," which will never be the same but is somewhere closer to bearable. They're stronger now, bonded together by faith, hope and immense pain. On Sundays, the Beckers bow their heads and pray alongside the Thomases, because that's what Ed would've wanted.

"He touched a lot of people in this town," says Tom Teeple, who runs a barber shop in town. "And a lot of them he touched weren't even athletes."

Aaron's reach goes beyond the AD's office, too. He counsels high-risk students at Aplington-Parkersburg, trying to help them see their potential. Maybe, when he reaches someone, he thinks of his dad. In the days before his death, Ed Thomas prayed for Mark Becker, a troubled 24-year-old former A-P linebacker who was battling what would later be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.

Becker, now serving a life sentence for the murder, is currently on anti-psychotic medication and showing shades of his old self, his mother says. Aaron Thomas knows his father would forgive Becker. It's what he hoped to do back in those days at adult Sunday school.

"I'd be lying if I said I completely forgave Mark Becker," Aaron said. "But as far as his family, I do feel for them, I have empathy for them. I know they would've done anything they could to not have that happen.

"It's a challenge and a prayer of mine that I will eventually get to that point."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.