PARKERSBURG, Iowa – An Iowa high school football team ran onto the field Friday for their first game since coach Ed Thomas was killed through a tunnel formed by hundreds of Thomas's former players that stretched more than 75 yards.
Emotions ran high at a pre-game ceremony honoring Thomas, who coached Aplington-Parkersburg High in northeast Iowa for 34 seasons and was named the NFL's High School Coach of the Year in 2005. He led the Falcons to a pair of state titles and sent four players to the NFL.
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"We lost a very good man. A man of great faith, a man of great character," Aplington-Parkersburg superintendent Jon Thompson told a packed house at Ed Thomas Field. "He worked with student-athletes, and he tried to make them people of good character so they could carry those ideals on into the future."
Reminders of Thomas and his legacy were everywhere on a warm and sunny afternoon before kickoff of the game that was broadcast nationally on ESPN from the small town of Parkersburg, about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.
The practice field fence where scores of kids learned the game under Thomas's watch was decorated with plastic red cups spelling out "Coach T. Faith. Family. Football." The Falcons, like many teams across Iowa this fall, wore helmet decals reading "FFF '09," in honor of the words often spoken by Thomas and that logo was painted into the grass on a hill above an end zone. Some fans wore t-shirts reading "Wear'n Red in Memory of Ed."
"It's going to be an emotional night," said booster club member Nancy Schrage during the team's customary tailgate supper. "It's going to be hard."
Team commitments kept former Falcons Aaron Kampman of the Packers, Brad Meester of the Jaguars, Detroit's Jared DeVries and Denver's Casey Wiegmann from attending Friday night's game, though Meester was scheduled to call in during ESPN's broadcast.
"It's going be huge for the town," Meester earlier in the week. "Obviously that program means a lot to that town. To have them on national television like this and having them honor coach Thomas, this will be the first game that he won't be there since I can ever remember. I know it's going to be an emotional time, but it's going to be a way to remember him."
Friday night's opener was, for the second straight year, an emotional debut for the Falcons.
Thomas spearheaded efforts to get Ed Thomas Field, previously named in his honor, ready for the 2008 opener after a devastating tornado leveled about one-third of Parkersburg, killing nine people in the surrounding area and badly damaging the stadium.
Thomas believed fixing up the "Sacred Acre," nicknamed for the reverence he showed for the field, would serve as a rallying point for the community's rebuilding efforts.
A new $19 million high school, which Thomas also was instrumental in helping design as the school's athletic director, opened Monday.
"We're trying to get back to normal," said Parkersburg resident Dennis Ihde, a neighbor and close friend of Ed Thomas. "The tornado certainly affected everybody physically, emotionally. But this really hit us emotionally. It's just one of those things that, you can't replace him. But we're praying for the kids that they do their best. Ed would want that."
Thomas made sure to leave one reminder of the tornado, a twisted metal sign reading "Falcon Country" that barely survived the storm. The Falcons ran out onto the field Friday night under that sign — though it was the first time Thomas wasn't there to lead the charge.
The team's coaches walked slowly to the sidelines, many of them teary-eyed. Ed Thomas's two sons; Aaron, who took over as the school's athletic director, and Todd, who returned as an assistant, shared a brief handshake just before kickoff.
Among the players bursting onto the field was senior lineman Scott Becker. His brother, Mark Becker, who also played for Thomas, has been charged with first-degree murder in Thomas's death. His trial is set for Sept. 15, although his lawyer has claimed he isn't mentally fit to stand trial.
Dave and Joan Becker, Scott and Mark's parents, attended the game.
Ed Thomas's wife, Jan, also was in attendance.