Commentary

In Parkersburg, the game must go on

Updated: September 21, 2009, 7:05 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- They fell to the ground and did gut-busters together, 69 bellies thumping against the hard Midwestern earth. The drill was the most dreaded in Ed Thomas' arsenal -- up and down, no knees on the grass, and everybody quickly back on their feet. Did he know then, how scared they were? How perfect they could be? The world was changing, the Twin Towers had just fallen in New York City, and rumors were floating around Aplington-Parkersburg High that the draft was coming, and soon they'd all be 7,000 miles away hunting terrorists. Thomas gathered that 2001 team together, said a prayer, said everything would be all right.

The old coach was tough, but he choked up a couple of times that year. He loved those boys who looked so bad in their first game, and so confident when they lugged that state championship trophy back to Parkersburg. He told his wife, Jan, that he never wanted practice to end. The final pep rally of the year, he looked into their eyes and said the same thing he did after every game. Remember to do what is right. Don't ever tarnish what we've done here today.

Their youthful past is buried in a stack of yearbooks at an elementary school library. The answers are somewhere else. They're not on page 48, in a black-and-white 2001 team photo with a 16-year-old boy named Mark Becker wearing an expressionless gaze in row 5. Ask why Becker did this -- why he allegedly shot his former coach on a summer morning two months ago, allegedly killed a man whose greatest satisfaction came from watching his boys come back and visit him as accomplished men -- and nobody really knows. Ask how a clean-cut kid who was one of them could fade to a dishevelled police mug shot, and townsfolk just shake their heads and try not to cry.

There is no time for answers now. A week before Aplington-Parkersburg's football team takes the field for the first time in 35 seasons without Thomas, Al Kerns walks briskly past the old yearbooks and into a cluttered office. He is the new co-coach of the Falcons, and there are a thousand things to do. He has to go over his practice plan -- Thomas' old plan -- which is preserved in a three-ring binder. Tonight, they scrimmage. Tomorrow, they'll do gut-busters and grimace in pain. Whatever happens, Kerns can't let up. That's when they'll know that things are really different, and it will hit once again that Thomas is gone.

Keanrs
Elizabeth Merrill Co-coach Al Kerns keeps after the team this year, pushing them during practice -- just the way they've always been pushed.

It smacks Kerns every day. He was Thomas' best friend, his loyal assistant for nearly half of the head coach's 58 years. Men from much older yearbook photos, guys in their 40s, have been calling Kerns for weeks. Coach is gone, they'll say, and I never told him I loved him.

"And I'm like, 'Who says that?'" Kerns says. "You say that about your dad or your mom. I'll say, 'He loved you and he knew you loved him.'"

If adults are still grappling with Thomas' death, how will a bunch of 16- to 18-year-olds handle it? Kerns still doesn't know. He wonders how the team will respond to him and co-coach Jon Wiegmann, if they'll trust them. He worries that he's pushing too hard. He doesn't dare stop, because then maybe they'd see it, the eyes of the town upon them, looking to a football team to help them carry on.

"Were you at the wake?" Kerns says. "I mean, the governor himself could die and there wouldn't be that many people who'd come. The routine wait was four hours. I mean, it was just ... we'll never see it again.

"And I can hear him. A situation will come up, and I'll just hear what he'd say. You know, sometimes you start to hurt, and he'd be like, 'Nah. Do the job. Do your job. It'll be fine.'"

That morning

The class of 2010 was scattered on the morning of June 24. Quarterback Coy Wiegmann and defensive end Jimmy Clark lifted weights from 6 a.m. to 7, then headed to a job that Thomas set up for them at the local golf course. Star running back Alex Hornbuckle hit the snooze button and slept in. They're thankful, now, that they weren't one of the 20 or so students, mostly underclassmen and volleyball players, who were in the weight room that morning when Becker allegedly shot Thomas at close range, then uttered a reference to the devil. Yet they regret not being there to tell their coach goodbye.

The lifting sessions were voluntary, in a nudge-and-wink sort of way. Coach always knew who didn't show up for the sessions, which were held in the caffeine-induced early-morning summer hours between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., three days a week. Thomas was rarely sympathetic. He grew up in a time when two-a-days were sandwiched in between long days on the farm, baling hay, and he treated the Twitter generation the same way he did those farm boys from the '70s.

[+] EnlargeHornbuckle/Wiegmann/Clark
Elizabeth MerrillAplington-Parkersburg running back Alex Hornbuckle, quarterback Coy Wiegmann and defensive end Jimmy Clark say they're working hard, as Coach Thomas would have wanted.

One of his first captains was Dave Becker, who dated a cheerleader named Joan, who would later become Becker's wife. Three decades later, he still refers to Ed Thomas as "Coach." On June 24, the Beckers' son, Mark, was arrested in their driveway for allegedly killing their coach. While Kerns rushed to the hospital, the players started gathering at the elementary school, which also has doubled as A-P's football office since a tornado nearly leveled the town in 2008. They wanted to go find Scotty, their 215-pound teammate, the alleged shooter's younger brother.

Scott is a starting offensive tackle for the Falcons, and was one of Thomas' favorite players. The senior, Kerns says, is one of the team's hardest workers. "I don't know if he's a high school kid," Kerns says. "He's a man."

The Beckers have asked the coaching staff to shield Scott from the media, and his teammates are equally protective of him. "A really nice kid," is how most people in Parkersburg describe Scott, who serves in his church's youth group. Two days after the shooting, the Falcons reunited with Scott and played ping-pong, watched TV and laughed into the night.

"It was really fun," Wiegmann says. "We tried not to give him too much attention. We just tried to make him feel as normal as possible."

Parkersburg, a north-central Iowa town of about 1,800, has one gas station, one pizza shop and eight churches. Faith binds this community and brought two families together. Thomas was an elder at the First Congregational Church; Dave Becker is a deacon there. Within hours of the shooting, Jan Thomas reached out to Joan Becker on the phone. A couple of days later, the Beckers were invited to a private viewing before the funeral.

"For them, going back to the history of their families, it's kind of a double whammy," says the Rev. Brad Zinnecker. "They lose Ed, who's their friend, mentor, coach and Sunday school teacher, a guy they look up to. And they have to deal with the fact that their son was the one who [allegedly] did it and him being in jail and what that is going to mean. You lose someone who was a great friend, and you lose a kid."

The coach's influence

Thing is, Ed Thomas rarely lost a player. They'd come back years later, as husbands or bankers or NFL linemen, filling their old coach in on their lives, thanking him for being so tough. They'd trust him with secrets that would never be uttered again. Thomas always wanted to know what his boys were doing, and how he could help.

"I think he got the most satisfaction not necessarily from coaching or winning or losing, but just seeing young men become better people," says Thomas' oldest son, Aaron. "Preparing them to become better community members, leaders, and hopefully to be better husbands and fathers."

[+] EnlargeAaron Thomas
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAaron Thomas, one of Ed and Jan's children, is Aplington-Parkersburg's new athletic director, replacing his father.

In the days before his death, Thomas had reached out and tried to help Becker. The young man was 24, was reportedly into drugs, and had led police on a high-speed chase on June 20. His once closely cropped hair hung down over his ears; his young, determined face had turned pudgy.

Alex Pollock, a captain on the '01 team, says Becker was the kind of player who Thomas loved -- quiet, hardworking, focused. He was a good enough linebacker to play varsity his sophomore year, a rarity at Aplington-Parkersburg. He was one of Thomas' young men who won a state championship medal, just like his 68 teammates who grew so close that fall.

"Coach Thomas tried, you know?" says Pollock, who's now a football coach at Augsburg College in Minnesota. "And from what I understand, Mark wasn't really listening. I'm sure drugs had something to do with that. I know that, because he wasn't like that when I knew him.

"Everybody thinks, 'What could I have done differently?' I've thought about it. I don't know how big of an influence I was on him growing up. But there's just that little piece inside that says maybe if I would've said one thing differently, maybe something would've changed."

The Beckers are a good family, Zinnecker says. A strong Christian family. They attend church on Sundays, and occasionally sit next to Jan Thomas. Still, some townsfolk worry that the family, which lives on a farm about 5 miles north of town, is isolating itself.

"Everyone wants to make them feel like they're part of the community," says Andy Edwards, who graduated from Aplington-Parkersburg last spring. "I think they're probably making it harder on themselves than everybody wants them to make it. And everyone feels bad that they have to go through something like that."

Becker

Becker

Zinnecker says the Beckers have their good days and bad days, and that it's natural for them to want some space. What isn't so normal is Parkersburg's willingness to embrace both families. Zinnecker believes Aaron Thomas, Ed's son, set the tone in the hours after the shooting when he stepped before the microphones and asked the town to pray for the Beckers because they were grieving, too.

Mark Becker recently pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder charge. He is scheduled to go to court in mid-September, around the time the Falcons start district play.

The start of practice

The first players file in on a hot August night more than an hour before camp starts, because that's the way Ed Thomas liked to run his practices. He didn't tolerate tardiness. He had no patience for dawdlers. When you play for Aplington-Parkersburg, you sprint to every drill.

All day, the buzz on the local radio station is about the start of football, and Peggy Miller sits in her car at the Kwik Star up the street, wondering how it's all going to go. Her three boys played for Thomas roughly 20 years ago, and Miller remembers how the coach took the time to come visit her son when he ruptured his appendix. Ed Thomas was bigger than the mayor in Parkersburg, she says. It wasn't just school, either. He was involved in everything.

"It's going to be tough on them," Miller says of the football team. "I go by the field every day, and he's the first thing I think of. I think [practice] will probably make it worse."

[+] EnlargeAlex Hornbuckle
Elizabeth Merrill Hornbuckle says Thomas would have wanted the team to keep doing "the same stuff we always have."

The team gathers in a circle on the practice field, and Aaron Thomas gets up to speak. He left his job as basketball coach in La Porte City to become Aplington-Parkersburg's new athletic director, to wear one of his dad's many hats, and so far it seems like a good fit. He tells the team to stay together and help each other out. He looks into their faces, all 91 of them, which is an unusually high number for such a small school in Iowa. Then Kerns breaks them down, barking at their attempts to do jumping jacks. He tells them to clap harder.

As the practice wears on, more people show up in their trucks and bikes to watch. About 40 curious people gather near the fences. It's a fairly typical turnout for a practice in Parkersburg. Still, they want to show their support, says a guy sitting on the hill with a couple of buddies. They want to see what all this looks like without Thomas.

"It's weird because he's not here," Hornbuckle says later. "But at the same time, we just keep doing the same stuff we always have, what he would've wanted us to do."

He'd want them to hustle, Hornbuckle says, and remember the message he gave on Friday nights after games: Do the right thing. On homecoming weekend last year, in a massive pile on the field, Hornbuckle didn't. He was tired of his ankles being twisted and his private parts getting grabbed. So he got in the face of an opposing player and pushed him away. Thomas was fuming. He yelled Hornbuckle's name, grabbed him by the face mask, and screamed. "That's not what we do," he told Hornbuckle.

The running back was so shaken that he started hyperventilating.

"It's pretty scary when he starts yelling at you," Wiegmann says. "Nobody wanted to disappoint him."

They came from all around

Austin Kellner is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound boy who was lost. His dad died 10 years ago; his mom desperately searched for a strong male role model for her son. A few months ago, the family met Ed Thomas. They talked about God and family and shaping Austin's teenage body into a Division I prospect. They moved from Mason City, Iowa, to Parkersburg so that Austin could play for Thomas.

Thomas called the boy in one day early this summer, and said he had a surprise. It was a Falcons' jersey with the No. 77. It was the same number Kellner's dad wore. Thomas promised to start working with him on individual drills. The next day, the coach was dead.

In Thomas, Kellner found someone who would challenge him spiritually and athletically. Kellner hated the fact that in Mason City, the weight room, on average, had a smattering of about four or five people working out in the offseason. In Parkersburg, he had a new resolve. He "peaked out" the morning of June 24, which meant he finished his weight-lifting routine early. He missed Mark Becker by about 10 minutes.

"He was just getting started," Ruth Kellner says. "[Thomas] said, 'Next week, I'll start working with you every day one-on-one with drills.' Austin didn't expect any privileges. All he wanted to do was play the game and he wanted the opportunity to believe in his coach and to have his coach have the same beliefs he was searching for. And the kids here [were] so awesome and responsive to him that right away, he felt a closeness."

Shortly after Thomas died, Austin told his mom he wanted to stay in Parkersburg. It's what Coach would've wanted, he said.

Just down the road...

The Dike-New Hartford Wolverines are Aplington-Parkersburg's biggest rivals. They sit 15 minutes down the road, past a winding stretch of Highway 57. A little-known fact: New Hartford was hit by the same tornado last summer that hammered Parkersburg; then, two weeks later, the town was flooded.

"Because it was such an overwhelming disaster in Parkersburg," Wolverines coach Don Betts says, "what happened here kind of gets lost in the shuffle."

On Friday night, the Wolverines will be another footnote to the Parkersburg tragedy. They'll open the season in the Falcons' first game without Thomas. The game will be aired nationally on ESPN, a first in the state of Iowa. The crowd at Ed Thomas Field will be beyond emotional. Before kickoff, the school plans to have a presentation with former players from each of Thomas' 34 teams.

What Betts has told his team is similar to what Thomas might have said -- that they have work to do, regardless of who's on the other sideline. About 20 of his players put their uniform jerseys on this summer and drove down Highway 57 to attend Thomas' funeral.

Betts and Thomas had coached against each other for the better part of 20 years, and though they weren't close friends, Betts, like so many others, felt the need to say goodbye.

"We did it out of respect for coach Thomas," Betts says, "and what's done at and what he's meant to high school football in the state of Iowa."

Where to go from here

Kerns doesn't think about the pregame speech. He can't even fathom what Friday night will be like without Ed. He can't lie when he's asked if he goes home at night, two months later, and still feels like bawling.

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Elizabeth Merrill The Parkersburg team works out during preseason drills. The Falcons host Dike-New Hartford on Friday night.

"Nope," Kerns says as he smiles and shakes his head yes. Of course he still feels like crying.

"He was the kind of guy that most of us can't be because we're not tough enough. We're not tough enough to do the right thing like he always did. I mean, Ed didn't cuss. He never took a drink of alcohol. Ever. I bet he never beat anybody up. But he was the toughest guy I ever knew."

When Kerns feels as if the grief is too much, he looks out on the field. He sees Aaron, telling them to do what's right, just like his father. He sees Ed's younger son, Todd, coaching the offensive line, putting the kids at ease.

"Coach has always stressed that everything stays the same," Jimmy Clark says. "Nothing changes. It's the same expectations."

But the hole is still there, and it's bigger than any swath the tornado cut. What do they tell the boys and girls of Parkersburg about why it happened?

"I do believe God is real," says the Rev. Zinnecker. "And I believe Satan is real. Satan is going to attack God's people, and I think evil went after good."

The bigger question, now, might be this: Who will they follow? Zinnecker is reminded of a conversation he had with Ed Thomas after the tornado, when the coach was rallying the town to rebuild. They looked at the assisted-living facility, which was in splinters, but was empty. They thought about how it hit on a holiday weekend, when the schools and businesses were closed.

"If anything had been different, there could have been hundreds of people killed," Zinnecker says. "I don't mean to diminish the people who were killed, but man, we could've been black for weeks, with funerals day after day after day. God spared so many people who have come through that stronger. I don't know if it's true, but maybe it prepared us for this.

"We've seen some incredible blessings come out of the tornado, and I think we're going to see incredible blessings out of this. It's not easy to say. But I think it can happen."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.