Ed Thomas: The Sacred Acre
By Tim Branson & Shannon Woodland
The 700 Club
CBN.com - In a vast sea of Iowa cornfields sits the small town of Parkersburg. The people here pride themselves on hard work, community and football.
For more than 30 years, Aplington-Parkersburg – or AP - has been a dominant force in high school football. 19 times they made the state playoffs - twice bringing home the title. In fact, four of the Falcon’s best now play in the NFL.
It wasn’t always like it is today. Over 30 years ago, the school struggled even to win one game. But that changed in 1975, when one young passionate coach moved to Parkersburg and changed a team, a school and a community.
His name was Ed Thomas. Every kid who tried out made the team, regardless of talent. But Coach Thomas demanded hard work and integrity from his players and himself. He even expected his football field to be the best. He spent countless hours caring for the field that at one point was dubbed, ‘The Sacred Acre’.
Tim Branson, 700 Club Senior Producer: “The Sacred Acre. From a wife’s perspective, what was this legendary obsession he had with the football field?”
Jan Thomas: “He loved having that field look as good as it could look. He wanted us to have the best … Now our yard didn’t always look so hot but the field looked good always.”
But Ed Thomas’ number one priority was not building a successful football program.
Tim: “Ed didn’t really measure success by wins versus losses, did he?”
Jan Thomas: “Not at all. He was more interested in how the kids turned out. Now don’t get me wrong, Ed loved to win, believe me, I lived with the guy, and it wasn’t fun when he lost, but that wasn’t his ultimate goal.”
Ed’s coaching philosophy stemmed from his deep-rooted Christian faith. His sons, Aaron and Todd, both played for their dad and now help coach the AP football team.
Aaron Thomas: “He just led by example so much. You know, he would never ask anybody to do anything that he wasn’t going to do or hadn’t done. And I think that’s where the respect factor came in and kids always knew he cared.”
In many respects, football brought this small community together. That unified spirit was never more apparent than when an F5 tornado ripped through Parkersburg in June of 2008. Much of the town was destroyed, including the high school and football field.
Todd Thomas: “Some people had nothing but the clothes on their back. So, you know, there was just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questioning on, you know, ‘What do we do now? Where do we even start?’”
As the town started picking up the pieces, Ed came up with the idea of repairing the football field in time for the first home game three months away. As the players and townspeople rebuilt their own homes and lives, they also worked through the summer getting the field ready. On Aug. 28th 2008, the AP Falcons walked onto the field as scheduled, they won 53 -20.
Todd: “Having people come to the football field on a Friday night it was a sense of normalcy was kinda back in town.”
The Falcons went on to another winning season and it appeared as if everything was back to normal. As the town continued to rebuild. Until June 24th 2009.
911 Dispatcher: “Butler County 911”
Student: “Somebody shot Coach Thomas. We don’t know who he is”
Dispatcher: “Shot… Shot him?”
Student: “Yeah. Shot him”
A gunman had walked into the school’s make-shift weight room during morning workouts, and shot Coach Thomas seven times at point blank range. Ed’s wife Jan, who is an EMT, responded to the call, not realizing it was her husband. Chris Luhring, who was chief of police at the time, stopped her from going in.
Chris: “I had a hard time slowing Jan down because she knew somebody was hurt. She could see my body language probably before she saw me, that somebody was critically hurt.”
Jan rode with Chris to the hospital, her mind was spinning.
Jan Thomas: “Lots of things going through your head and you’re trying to keep your bearings but yet it’s going 100 miles an hour on all the whys and whats and how that you don’t have the answers for right then.”
Ed died shortly after arriving at the hospital. The family and community were stunned. Then came another shock… the trigger man was one of Parkersburg’s own - Mark Becker. Like his dad and two brothers, Mark played for Coach Thomas. Their families went to the same church. By all accounts mark had the utmost respect for Ed.
Dave Becker: “I remember one game Mark had a really good game. As we were walking off the field he says, ‘He’s going to be a good one, Dave. He’s going to be a good one.’ And that’s a thought I’d really like to hang onto.”
But off the field Mark was getting into trouble. Even then, Coach never cut him from the team.
Aaron Thomas: “He said Mark Becker needs AP football more than AP football needs Mark Becker. And he’s 100% right.”
Jan Thomas: “I was trying to get my head around ‘Why would he do that?’ I always thought he and Ed were on good terms. I couldn’t get my head around that at all.”
Tim: “It just didn’t make sense.”
Jan Thomas: “No, it didn’t make sense to me, at all.”
Mark later testified he heard voices telling him to kill Coach Thomas. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after finishing high school. His parents, Dave and Joan, struggled constantly to find proper care and medication for Mark.
Joan Becker: “No one knows the depths of what Dave and I went through to try get our son help or even what Mark tried to do to get himself help.”
After Ed’s death, the Beckers feared backlash from the community. Until the Thomas family made their statement to the media.
Aaron: “We also want to make sure we express our concern and our compassion for the Becker family. We ask that people pray for them as well, and that people take time to comfort and be them through this as they are also going through a lot.”
Tim: “Was that something that came from within you, or was it just the right thing to do?”
Jan Thomas: “I felt immediately I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes either. Dave and Joan have the utmost respect for Ed, too. They lost Ed and it happened to be at the hands of Mark. I can’t imagine what they were going through so I think if we were going to make a public statement especially we needed to say that. And it is the right thing to do, too, plain and simple.”
Dave and Joan say the grace the Thomas family extended made it possible for their family to stay in the community, and go on with their lives.
Joan Becker: “To see their family reach out to our family, publicly that way, just, it allowed me to go to sleep at night.”
Dave Becker: “It just overwhelmed you, the outreach.”
But the road to healing winds on for both families. Mark is serving a life sentence. And while the Thomases feel justice was served, they admit it’s hard to let go.
Tim: “Have you been able to forgive Mark? Do you think you have to?”
Jan: “I don’t what I feel about Mark. I know I need to forgive him and I’m trying very hard to. But he hurt my family greatly. At the same time I know I need to make that decision, and I’m working hard.”
Life and football go on in Parkersburg. Jan still cheers the team on while Aaron and Todd are on the sidelines, helping out AP’s new head coach. The family also released a book, called ‘The Sacred Acre – The Ed Thomas Story”.
Tim: “If Ed were given that moment before he died, to give a parting word, what do you think he would have said?”
Jan: “He was in there with 22 high school kids. And he probably would have said, ‘Always remember to do the right thing. He told them that day in and day out. You know what the right thing is to do: choose to follow God.”
It’s that faith in God that carries the family through.
Todd: “No matter what he was doing if it was with Aaron and I or Mom or the football team, that whatever he did that day, he was going to do it glorifying Christ.”
Aaron: “It is hard for us here on earth, absolutely, But I also have the promise that we will be reunited someday for eternity.”
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