Thomas remembered as much more than a coach

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

“He’s just such a respected person in our profession, in the profession of education and coaching throughout our state, and I’d venture to say on a national basis.”
— Kirk Ferentz, Iowa football coach
“I believe his greatest legacy comes not in how many football games he won or lost but in the fact that he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ. He lived his life trying to exemplify this faith and convey those values to those under his influence.”
— Aaron Kampman, Green Bay Packer linebacker
“I think as a former player, and really everybody who has been through that program, you think of him as almost a father figure. He’s one of those guys who truly cared about every player who was in that program.”
— Brad Meester, Jacksonville Jaguar offensive lineman
“This is a devastating loss. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Thomas family and countless people who are better individuals because of their relationship with Ed Thomas.”
— Paul Rhoads, Iowa State football coach

Though Ed Thomas was killed roughly 120 miles from Iowa City in the small town of Parkersburg, the impact of his death struck the heart of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz and reverberated throughout Iowa.

“It’s just a tragic, tragic loss, not only for the community of Parkersburg but for our entire state. I think it certainly extends beyond our state, too,” Ferentz said in an audio statement released to Iowa media. “Ed Thomas is a person that just had a tremendous influence on an awful lot of people. I just feel terrible for everybody, especially Ed’s family.”

Thomas, who was the head football coach and athletics director at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, was shot and killed Wednesday inside the school’s weight room. Mark Becker, a 24-year-old former student who played football for Thomas, has been charged with murder. Thomas was 58.

Ferentz lauded Thomas’ character as a coach, teacher, and community leader.

“He’s just such a respected person in our profession, in the profession of education and coaching throughout our state, and I’d venture to say on a national basis,” he said.

Thomas, who coached four current NFL players — including former Iowa standouts Aaron Kampman, Jared DeVries, and Casey Wiegmann — gained national attention last year after the town of 1,800 was devastated by a tornado in May 2008. The F5 tornado killed six people, wiping out the school and its football field — named in Thomas’ honor.

The coach insisted on repairing the field for play by the start of September in what ended up being his final season.

“It is important to have something in Parkersburg, and we play football here,” Thomas told the DI in June 2008.

Ferentz, along with approximately 40 Iowa football players made the journey there to help clean up and the community regain its playing field.

“People that I know, like Ed Thomas, have a remarkable spirit, and we wanted to see what we could do to help,” Ferentz told the DI in June 2008 as the team picked up debris.

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DeVries, Wiegmann, and former Northern Iowa player Brad Meester all made an effort to help their hometown, holding an autograph-signing session and silent auction fundraiser in Cedar Falls in June 2008, with all proceeds aiding the Aplington and Parkersburg communities.

After contributions from all over the state, Aplington-Parkersburg was able to play its first home game after the tornado as scheduled.

Nick Walters, a former player for Thomas and teammate of Becker, said he got along with the suspect and noted Becker had many friends in high school.

“I was totally surprised. [Becker] played next to me on the line, and it didn’t seem like he had any problems that would lead to something like that,” Walters said.

Walters said that to only discuss Thomas’ football career would be cheating the coach, because he did so much more.

“He always said that if you only learned about football coming out of high school that he failed as a coach,” Walters said. “He was all about helping young men out, teaching them how to be members of their church, and teaching them how to be members of the community.”

Meester, who plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars, said Thomas’ effort in rebuilding the school’s football field was unmatched, and he noted that the coach had the ability to instill a strong work ethic in his players.

“One of his biggest things was getting each kid to reach his full potential,” Meester said in a statement on Wednesday. “He cared for each and every one of us who went through that program. He’s been such an inspirational guy to myself and to everybody.”

Kampman, a two-time Pro Bowler who plays for the Green Bay Packers, said Thomas was very special to him, and the coach’s religious standing brings some peace to those mourning.

“I believe his greatest legacy comes not in how many football games he won or lost but in the fact that he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ,” Kampman said in a statement on Wednesday. “His faith in Christ pervaded everything he did, and that is why in the midst of the heartache we all feel there is comfort in knowing he is with his Savior.”

Reese Morgan, Iowa’s offensive line coach, who knew Thomas for over 30 years, agreed with Kampman’s sentiments and said Thomas had a deep faith, which he was proud to talk about publicly. Thomas’ focus was always on those he was advising, Morgan said.

“Whenever he would lecture at a clinic, he would talk before packed houses, and his talks always, regardless of whether it was Xs and Os, blocking, tackling, it was always about kids,” Morgan said. “He always put kids first, and any young man who has been in his program is a much better person because of Ed and the effect he’s had on all their lives.”

Phil Lebo, a former football coach at Grundy Center, echoed what Morgan had to say.

“The simplest way to say it is that if you had a son, you’d want Ed to be his football coach,” Lebo said. “He taught young men how to grow up to be men. Not only in football, but in life. He was a student of the game and a great person.”

DeVries, who plays for the Detroit Lions, said Thomas was like another parent to him, and the coach’s wisdom has been with him throughout his career.

“He truly epitomized everything that is good about high-school football and all the things it can teach young men,” DeVries said in a statement. “Aaron [Kampman], Brad [Meester], Casey [Wiegmann], and I were so proud when he was named the NFL’s High School Coach of the Year in 2005.”

Included in Thomas’ coaching credentials alongside his coach of the year award is a 292-84 career record in 37 seasons of coaching. He also led the Falcons to 19 playoff appearances, including two state titles in 1993 with DeVries and Meester and also in 2001.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a former football coach himself, said he had always admired Thomas.

“The state and national coaching fraternity has suffered a devastating loss,” Culver said in a statement. “As we mourn the passing of Coach Thomas, it is my hope we can all continue to learn from his example.”

A vigil attended by thousands was held for Thomas at the school’s football field Wednesday night in Parkersburg.

Mike Moore, a football coach at City High, played football with Thomas’ younger brother, Greg, at Iowa Central. As he was helping out with Tim Dwight’s football camp on Wednesday, Moore described the news as stunning.

“If there is one person in the world who coaches football, he would be the last person who would have someone disgruntled with him,” Moore said. “But as good of a coach he was, he was a better person. Those who had him as a teacher or a coach are better people because they knew him.”

DI reporters J.T. Bugos and Chris Clark contributed to this story.

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