Iowa coach helps put his team, town back together

Jim Thomas

A football coach for 33 seasons, Ed Thomas of Aplington-Parkersburg High School witnessed firsthand the total destruction of his home, his school and his stadium. Most everything in Parkersburg, Iowa — population 1,900 — was wiped away May 25 when an F-5 tornado ripped through the small town.

Six people died. Lives were forever changed. Family heirlooms were lost.

“We found out in a hurry what’s important in life,” the teacher and football coach told a hushed crowd Wednesday at the NFL Youth Summit at the Kent State Stark Professional Education and Conference Center. “It’s not about material possessions we own. ... It’s about relationships.”

The NFL Youth Summit brings together 51 high school football coaches from across the nation to discuss issues important to them, including nutrition, motivation and strategy. Thomas, the NFL’s 2005 High School Coach of the Year, shared a side of life few will ever have to experience.

Thomas discovered in May that his teaching and coaching mission was on display for all of Parkersburg, the state of Iowa and the country to see.

The young men he mentored about leadership, commitment, dedication and team did not fail him.

“What we’ve experienced in our community over the last six weeks you can’t read in the newspaper. You can’t see on the news,” Thomas said. “We’ve witnessed firsthand the goodness in people. We’ve seen it.”

Two of Thomas’ players volunteered to dig makeshift graves that day because of a shortage of city workers.

“That was a learning experience for our kids,” he said, soberly.

Thomas spoke of the Catholic high school football team from West Des Moines that came to assist.

“Two buses, 90 kids, shoulder to shoulder, on their knees, picking up glass, trying to help us out,” Thomas said. “And you wonder why football is such a great sport? Because (we) are teaching the intangibles that are needed. We tell our kids that team comes first.”

Parkersburg, Iowa, may be small, but Thomas has been successful enough to have four players currently in the NFL — Casey Wiegmann (Broncos), Brad Meester (Jaguars), Aaron Kampman (Packers) and Jared DeVries (Lions).

All four came back to help.

“They play at the highest level,” Thomas said. “Yet they are better young men than they are players. That’s the biggest compliment I can give them.”

Thomas stresses commitment and loyalty. His players respond on the field and off, by giving back in these ways.

“The four (NFL) players have raised $70,000 so far,” said Alexia Gallagher, the director of NFL Youth Football Department. “The NFL will match that, and there will probably be more coming in.”

It was his former players who submitted Thomas’ name for NFL Coach of the Year.

“When the players nominated (Thomas), the selection committee was just so blown away,” Gallagher said. “Now you see why.”

For his part, Thomas got the rebuilding started before the first tears were dry. In the aftermath of the tornado, he took the leadership role he has always demanded of himself as head coach.

“About a half-hour after the tornado hit, I went to the field,” he said. “A number of the players came up. We started picking up glass.

“We made a decision that day: We are going to play football in Parkersburg on the same field we’ve always played. We felt it was important for our school and our community because of the traditions we have there.”

With the aid of the NFL, the school is on target to open its 2008 season as scheduled at home Sept. 5.

“This fall, I am going to have the greatest classroom I could possibly have — our practice field and game field,” Thomas said. “There are so many lessons we are going to be able to teach as coaches this year because of the adversity we are going through.”

Reach Repository sports writer Jim Thomas at (330) 580-8336 or e-mail: