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In May of 2008, a devastating tornado hit Parkersburg, Iowa and threatened to destroy the small town’s future. But legendary high school coach Ed Thomas stepped forward and made a proclamation that would set the tone for an epic comeback–the football field would be ready for its first home game later that year.
Thomas made good on his promise and his Aplington-Parkersburg Falcons provided an emotional spark that resonated throughout the community. But this inspiring story took a tragic turn the next summer when a former player with a history of mental health problems took Thomas’ life. The senseless murder sent shock waves throughout the town and the entire state of Iowa.
In the New York Times bestseller The Sacred Acre, the Thomas Family (along with author Mark Tabb) has courageously told this amazing story of triumph over tragedy and the forgiveness of unthinkable pain. Inspiring Athletes had a chance to talk to Coach Thomas’ wife Jan and one of his two sons Aaron who now serves as the athletic director at Aplington-Parkersburg High School:
Chad Bonham: When your husband proclaimed to the town that the football field would be ready for the season, just months after the devastating tornado, did you believe he could do it or did you think he might be a little crazy?
Jan Thomas: The closer it got, for me personally, I was starting to wonder, because there was so much work to be done from the cleanup to the reconstruction. I was really starting to doubt. But I knew that if anybody was going to get it done, it would be Ed and you knew he’d try to move heaven and earth to get it done. And he did.
Bonham: What about you Aaron? What were your first thoughts when that bold prediction came out of your father’s mouth?
Aaron Thomas: I knew that was going to be a stretch. There was so much to do. So many people’s homes had been destroyed and I worried a little bit about the focus being on trying to get the field ready. But that was one of dad’s greatest gifts. He was definitely a visionary. He could see things before they were done and then he could work towards that. He had the ability to motivate people and get people to work. When he said he was going to do it, I guess I never questioned that it’d all get done. When he said it was going to happen, I knew he’d work tirelessly to make sure it happened.
Bonham: What was the atmosphere like at that first home game after the field had been restored?
Jan Thomas: It was almost like a mini celebration. It seems like everything monumental that happened that year was a mini celebration and another sign that we were going to come back. We were going to rebuild our town. More than anything, rebuilding the school and the football field was a little bit symbolic because, for everybody in town at that point, life was turned upside down. But that just gave us a sense of normalcy. It gave everybody a chance to have fun and watch a football game that night and not worry about insurance adjustors and contractors and those kinds of things. It gave everybody hope that we were going to be back and everything was going to work out.
Bonham: When you hear from Coach Thomas’ former players, what do they say about the impact he had on their lives?
Jan Thomas: A lot of them just say how much the miss him and how they wish they could talk to him and how much he meant to them growing up. He was like a second dad to them.
Bonham: When you look back on the days that followed Coach Thomas’ murder, are you able to put in to words how God’s grace helped you through it all?
Jan Thomas: That was huge. That was totally a God thing at the time. I’m not sure I could have survived it without being able to lean on the Lord and to pray each night. He just got me through every day. I honestly don’t know how anybody can get through a situation like that if they don’t have that faith. It sustains you through everything and when you don’t know what you’re going to do next, He just carries you through those things.
Aaron Thomas: I don’t know how you can get through it except to know that God does have a plan in all these things. It’s not our job to question. At the beginning of my dad’s life, if God would’ve told him he’d have 58 years and he’d have an impact and he’d be passionate about what he did ‘til the day he died, (my dad) takes that deal. It’s hard for us here. We know where dad’s at and we have comfort in that. While it’s tough for us here, we know we’ll be reunited with him in Heaven and that’s our ultimate goal anyway.
Bonham: How difficult was it to deal with the fact that one of his former players was responsible for his death and how have you been able to forgive him—something that many might think would be impossible to do?
Aaron Thomas: It was definitely a tough situation. Never before had a situation like this even crossed anyone’s mind. There hadn’t been a murder in Parkersburg since 1923. As well liked and respected as my dad was, I never once dreamt that he’d be taken from us in that way. For it to be a former player, it’s pretty hard to wrap your mind around. But that said there were so many issues that Mark (Becker) had, he was the first person that came to my mind when I heard what had happened. The forgiveness thing is truly through God’s grace. I don’t know if I 100 percent forgive Mark Becker. I can get through every day and I don’t feel like I have a ton of resentment towards him. It’s an interesting thing. I truly think it’s strictly through God’s grace. I’ve never had a conversation with Mark and said, “I forgive you for this.” But to be able to get through the day and be okay with what happened, I think it is truly through God’s grace and the Holy Spirit working through you.
Bonham: How would you want your story to impact other families who have experienced similar tragedies?
Jan Thomas: There is a lot of pain and I’m not going to say it’s an easy thing to do. But I totally think it’s through the grace of Jesus Christ that we’re able to do that in the first place. If you hold on to that resentment, your life is going to turn negative. It’s going to eat you from the inside out. This is something that happened that was out of our control. There’s nothing we could do about that. It was a difficult thing and it was shocking that Mark had done that, but you have to let it go at some point in time. If you don’t, there’s nothing constructive that will come of it. Its not hurting Mark if you don’t forgive him. Ultimately its hurting God and it’s hurting yourself.
Bonham: How important is for you and your brother Todd to carry on your father’s legacy?
Aaron Thomas: To me it’s very important. We had a great example for 13 months of how to deal with adversity. If Todd and I and my mom chose to respond in a different light, everything my dad stood for, all the life lessons he ever taught the young men and women at school and the example he set would’ve went out the window, if in the toughest of times his own family couldn’t show the integrity and character and all those things that he was all about. That was one of the first things that came to my mind right after he was murdered. Even before that first press conference, I wanted to handle things that way dad would have handled them. My goal personally has been to make my dad proud and never do anything to disappoint him. I don’t think that’s changed for me, even though he’s not here anymore. I still don’t want my actions or words to negatively affect him or his legacy.
Bonham: For those who never had a chance to meet Coach Thomas, what would be the one thing you would want people to know about him?
Jan Thomas: Ed loved coaching, without any question. His desire was for people to remember him as a strong Christian man and somebody that lived to do things the right way. I really think that Ed walked the talk. He wasn’t a perfect man. I don’t anyone to think that. But he really did try hard to do the right thing every single day and teach others to do the same thing.
Aaron Thomas: He was, number one, a Christian man, but also a man of character and integrity. He treated everyone fairly. I know that was important to him. He didn’t where you came from, who your parents were, what part of town you lived in. You were going to be treated with respect. He believed in people more than they believed him themselves and he pushed them to the next level. I think that’s what he would like to be remembered for.
Earlier this year, we talked to Aaron Kampman, one of Coach Thomas’ former players who is now playing for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. And later this fall, we’ll have an interview with Kansas City Chiefs center Casey Weigmann who also played for Thomas at Aplington-Parkersburg High School.
To learn more about the book The Sacred Acre, click HERE.