RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa, the Aplington-Parkersburg High School football team opened its season last Friday night with a win. And what a victory it was. For the first time since 1975, the team, the Falcons, was playing without its legendary head coach on the sidelines. That was Ed Thomas, a man revered in Iowa, who gained national prominence as a high school coach.
Ed Thomas was shot to death in June. A former player has been charged with the murder. As part of our series on high school football, Friday Night Lives, NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the Falcons' emotional home opening game.
TOM GOLDMAN: When you crest the hill on Highway 57 coming into Parkersburg, your eyes immediately find the tall light poles surrounding the high school football field. They're like a beacon, and last Friday night they were magnetic, pulling over 3,000 people into a town of roughly 1,800.
Mr. TERRY DEGROTE(ph) (Former Football Player, Aplington-Parkersburg High School): I've seen people I haven't seen in 20 years, for over 20 years.
GOLDMAN: Forty-two year old Terry Degrote was one of hundreds of alumni players who showed up to honor Ed Thomas. Thomas coached 34 years, and there were guys who played on each of his teams, including Dave Becker, a former player, a longtime friend of Thomas's, and the father of Mark Becker, who's accused of walking into the school weight room and shooting Coach Thomas just nine weeks ago. Terry Degrote was one of those who cheered when Scott Becker, Mark's brother and a member of the current football team, was introduced.
Mr. DEGROTE: We're out here cheering for Scott. We're all for him. I hope he gets to college on a scholarship, you know. If anybody didn't feel that, then they weren't around Thomas enough.
Mr. JOHN THOMPSON (School Superintendent, Aplington-Parkersburg School District): This past summer, we lost a very good man, a man of great faith, a man of great character.
GOLDMAN: In a pregame ceremony replete with classic, bulky high school microphone, School Superintendent John Thompson paid tribute to Thomas. Everyone in the stadium bowed their heads in a moment of silence. As the Falcons tipped their helmets forward, you could see the decals F-F-F-0-9, which represent the mantra Ed Thomas often repeated: faith, family, football.
Unidentified Man #1: Come on, let's play ball.
GOLDMAN: After the tribute ended, an antsy voice in the crowd spoke for many. The game was televised nationwide on ESPN. Players hopped around on the field before the kickoff, waiting for the network to finish its commercial business. Finally…
Unidentified Man #2: Welcome to live TV, and let's play football.
(Soundbite of cheers)
GOLDMAN: For the second year in a row, the Falcons were playing a symbolic home opener. Last season, the game was just three months after a devastating tornado ripped through Parkersburg. Last Friday's game became something much more the instant Ed Thomas was murdered on June 24th.
Anticipation grew over the summer. Coaches worried about the pressure on the Falcons players to win it for Ed. Right before the game, new co-head coach Al Kerns told the boys to have fun and play like high school kids.
After a slow start, they did. Their 30 to 14 victory over rival Dike-New Hartford was classic Ed Thomas football: No pass completions, 450 yards rushing, five interceptions on defense. Afterwards, Coach Kerns gathered his players near one end of the field and thanked them, in his words, for getting up off the ground and winning.
Coach AL KERNS (Co-head Football Coach, Aplington-Parkersburg High School): It means a lot to our community, and I hope to the whole state of Iowa. I'm real proud of you guys. I want to thank you.
GOLDMAN: And then Kerns, who says his team will never forget Coach Thomas, told the players to remove their helmets.
Coach KERNS: Now I want to take a moment right now, and take your hat off…
(Soundbite of helmets being removed)
Coach KERNS: …and listen. Close your eyes, and listen.
GOLDMAN: Players, fans, many of whom felt they heard Ed Thomas, left the stadium buoyed by the night. Said one person: We're ready to get back to normal in Parkersburg, Iowa. We just need to figure out what the new normal is.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.