Renowned coach slain

BY CHRIS CLARK | JUNE 25, 2009 7:21 AM

Audio: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on Wednesday's tragedy

Ed Thomas, the prominent Aplington-Parkersburg High-School football coach known for training four current NFL players and guiding his small, rural Iowa community in its recovery from last-year’s decimating tornado, was killed on Wednesday in a shooting in the school’s weight room. He was 58.

The suspected killer, 24-year-old Mark Becker, was a former player on Thomas’ team; he faces a first-degree murder charge.

According to police, Becker walked into the school’s weight room around 7:47 a.m. and shot Thomas “numerous times” with a handgun in front of dozens of witnesses and students; one bullet struck Thomas in the head. He was rushed to a Waterloo hospital, but he died a short time later.

“He was kind of like the heart and soul of our community,” said Becky Walters, a Hawkeye volleyball player.

She has known Thomas since elementary school. Even while in college, she would call him during visits home for help with weight lifting.

Walters received news of Thomas’ death through a text message from a friend in Parkersburg. She knew his alleged killer, Becker, through the football team.

“I liked him; he seemed like a good kid,” she said through tears.

Nevertheless, court records show Becker has accumulated a criminal record in numerous Iowa counties. He has pleaded guilty to such misdemeanors as assault, possession of drug paraphernalia, and drunk driving. Before Wednesday’s shooting, Cedar Fall police were prepared to charge Becker for a June 20 incident, in which authorities were called to a residence in Cedar Falls after he allegedly broke several windows with a baseball bat and drove his car through the garage door.

Law-enforcement officers later took Becker to Covenant Hospital in Waterloo for psychiatric evaluation, requesting they be notified when he was released. Officials weren’t notified when he left the hospital, however. He spent the night at his parents’ home Tuesday, hours before the killing.

Becker was arrested, and charges for second-degree criminal mischief and eluding, both Class D felonies, were still pending Wednesday.

UI students — alumni from Aplington-Parkersburg — recalled Thomas not just as a coach but a teacher and a man of faith. Within hours of his death, thousands joined Facebook groups honoring the late football legend.

UI junior Michelle Aukes, Thomas’ former student and fellow church member, said Thomas was “a great leader for students.”

Thomas helped rally the community when a tornado destroyed his home and the high-school football field in May 2008.

With the help of 40 Hawkeye football players, a rival high-school football team, and two current NFL players he had coached through high school, Thomas fulfilled his dream of making the Falcon’s field ready for their home-opener in September 2008.

“When the tornado happened, he was the person everyone went to for help,” Walters said. “He was the backbone.”

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, who has also coached high-school football, praised these efforts in his Condition of the State address in January.

“I couldn’t be more shocked or saddened by the death of Coach Thomas,” he said in a press release Wednesday. “My thoughts and prayers are with Coach Thomas’ family, the entire Parkersburg community, and all those who played for and loved this outstanding Iowan.”

A vigil was held Wednesday night at the school’s football field.

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