ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Tonight in Parkersburg, Iowa, a ritual that's happening throughout small town America. It's the start of the high school football season and it draws the attention of the entire community. But in Parkersburg, where football reigns supreme, it will be a bittersweet night. For the first time in 34 years, the team's iconic head coach won't be there to lead the hometown Falcons onto the field. The death of Coach Ed Thomas was just the latest tragedy to hit Parkersburg.
As part of our high school football series, Friday Night Lives, NPR's Tom Goldman tells the story of football, grief and resolve in Iowa.
TOM GOLDMAN: What a week it's been at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. Monday the building opened up for the new school year, which actually sounds too tame. How about the building was reborn?
(Soundbite of construction)
Mr. DAVE MEYER (Principal, Aplington-Parkersburg High School): But as you can see when you walk in here, this is just a shell. This will be a 620-seat auditorium when we get done.
GOLDMAN: The proud principal, Dave Meyer, shows off a gleaming, not-quite-finished building. It's right where the old high school stood and fell, 15 months earlier when a devastating tornado ripped through town with winds over 200 miles per hour. It killed eight people and obliterated houses and the school. Several times on this impromptu tour, Meyer stops and mentions football coach Ed Thomas.
Mr. MEYER: I think he'd be proud of the fact that we're under construction. We're still working toward the completion of this building. He would've loved to see it completed.
GOLDMAN: Would've - Ed Thomas in the past tense - still seems weird in Parkersburg, especially the football practice field. Surrounding the field, there's a chain-link fence where someone stuck red plastic cups that spell out coach T and the shape of a heart. Ed Thomas's voice no longer echoes around the field. Instead, it's his long-time assistant Al Kerns, now a co-head coach, who tries to keep the players, there are 92 from a student body of 250, focused and fit.
Mr. AL KERNS (Co-Head Coach, Aplington-Parkersburg High School): If you cannot do 10 push-ups you should be embarrassed about yourself and work and get so you can do 10 good push-ups.
Mr. KERNS: To motivate people the way he did, to get effort out of young men the way he consistently did, that's a challenge that we've thought about and we don't know yet how that's going to workout.
GOLDMAN: Two months ago this week, 58-year-old Ed Thomas opened up the big, red bus barn next to the school where weights were kept for an early morning weightlifting session. Nearly two dozen athletes, not just football players, filed into the burn. Not long after, the 911 calls came in.
Unidentified Man #1: We had a, I think a shooting right now in the bus barn down at the high school.
Unidentified Woman: Where at?
Unidentified Man #1: At the Parkersburg.
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, at the high school where?
Unidentified Man #1: In the bus barn.
Unidentified Woman: In the bus barn?
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman: Do you know who it was?
Unidentified Man: No I don't. Kids had come running out and said somebody shot Ed Thomas.
Unidentified Woman: Ed - okay…
(Soundbite of beep)
GOLDMAN: The gasp of 911 dispatcher was repeated throughout town, throughout Iowa, throughout the nation, as news spread that Ed Thomas had been shot and killed. One of his former players, Mark Becker, was arrested and charged with the shooting. And since that day, June 24th, the roughly 1,800 residents of Parkersburg - many of them devout Christians - have been left to ponder the town's tragedies. Brad Zinnecker is the senior pastor at Parkersburg's First Congregational Church.
Mr. BRAD ZINNECKER (Senior Pastor, Parkersburg's First Congregational Church): These are the types of things seminary doesn't prepare you for. It doesn't prepare you for a tornado to wipe out half your town, then 13 months later, a murder.
GOLDMAN: The locals may be people of the book, but there is little talk, publicly at least, of plagues or the suffering of Job. As one person says there's no pity-party here. Some of that's homegrown Iowa realism. A big part of it are the lasting lessons from Ed Thomas himself. I spoke with Alex Hornbuckle(ph), a senior running back on the football team a few hundred feet from the bus barn where Thomas was shot.
Mr. ALEX HORNBUCKLE: If you keep feeling sorry for yourself and everything, you're not going to get anywhere. Coach always said you got to pick yourself up and you got to go. You got to move forward and everything. That's what - he always said that after the tornado happened and everything. So just take what he said and apply it to this and we'll get through it.
GOLDMAN: For all his accomplishments as a coach - the state titles, the winning seasons, his 2005 high school coach of the year award from the NFL - for all that, many put at the top of the list, Ed Thomas's words and actions after the tornado on May 25th of last year. He helped neighbors, he had his players dig graves for the dead. He quickly rebuilt the football field to give the town a sense of normalcy. Since Thomas's death, his son Aaron has shown the same kind of leadership.
He came home and took over his dad's job as the schools athletic director. Aaron helped set a tone in Parkersburg by urging locals - in true Ed fashion -to pick up and move forward as better people. Many here also credit Aaron for tamping down anger about the murder. The families of the victim and his alleged killer were closely intertwined. Mark Becker's parents were good friends of Ed Thomas and his wife. Becker's brother plays for the football team. So hours after Mark Becker allegedly shot his dad, Aaron Thomas made this appeal.
Mr. AARON THOMAS (Athletic Director): We also want to make sure we express our concern and our compassion for the Becker family. We ask that people pray for them as well.
GOLDMAN: But for some prayer hasn't been enough.
Ms. PAULA BUCHHOLZ (Biology Teacher, Aplington-Parkersburg High School): We have been so busy trying to put things back together, we never really have stopped and said - how does this make you feel?
GOLDMAN: Biology teacher Paula Buchholz and her fellow instructors at Aplington-Parkersburg High got the chance to stop and think as a group. A trauma and grief specialist spoke to the staff this week. Some of those stoic Iowans, for the first time, admitted feelings of anger and guilt, fear and lack of control as a result of the two tragedies, particularly the murder, for which there's no known motive. Paula Buchholz says she's been challenged as a parent. After the shooting, her 12-year-old son told her son if someone wants to kill you, there's really no way to stop them.
Ms. BUCHHOLZ: I simply said to him, I guess that tells us that we have to live our life right and we simply have to take advantage of every single day and just do our best. So we're ready when it's our time to go.
GOLDMAN: Choose to live right, be your best every day - sounds like Ed Thomas.
(Soundbite of clapping)
GOLDMAN: A week of long practices has led to what some Falcons players are calling the most important game of their lives. Tonight's season opening contest is fraught with symbolism. Coaches worry about the pressure of the player will feel trying to win it for Ed. And they'll be playing in front of ESPN cameras. The network is showing the game nationwide. But since this is a town dedicated to doing things the way Ed would do, here's what he'd probably do: He'd lead his players to the front of the new ticket gate, a stadium addition he envisioned, and show them the new plaque dedicated to him. And he'd tell them to relax and read carefully what it says: If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
(Soundbite of football practice)
Unidentified Man #2: I got lot of guys back there I can't hear.
Unidentified Group: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, five, one, two, three, six, one, two, three, seven…
SIEGEL: We'll have the results of tonight's game and reflections from the community online and on Monday's MORNING EDITION. We'd also like your help with this series. Submit your ideas at npr.org/football.