More than a thousand people gathered on an Iowa football field Wednesday afternoon, not to cheer on Ed Thomas' team as usual but to pay tribute to the man who helped shape the lives of hundreds of students, including four National Football League players, and who helped rebuild the town after a devastating tornado.
"When I got out of my car and walked down here, it took my breath away to see how many people he's impacted in his life," John Hubbard, a 2008 graduate of Aplington-Parkersburg High School, where Thomas was the football coach, said Wednesday. "Just the type of man he was really shows with all the people here tonight."
The 58-year-old coach was shot and killed Wednesday after one of his former players, 24-year-old Mark Becker, allegedly opened fire with a handgun in the school's weight room where Thomas was supervising about 20 high school football players in preseason workouts. No one else was injured. Becker was supposed to have been in a hospital undergoing psychiatric evaluation.
Becker had been a linebacker on Thomas' team.
In his coaching career at Aplington-Parkersburg, which spanned more than three decades, Thomas taught his players lessons of determination, former player and Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann said.
"I remember when I was going into my senior year. I was working at the lumber yard here in town, and I hated it," Wiegmann said at the memorial. "I went to him and approached him and asked him what I should do, and he goes, 'You can't quit. If you quit on this one thing, you're going to quit on a lot of different things.'"
It was that resolve that made Thomas, who everyone in town called "coach," a major player in rebuilding Parkersburg after an F-5 tornado ripped the town apart in the summer of 2008.
After the tornado ripped through town and near his home, Thomas checked on his neighbors and then went straight to school, where he also taught social studies and was the driving instructor. In addition, the coach oversaw Sunday school classes and served as an elder at First Congregational Church.
"I came over and saw the football field, and it looked like a pincushion," Thomas said just days after the storm. "All kinds of debris just stuck in it. I saw the bleachers down; I saw our scoreboard down."
But before he could focus on his field, Thomas faced a more serious task -- helping to bury six people who were killed in the storm.
"They just asked, 'Do you have six players that could come down and dig these graves for us?' because they're still digging by hand in town. And I asked the fellows for volunteers," Thomas said at the time. "We had plenty, and the six went down. That was a great experience for those kids."
After three months of rebuilding and fund raising, the coach was clearly emotional when his team returned to its home field for the first time after the storms.
"I've been in this for 36 years. I've had tremendous experiences. Let me tell you upfront, nothing is going to be greater than going out tonight," he said, pausing between words to fight back tears.
School Superintendent Jon Thompson said that Thomas had several opportunities to leave the school for other coaching opportunities but always declined the offers.
"Ed had chances to move on," said Thompson. "Ed would have gone on to the collegiate level or larger schools within our states or borders."