Ten years may seem like an eternity to some, especially a person of my age. Yet, ten years ago this Monday I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard news that not only rocked the state of Iowa, but rocked the entire nation.
Ed Thomas arrived to Parkersburg High School in the Fall of 1975 and immediately instilled a culture of winning in the high school’s football team. The Parkersburg Crusaders would qualify for the playoffs 4 times under Thomas’s direction, including trips to the Class 1A title game in 1980 and 1990.
In 1992, Parkersburg consolidated with nearby Aplington High School to form Aplington-Parkerburg. In their 1st season, the Falcons advanced to the state semifinals. A year later in 1993, Aplington-Parkersburg was Class 1A State Champions. From 1992 to 2008, Aplington-Parkersburg would miss the playoffs only twice, in 1994 and 2004. Ed Thomas had become a local and state legend.
Ed Thomas didn’t become a national name until May 25, 2008. That day, the town of Parkersburg was obliterated by an EF5 tornado, the strongest tornado rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The tornado slammed into town at full strength, killing 7 people in Parkersburg, 9 in total. Damage estimates climbed to over $3 million.
Among the structures damaged in Parkersburg included Ed Thomas’s home and the Aplington-Parkersburg High School building. The football field was littered with debris. While cleanup began, Ed Thomas overlooked his field, “The Sacred Acre”, and set a goal: Have the acre ready to play the 2008 home opener in 100 days.
So they set to work, coaches, players, community members, anyone who was willing to lend a hand. The closer they got, the more it appeared that it would be ready to go.
On September 5, 2008, Aplington-Parkersburg played their 1st home game against the West Marshall Trojans, and Coach Thomas delivered this famous speech.
The Falcons won the game 53-20 and would finish the season 11-1 with a loss to Emmetsburg in the Class 1A quarterfinals. It would be the last team Ed Thomas would ever coach.
On June 24, 2009, Ed Thomas and 22 other student athletes were in the Parkersburg Bus Barn for morning workouts. During those workouts, Mark Becker, a former player for Coach Thomas walked into the weight room and shot him in the head seven times. Coach Thomas was airlifted to a Waterloo Hospital where he was later pronounced dead, he was 59 years old.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news and what I was doing as well. I was 10 years old at the time, getting prepared to go to the pool with my family when my mom called me upstairs. I saw the TV and was absolutely shocked, Ed Thomas was dead. We sat and watched the press conference dumbfounded on how a great man like Coach Thomas would end up shot to death.
The day of Coach Thomas’s funeral, thousands lined the streets of Parkersburg to pay respect to coaching legend during the funeral procession, including several neighboring high school teams. All the teams held up 4 with their hands, a tradition that Coach Thomas started at Parkersburg, raising the number 4 at the start of the 4th quarter.
I remember thinking after the events how I hoped that something of that nature would never happen to me.
Sadly, I was not that fortunate as my hometown of Madrid lost our legend in December of 2015. Coach Randy Hinkel died of a heart attack at age 58, coincidentally close in age to Coach Thomas at the time of his death.
I bring up my experience with the loss of my coach because Madrid and Aplington-Parkersburg are very similar communities and I can empathize with the AP community.
The towns shut down on Friday night and head to the stadium or wherever the team is playing, and in a lot of cases, draw more fans than the home team does when they’re on the road. Both programs even share similarities in the game of football. Madrid is known for it’s Wishbone offense and Aplington-Parkersburg with their T-Formation offense.
The night Coach Hinkel died, my father and I went up to the high school to turn the lights on at The Jungle in memorial of our fallen coach. We were met there by our activities director (now principal). He happened to be an Aplington-Parkersburg graduate and played for Coach Thomas. I couldn’t help but think this was deja vu for him.
This past Friday I had a conversation with him following a Madrid baseball game about the approaching 10-year anniversary of Coach Thomas’s death. During that conversation, I used the phrase “Everlasting presence” when describing Coach Thomas and Coach Hinkel. After the conversation ended that phrase stuck with me.
What I mean when I say “Everlasting presence” is their presence is greater than most who pass away untimely. Coach Hinkel affected so many people’s lives and Coach Thomas affected even more than him. Because of that, you feel like they’re always there, and sometimes in my case, my mind will wander off and believe that they’re still here in the flesh.
While they are obviously no longer here with us, I believe that is a tribute to their impact. It reminds that the phrase “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die”, rings true for both men. That is the power of an everlasting presence.