PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- Autumn in America is synonymous with Friday night high school football.
Fans are familiar with all the traditional trappings -- the lights, the band, the cheerleaders, and the drive to dominate on the gridiron.
However, the 2009 season opener in Aplington-Parkersburg, Iowa was anything but ordinary -- in part, because of what the Aplington Parkersburg High School Falcons football team has survived over the past year.
Nationally-Renowned Coach Murdered by Former Team Member
In May 2008, an F-5 tornado about a mile wide wiped out a third of the city. It leveled the high school to its foundation and left the football field in ruins. Last month, students started classes in their brand-new $19 million high school.
Another tragedy struck the school last June. Head football coach Ed Thomas was shot and killed while working at a summer weight training program. The man charged with his murder, Mark Becker, is also an alumnus of Thomas's football team.
Coach Thomas's death left the town without one of its beloved leaders who spear-headed the recovery after the tornado. It also left the school without its nationally celebrated coach who had guided his winning team for 34 years.
But to the Iowa community where he worked and lived he was more than a football coach. He was a man of integrity and character. People remember him best by his own words that he would often recite to players and parents.
His quote is now memorialized on a plaque that adorns the entrance to the field: "If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach."
"During the school day, he was in the lunch room. He was a social studies teacher. He was a driver's ed teacher," said Jon Thompson, school superintendent. "Sure, you can replace some of those things, but the biggest footprint is what he meant to us as a role model and a leader."
Falcons Play in First High School Game Broadcast on ESPN
On Friday, August 28, Thomas's team played against rival Dike-New Hartford. The game was nationally broadcast on ESPN - the first high school football game in the network's history ever to be televised.
It was also the first time in 35 years the NFL High School Coach of the Year was not calling plays on the sidelines of the so-called "sacred acre" that bears his name: Ed Thomas Field.
"They've got their hearts out there, because they loved Coach Thomas and they miss him," said Jerri McCracken, whose two boys played for the varsity game. "I know my son - both my sons - this is tough. This is a tough one."
Coach Thomas's oldest son Aaron says his dad tried to teach his players about life's top priorities. Those who remember the coach call them his three "F's" - Faith, Family, and Football.
"He really wanted to teach young men life lessons and prepare them to be good husbands, good members of their community, and God-fearing men," Aaron Thomas said.
Sons Show Forgiveness, Pick Up Dad's Mantle
Aaron and his brother Todd are picking up where their dad left off. Aaron resigned his position at a nearby school district to take over his father's athletic program. Todd is now an assistant coach for the Falcons football team.
The community has rallied around the family with love and support. But it was immediately after the shooting when the coach's family made a lasting impression, asking others also to pray for the family of the man who had killed their husband and father.
"Everyone in this community is going to have to get through this," Aaron said. "Thus far, we haven't had a lot of animosity toward the Becker family and nor should there be."
Coach Thomas was also a leader at his hometown house of worship, First Congregational Church, where he worshipped alongside the father of the accused shooter, Dave Becker.
Pastor Brad Zinnecker believes Thomas would cheer on his wife and sons for their heart of forgiveness.
"I think Ed would be very proud and that everything Aaron said and that Jan has shown in her actions, I think he would agree with and be - just if he was here, he'd be right here with them," Zinnecker said.
First Home Game Dedicated to Coach Thomas
The family's example is spilling over to the school district, where the accused shooter's brother Scott is a senior on the team.
"I'm proud of his teammates and the way they've embraced him, and made sure he knew none of this was his fault," Aaron said. "For him, I think he knows my brother and I and our mom - we have no resentment. We hope, for him, he can have a great senior year, move on, and somewhat enjoy himself."
Scott Becker played during the first home game - a memorial to Coach Thomas. Under the glare of the national spotlight, former Falcons football players, including Dave Becker, lined the end zone to support the young players.
The band played "Amazing Grace" during half time, and the Falcons went on to win the game 30 to 14.
After the game, players huddled around their new head coach, Al Kerns. He thanked them for the win, saying it meant a lot to the coaching staff, the community, and, hopefully, all of Iowa. He then instructed the players to take off their helmets, close their eyes and listen. Kerns didn't have to finish the thought. Kneeling on Thomas's "Sacred Acre," the team knew whose voice they were discerning in the distance.
"He would have been proud," said Austin Ryan, who assisted in touchdown play with a 74-yard run.
"He was looking down and proud. He has a big smile on his face right now," said Austin.
Alex Hornbuckle, a senior running back agreed.
"I would hope he's proud that we came out and gave it our all and did everything we could to win."
"It's been a hectic two months, there's no doubt about it," said Todd Thomas, Coach Thomas's youngest son. "It felt nice to get out here, play a game, and see the kids having fun out there."
*Originally aired Sept. 2, 2009