Iowa Town Remembers Murdered Football Coach Ed Thomas

Thousands remember beloved coach, allegedly gunned down by former player.

June 25, 2009 — -- 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.

Tornado Tears Across Town, Coach Stands Up to Help

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."

Alleged Shooter's Criminal Past, Unknown Motive

With a career record of 292-84 in 37 seasons as a head coach, 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg, Thomas was one of the best known football coaches in Iowa and had coached several players who later went on to play for the NFL.

Besides Wiegmann, Thomas' alumnae includes Jared DeVries of the Detroit Lions, Brad Meester of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Aaron Kampman of the Green Bay Packers.

But instead of leaving the 1,000-person town of Parkersburg, Thomas became an even bigger part of the community.

"He said, 'Why would I want to go anywhere else? Everything I need is right here,'" said Thompson.

Thompson said that Thomas was a mentor to the entire Parkersburg community and overall, just an "outstanding man."

"It wasn't about wins or losses or football. It was about making them better young men," said Thompson. "He wanted them to be better husbands some day, better citizens."

Less than a year later this tiny town gathered again at the football field and tried to get through another tragedy, this time without their beloved coach.

Thomas was in the Aplington-Parkersburg High School weight room at approximately 7:45 a.m. when Becker allegedly came in and began firing a handgun, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

Becker has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Thomas and is currently being held at the Butler County jail. The shooter's motive is still unknown.

Becker is a former student of Aplington-Parkersburg High School and played on one of Thomas' football teams, officials said.

Kevin Winker, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, told The Associated Press Wednesday that Becker's "entire past is being looked at."

Becker was arrested Wednesday without incident at his parents' home in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Bond was set at $1 million, and Becker's next scheduled court appearance is July 2.

Ed Thomas' Son Says Pray for Shooter's Family

The suspect was supposed to be taken to a hospital psychiatric unit after breaking into a neighbor's home and leading police on a high-speed car chase Saturday night, according to Jeff Jacobson, a special agent for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations.

Jacobson said that authorities decided early Sunday morning that Becker needed medical attention and took him to a hospital.

"Law enforcement requested prior notification before he was released," said Jacobson Wednesday. "On Tuesday, June 23, Becker spent the night at his parents' home. Law enforcement was unaware he had been released."

Wednesday's arrest is not the first time Becker has run into trouble with the law. Just last weekend, Becker was arrested for speeding and reckless driving, and earlier this year he pleaded guilty to assault, possession of drug paraphernalia and criminal mischief, according to online court documents. He was also charged with underage possession of alcohol in August 2004.

Calls to Thomas' family as well as to the school were not immediately returned.

At a press conference Wednesday, Thomas' 30-year-old son Aaron Thomas spoke on behalf of the family.

"Thanks everyone for the thoughts and prayers and concerns for our family," said Aaron Thomas.

"In the midst of our grief we are greatly appreciative of our friends and neighbors," he said. "Without a doubt we're going to miss him. I feel very fortunate to have been his son."

Aaron Thomas also asked for people to pray for the Becker family.

"We express our concern and compassion for the Becker family," said Aaron Thomas. "We ask that people pray for them as well and take time to comfort and be with them as they are also going through a lot."

ABC News' Claudia Acosta and The Associated Press contributed to this report.