The Associated Press
PARKERSBURG, Iowa (AP) - As they've done every August for 35 years, the players on Aplington-Parkersburg High's football team are throwing themselves into the familiar, sweaty grind of Coach Ed Thomas' brutal, two-a-day summer workouts.
The pop of linemen clashing after the snap still fills the thick, muggy air, as do the rhythmic claps and military barks of teenagers willing themselves through endless push-ups, jumping jacks and punishment laps, their faded red jerseys caked with mud and sweat.
All that's missing is Thomas.
This is the first time in more than three decades that Thomas hasn't graced the sidelines of the field that bears his name, known as "The Sacred Acre." He was gunned down in June in the school's weight room, and one of his former players sits in jail, accused of shooting him. Though his players hit the field as they know Thomas would have wanted ‚- even using his playbook and the preseason workouts he penned ‚- his absence is felt every day.
"The only thing different is not hearing his voice," said the coach's younger son, assistant coach Todd Thomas, who returned to Parkersburg to guide his father's team. "The only thing we're missing is his booming voice out there on the practice field."
The Aplington-Parkersburg team will open its season Friday night, kicking off with a game against rival Dike-New Hartford. It will be televised nationally on ESPN and followed by just about everyone in the northeast Iowa town of 1,800 people. It's also a critical moment for a team tasked with playing a season that's about much more than wins and losses.
The 58-year-old Thomas was a one-time National Football League high school coach of the year, and among his former players are four playing in the NFL. He won state titles in 1993 and 2001. Players said they mourn the loss of their coach but are committed to living and playing as he instructed them so often.
"You're not going to get anywhere if you just keep thinking about the past and just like, you know, keep feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn't work like that," 17-year-old senior running back Alex Hornbuckle said. "You have to pick yourself up and just keep going forward."
Going forward is something the team's had to do before, and something Thomas taught them plenty about. A little more than a year ago, a tornado with 205 mph winds leveled about one-third of Parkersburg, destroying the high school and killing nine in the area. Thomas, a respected pillar in the community, was one of the people who helped stitch the town back together.
Thomas called for donations to rebuild the town's gathering place ‚Äî the football field. A slightly battered metal "Falcon Country" sign damaged in the tornado was resurrected at Thomas' insistence as a reminder of the storm and as a symbol of Aplington-Parkersburg's resilience, and still hangs today.
Last year, while work continued on the schools and nearby homes, the first game was held. After routing West Marshall 53-20, Thomas' voice cracked as he spoke to players and fans.
"There hasn't been a day since May 25 when I haven't thanked God for his grace upon this community," Thomas said. "There's no question in my mind we will be a better school and a better community than we ever were before."
The process of moving on started for the team just two days after Thomas' funeral. About a dozen of the older players gathered for a party to check up on each other and play a little pingpong. Of special concern was Scott Becker, a senior lineman and the brother of the man accused of killing their coach, Matt Becker.
Their message to him was simple. He was still a member of their team.
"We wanted to let him know we still loved him, even through all this," said 17-year-old senior quarterback Coy Wiegmann. "Coach has always said you pick yourself and go. Even through the hard times, we've got to focus on the good stuff."
As Hornbuckle put it, "We made sure to make him feel that we didn't think any different of him or anything like that. He's still our friend."
Coming back to help the team move on are Thomas' sons. Days after the shooting, Aaron Thomas agreed to leave his job at a larger high school 30 miles away to replace his father as athletic director. Another son, Todd Thomas, rejoined the coaching staff after a two-year absence.
Todd Thomas, a financial consultant in nearby Cedar Falls, spent five years as an assistant under his father, but he stepped aside after the 2006 season because he didn't feel he had the time for it. His father always wanted him to return, and he didn't need to think long before deciding to head back.
"It's helped me, being up here and around all the kids and also being around football, because football was such an important part of my dad's life," he said. "I can't speak for any of the other coaches and the kids, but it might be helping them too. I don't know. It just seems normal."
While the players areexcited for Friday night's game, they're also looking forward to getting on with the season and competing for the Class-1A title. Once again, the Falcons will be among the favorites to win it. Still, they play in Thomas' shadow. Along the practice field, there's a makeshift tribute created by jamming plastic cups into a field fence that read, "Coach T. One Team. One Dream!"
They're also still listening for any lessons "Coach" still has to impart.
"He always talked about moving forward, positive attitude in everything you do," senior lineman Jimmy Clark said. "That's exactly what he'd want us to do now. So that's the only thing we can do."