My hometown of Parkersburg, Iowa, once again is being showcased, with the release, in August , of the book, “The Sacred Acre: The Ed Thomas Story.” Written by Indiana author Mark Tabb and published by the giant religious publisher, Zondervan of Grand Rapids, Mich., “The Sacred Acre” tells the the larger-than-life story of legendary high school football coach Ed Thomas, who rallied the town after a devastating tornado only to be gunned down while working with his athletes in the school weight room.
Former Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy wrote the forward of the book. “Ed Thomas was a man who lived the gospel, loved his family and believed in doing things the right way,” Dungy wrote. “He taught his players that there are no shortcuts and that you will ultimately be judged not by what you did, but on how you did it. He was loved, not just by the people of Parkersburg, but by the nation…”
Thomas, who was 2005 NFL National High School Football Coach of the Year, tragically made the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine (Title: “A Good Man Down: The Murder of a Beloved High School Coach”) on July 6, 2009, after one of his former football player fired multiple shots into his head and body. His assailant, Mark Becker, then 24, now serving life term in prison for first-degree murder, was being treated for paranoid schizophrenia in the days leading up to the murder in the high school weight room on June 24, 2009, carried out in sight of other school athletes. Becker was a former football player on Coach Thomas’ team. A younger brother was on the team at the time of the shooting.
Ironically, Becker had gone on spree of rowdy misconduct days before the shooting and was being treated at Covenant Medical Center in nearby Waterloo. He terrorized a family in Cedar Falls, led law enforcement on a high-speed test and had a history of drug misuse. Parkersburg authorities were miffed that Coventant Medical Center did not inform them that Becker had been released. It would have given them a heads up on his whereabouts, and they might have had been him under vigilance. It was the emergency room of Covenant where Thomas was taken by helicopter and later pronounced dead. (We were in that emergency room seven weeks ago when my brother-in-law went there for medical issues and was hospitalized for four days). The book tells how the deeply religious Thomas had ministered to and encouraged, as he could, the troubled Becker for years. Mark’s parents were close friends of the Thomases and members, with them, at First Congregational Church in Parkersburg, where my mother had once been a member. Thomas often gave layman services at the church.
Thomas had compiled a record of 292 wins and 84 losses across 34 years at Parkersburg, which consolidated in 1993 with the school district to the west, based Aplington. It became the Aplington-Parkersburg School District, with the mascot/nickname of the “Falcons.” The Aplington Panthers and my Parkersburg Crusaders were fierce rivals all the decades before the merger. In the fall of 1963, during my senior year at Parkersburg, I stood on the sidelines for football games and kept team statistics of the Crusaders that had gone 4-0 and won the Big Marsh Conference championship. That duty was a bit of a challenge for me because I was also in the marching band.
The Thomases lost their home in the powerful tornado that wiped out a third of Parkersburg on May 25, 2008. We had arrived that day from Arizona to Iowa and were at my mother-in-law’s home in Washburn, about 40 miles away, when the tornado hit my hometown. I went to Parkersburg two days after the calamity and talked about it to a reporter of the Waterloo Courier where I had worked 12 years, the last four as state editor.
During the storm, the Thomases huddled in their basement as the 205-mph storm smashed their home above them. His wife, Jan, an assistant city clerk, was also part of the Emergency Medical Treatment (EMT) crew with the fire department. In the end the tornado killed nine in its path that went about two miles north of a farm my family owns and damaged the hamlet of Sinclair and the town of New Hartford, hometown of U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. The EF5 tornado, the highest in speed, destroyed or severely damaged 400 homes, killed seven in Parkersburg and two in New Hartford and injured about 70.
Ed Thomas became the town’s catalyst for rebuilding Parkersburg, marshalling the forces of hundreds. Football teams from around the state sent players to help in the clean-up, and all sorts of volunteers, financial aid and other benevolence followed. The handsome high school, built a decade after I graduated, was too damaged to repair, so a new one was built. Greatly damaged and full was debris was the football field that Ed Thomas painstakingly and personally cared for. It had long been touted “The Sacred Acre,” despite Thomas’ objections.
The four players from his team that had gone on to become players of National Football League teams, Jared DeVries, Aaron Kampman, Brad Meester and Casey Wiegmann, all natives of Parkersburg, returned again and again to Parkersburg after the tornado to help. Three of them bore Thomas’ casket to the church for the funeral.
“The only way we win is to look out for one another,” Thomas would tell his players. After Thomas’ death, his widow, Jan, sought out their grieving friends, Joan and Dave Becker, parents of Mark, and assured them that neither she nor her sons, Aaron and Todd, were bitter toward them. The grace the Thomases would show the Beckers helped the town’s healing and elevated the dignity of the tragedy. In fact, the following year, the Thomases were the recipients of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPN ESPY awards for their thoughful and forgiving spirit.
My little hometown of fewer than 1,000 people has bore so much pain, first the tornado and then the Thomas tragedy. This past June, I went back for the first time and saw the radical changes in the south part of town. I could hardly get my bearings. The high school is new, and Ed Thomas Field — The Sacred Acre– was being well cared for.
Publishing of “The Sacred Acre” deeply reminded me of a community that has nurtured my family since 1855 and that has resiliency, grit and incredible people.