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Archive for September 5th, 2009

Grace. Forgiveness. Mercy.

SI Cover Ed Thomas

For many Christians, the concepts of grace, mercy, and forgiveness are just that – concepts. They are ideals to be striven towards. Many do not live these ideals. That, in and of itself, is a shame.

Many of us think we have forgiven. In truth, we hold the tiniest of grudges. We don’t extend the Grace of God that He gives to us. We don’t prove the mercy in the complete forgiveness for a person’s actions. Sometimes we extend the blame of sin to a person’s family, relatives, or friends. To do so, regardless of even the best of our intentions to the contrary is part of the human condition, our sinful nature, a remnant of the original sin. We don’t consciously think of denying that grace and mercy, we just do.

So when a story comes along that illustrates true forgiveness, grace, and mercy – on the level that GOD gives – I am stunned at the true capacity of the healing nature of God.

This is the story of a small town Iowa football team, the town, and a murdered coach. It is the story that of what a coach, leader in his community and church, teacher of tomorrow’s generation taught, lived, and passed on to not only an entire town, but multiple generations in that town.

Ed Thomas was a man of deep Christian faith, and in 34 years at the same school lived as an example his credo, “Faith, Family, and Football.”

In Parkersburg, Iowa, dusk and rain fell on the small farming town, and the hum of cicadas ceased. On that soupy evening, the parents of football players at Aplington-Parkersburg High School went about their task much like the football team prepared for its game Friday night – the team’s first since its legendary coach was gunned down by a former player.

The game against longtime rival Dike-New Hartford was televised nationally by ESPN. Aplington-Parkersburg won 30-14. But there were no cameras around Wednesday after practice, when, despite the rain and darkening sky, five parents squeezed red plastic cups into a chain-link fence outside the practice field.

After working on wet grass for 30 minutes, they backed up and admired their handiwork, which read:

FAITH … FAMILY … FOOTBALL

They invoke those words to capture the essence of Ed Thomas, the slain coach known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as his love for football. In 37 seasons – all but three at A-P, as they call the high school – he won two state championships, amassed a record of 292-84 and repeated one refrain as ritualistically as they plant and harvest corn in Parkersburg, which has no stoplights and sits about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.

Thomas’ credo is engraved alongside a picture of the coach on a plaque made after his death June 24 and mounted on front of the new ticket booth this week.

“If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach.”

The week leading up to the game Friday revealed more about Thomas, who was 58 when he was shot in the school’s weight room. And more about a town of 1,800, ripped apart by a tornado just a year earlier, coping with yet another tragedy.

On Monday, they gathered at “The Sacred Acre.”

It is the field Thomas groomed meticulously for more than three decades, and, on the day it was ravaged by the tornado, the coach declared it would be ready in time for the 2008 season opener. He made good on his promise. He drove the town back from the edge of the abyss through his deep faith in God and in his town, and his players. That night they went on to win 53-20, marking the beginning of a near storybook 11-1 season.

This time the disaster was worse. This time, they would not have the “old coach” leading them back from the brink. Parkersburg was grieving for their slain icon, and it was hard to know how people felt about the approaching game – until the students headed back into the building Monday morning and Jim Clark arrived.

He headed for the middle section of the home-side bleachers, climbed up eight rows, one row below the press box, and got to work. Using duct tape and bungee cords, he tied the blankets to the metal benches and, as is customary among A-P fans, reserved seats for the game, this time five days before kickoff.

A section of seats Clark reserved were for the Beckers, the family of the former player who killed the coach. He wasn’t just any former player either. He was the son of one of Ed Thomas’ first team captains and the older brother of a starting offensive lineman.

Jim Clark was a friend of the family to both the Thomas’ and the Beckers, who’s son Mark was being held, charged with the shooting of Coach Thomas, and two days after the shooting they visited the shattered parents, Joan and Dave.

While they were there, Joan Becker took a phone call.

It was Jan Thomas, wife of the murdered coach.

“What a wonderful person,” Clark recalled Joan Becker saying.

The Beckers also had received a call from the Wiegmann family that includes Jon, a longtime assistant football coach at A-P; Coy, a senior and the team’s starting quarterback; and Dawn, president of a group that includes all parents of the senior players. They arranged for Scott Becker, the younger brother of Mark Becker and a senior lineman, to come to their house.

More than a dozen teammates were waiting.

They’d sent him text messages of encouragement almost immediately after Mark Becker was arrested the morning of June 24. When Scott Becker arrived at the Wiegmanns’ house, his teammates embraced him. Then they played ping pong, horsed around and watched movies.

“We had him smiling the whole time,” his teammates recalled.

The next day, the players went swimming in the pond behind the Beckers’ house. People still worried that Scott Becker, well-liked but quiet, might grow even more withdrawn. When the coaches called a team meeting at the elementary school library that week, Ed Thomas’ grown sons, Aaron and Todd, took Scott Becker into the hallway.

Teammates recall him returning to the library with tears in his eyes and a look of relief, as if unburdened by the feelings of guilt or shame. On Aug. 10, the first day of preseason drills, Scott Becker was there, as were all his teammates, putting the team back together – having not let it fall apart in the first place.

Joan Becker had taken over as secretary of the senior parents’ group. She also sat next to Jan Thomas during Sunday services at First Congregational Church.

It was the church they had both attended for decades and where Ed Thomas had served as an elder and counseled Mark Becker. The Beckers sought Ed Thomas’ help as their son’s behavior grew increasingly erratic.

Tuesday brought the crash of football pads, grunts, and the sounds of coaches rippling across the fields. On the field across the street from the building where their coach was murdered, the A-P Falcons went through practice drills in front of a small audience.

One father watched from inside his truck. Two fathers watched from a slope on the grass. And then there was a younger, burly, bearded man watching alone from atop a small hill.

The man had driven past the field a handful of times in recent weeks. But, still haunted by the shooting, he would not let himself get any closer until this day. He was greeted by the familiar sight of red helmets and red uniforms worn by the Falcons as they slammed into tackling dummies and into each other.

This past spring, Ed Thomas told people he expected to field one of his largest rosters ever, indeed a fitting comeback from the devastation wrought by the tornado . This time, after the shooting, however, distraught younger players talked of quitting. If they couldn’t play for Thomas, some told their parents, they didn’t want to play at all.

From the observation posts held by the fathers, brothers, cousins of the players, one could hear the sounds as they echoed across the field.

“How bad do you want it?” an assistant coach hollered.

No one yet quite knew.

Nor did the players know what was happening the next day on their way to the locker room.

The following day, Wednesday, as the players arrived to change into their practice gear, the superintendent directed them to a grief counseling session that had been set up to help the town through it.

During a brief intermission, someone approached the seminar leader and identified one of the people in attendance. The short-haired woman in the back of the room. It was Jan Thomas.

Jan Thomas is an EMT who was on call the morning of her husband’s death, she was among the first to arrive at the scene. She very easily could have looked on the scene and let it ravage her faith in God, and everything Holy. Imagine the shock, pain, utter collapse of reason at reporting to a violent scene such as this, expecting in some ways to see someone you knew from this small town… and laying eyes on your husband as he lay mortally wounded.

The leader took note of Jan and someone else in the room – Aaron Thomas, 30, the slain coach’s oldest son. Todd Thomas, the coach’s younger son, had left his job as a financial adviser after the shooting and taken over as the team’s offensive line coach. Aaron Thomas had taken on even greater responsibility.

It was Aaron Thomas who spoke at his father’s funeral and told more than 2,000 gathered for the service that it was OK to mourn that Monday, but on Tuesday they must get back to work, and get there early. That if people truly wanted to honor his father, they would move forward, with a sense of purpose, the same way his father lived. He counseled that his father had always known the three things that held this town together – Faith… Family… Football.

Aaron told the gathered that this is his father’s legacy, to teach the simple truth of Christ, demonstrate how to the life of faith while raising a family, both in a nuclear sense, and in the extended family that athletic teams become.

A group of recent A-P graduates decided to order red wristbands embedded with those words – faith, family and football – and sell them for $3 apiece, with the money going to the Ed Thomas Memorial Fund.

They ordered 1,500. Sold out in two days.

They ordered another 1,000. Those lasted a week.

They ordered another 1,000. Gone in 10 days.

They ordered another 300, which arrived this week and were on sale on game day. These also sold out.

Thursday saw the day begin with gray clouds. Misty air. Soggy grass. All waited for the A-P Falcons when they returned to the practice field, and the practice was as crisp as the coaches’ exhortations.

Final practice before the season opener. After what the new coach describes as “one of the finest Thursday practices he had ever seen”, the team huddled around Kerns, who spent more than two decades coaching under Ed Thomas before forced into the position of co-head coach.

“Fellas, this should be a special moment,” he said.

They’d been waiting for this moment almost as much as the game itself.

The coaches passed out decal stickers that read “FFF 09.” By now, the three Fs and what they stood for were embedded in their brains, if not their hearts.

Faith, family and football.

Players wiped their helmets dry and carefully placed the decals on the backs.

On Friday, the bleachers were full, and the Thomas’ sat next to the Beckers as they took to the field for the first time in 34 years without Coach Ed Thomas leading them out. Time will tell if the town will recover from losing such a beloved figure and stalwart of their community and bounce back as they did when Coach Thomas led them back from the tornado in May of 2008. One thing is certain, the families of the Thomas’ still grieve and the family of the Beckers still have an ordeal yet to come, but they will face it together. An expression of Faith and Forgiveness, extended Family typical of small town America, and Football, a game around which Ed Thomas influenced hundreds at A-P High School, and thousands beyond those boundries.

The lessons of Faith Family Football are not lost. They live on. They are remembered. They are his legacy because he lived it. His family lives it.

And none of it would be remotely possible without the King of Heaven reaching into the hearts and minds of these afflicted and placing his Holy Peace upon them.

How much of an impact did Ed Thomas have on his community? It is immeasurable. His impact of influence reached far beyond his town.

At his funeral every player on every team in the conference that A-P plays in showed up, lining the streets in their football jerseys to say goodbye to a rival’s coach. One player from such a team was asked “why would you come to pay respects to a rival coach?” The teenager answered, “because of who Coach T. was and how he lived. He earned respect from everyone he crossed paths with. How could we not show up?”

Those stickers? They are worn by all of the teams in that conference this season. FFF 09.

Faith… Family… Football

Tempered with Grace… Mercy… and Forgiveness.

May we all be open to receive God’s love and be able to truly forgive those that trespass against us.
desert-cross-798497

Forgiveness

“What greater gift can I give to you? and what greater gift can you give to me?
Nothing is greater than your love and your forgiveness,
and that is greater than anything.”

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