ARKERSBURG, Iowa (AP) — When a fatal tornado ripped through the rural Iowa town Ed Thomas called home, the local football coach became the driving force behind rebuilding. As a trusted and active church member, he encouraged the tiny community to have faith.
Parkersburg needed it Wednesday as they struggled with news of the longtime high school football coach's violent death at the hands of a gunman who police said was a former player.
"This is way worse than the tornado we went through," said Larry Pruisner, whose two grandsons played for Thomas. "Those things we can rebuild. We're not going to get Ed back. He's gone."
Thomas was more than Aplington-Parkersburg High School's football coach of 34 years, running up a 292-84 record with two state titles while sending four players to the NFL. He was a social studies teacher and driving instructor. He oversaw Sunday school classes and served as an elder at First Congregational Church.
The 58-year-old known to everyone as "Coach" was gunned down Wednesday morning inside a weight room adjacent to the school while holding an offseason team workout. Investigators say former player Mark Becker, 24, walked past about 20 students before shooting Thomas several times and walking back out. He was arrested in his parents' Parkersburg driveway a short time later, and charged with first-degree murder.
"Aside from my own father and mother, no one had a more profound impact on my life than Coach Thomas," said Detroit Lions defensive end Jared DeVries, one of four former players Thomas watched rise to the NFL, which named him 2005 high school coach of the year. "Heaven just got a great football coach and an even better man."
The cruelest irony for this town about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines is that Thomas is widely credited with salvaging its spirit after the last disaster, a powerful tornado that shredded the southern third of the city and killed six in May 2008. The high school shone as a testament to the town's rebuilding and the football stadium — named for Thomas — often is referred to as the "Sacred Acre."
"You could see exactly what the football program means to Aplington-Parkersburg in the way the community pulled together to restore the football field after the tornado. That is a reflection of Coach Thomas," said Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann. "I cannot begin to count the number of lives he affected in this community."