Today's amateur sports landscape is littered with corruption. Recruiting scandals have become commonplace. Money-hungry agents bombard young athletes with phone calls, texts and Facebook messages. Coaches are often the culprits: Jim Tressel and Bruce Pearl are two prominent leaders to be embroiled in controversies over the past few months. The cases -- many of which go undiscovered -- are countless.
Sitting in a New York hotel lobby on Aug. 26, Jan and Aaron Thomas reflected on the life of a man who represented the purity of high school athletics. They spoke of Ed Thomas, the former Aplington-Parkersburg (Iowa) High football coach who was tragically murdered in the team's weightlifting barn on Jun. 24, 2009.
"I never ever envisioned my dad being taken that way," said Aaron. "Where the murder happened, how it happened -- there was definitely a timed sequence that kind of built toward that."
It happened a little more than two years ago. One of Thomas' former players, Mark Becker, snuck into the weight room wearing a dark blue jumpsuit and then shot Thomas. Players scattered from the scene. Shockwaves reverberated throughout Parkersburg, Iowa. A town -- and a nation -- mourned en masse.
"It was very humbling," said Aaron of the support his family received after the shooting, which included hundreds of sympathy cards and the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2010 ESPYs. "I think it was a great testimony to the type of man he was that the attention would come."
Since then, however, most of the nation has reverted its focus to stories that currently dominate the headlines, ones that involve corrupt tattoo parlors and boosters entangled in $920 million Ponzi schemes. It's disheartening. And it's a compelling reason to remember everything that Ed Thomas stood for.
On Aug. 16, the Thomas family and author Mark Tabb released
Take Aplington-Parkersburg football. Immediately after the shooting, the Falcons were in disarray. Their coach of the past 37 years was gone. Players were despondent and depressed. Motivation was scarce and the program searched for answers. Why would someone want to kill Coach Thomas? How could the team that he largely engineered continue in his absence?
But the Falcons prevailed. Aaron assumed his father's role as AD. Younger brother Todd became the new offensive coordinator. Al Kerns and Jon Wiegmann, former assistants, served as co-head coaches in 2009 -- the team went 6-4 -- before handing the reins to 26-year-old Alex Pollock, a former linebacker on Thomas' 2002 state championship squad. They re-instilled a sense of pride in the program, restoring games to town reunions of sorts, events that everyone looked forward to on Fridays.
"That pop is back," said Aaron. "That excitement is back. This year, for the first time, AP football is back to being AP football."
The team has resumed winning, going 10-1 last season and taking this year's opener 21-19 against Iowa's Humboldt High. But that's not its greatest success. More significant, the staff continues to instill the virtues -- faith, family, football -- that Ed preached during his legendary tenure.
"In reality, things aren't that much different," said Todd. "Some of our X's and O's are gonna change a bit, but the core of what our football teams stands for is the exact same."
The community has also largely recovered. During Ed's life, he was Parkersburg's spiritual figurehead, an Elder at First Congregational Church in addition to the football team's coach. His teachings bound citizens together. His selfless spirit was contagious. Following his murder, the first in Parkersburg since 1923, that presence suddenly vanished. But others have stepped in to compensate.
Aaron moved from Mason City, Iowa, to Parkersburg to offer support. Todd did the same, coming from Cedar Falls. The whole town contributed. When Becker stood trial in March -- he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder -- locals prepared meals for both the Thomas and Becker families throughout the entire three-week session. In the wake of devastation, Parkersburg maintained the magnanimous attitude that Thomas once exemplified.
"He only saw good in everybody," said Todd. "Hopefully people will do the same."
The most striking example of that mentality came in April of this year, after a tornado decimated Mapleton, Iowa, a town 180 miles west of Parkersburg. A group of more than 85 students -- there are only about 250 in the entire school -- immediately volunteered to help clean up the destruction. No local newspaper or television station organized the effort. The kids arranged it themselves, unprompted. It was an act of understanding: Parkersburg was ravaged by a tornado in May 2008.
"That's something I know my dad would've been extremely proud of," said Aaron. "No job is too small. We're not above picking up boards and nails to help somebody out who's down."
That bighearted message will likely continue to spread. Last year, the Thomases and Kansas City Chiefs center Casey Wiegmann -- one of four NFL players to play for Ed -- launched the Ed Thomas Family Foundation, an organization whose mission is to teach young athletes that the game goes deeper than winning and losing, than playbooks and formations. The foundation plans to create a football camp that focuses not just on football, but also on imparting lessons of integrity and respect. It's not geared solely for players. The Thomases also want coaches -- including some who have been previously vilified -- to sit up and take notice.
"I think a lot of coaches, and it doesn't have to just be football, are there for themselves," said Todd. "We want to talk to them about character building, treating young kids right and trying to be the type of coach that dad was."
The significance is simple: Ed was a leader of a dying breed. And the Thomases won't let his memory fade.
There are symbols across Parkersburg that still harken thoughts of Ed. The football field is one. Ed tended to it every morning, inspecting it meticulously for brown spots or divots. It had to be perfect. Now named in his honor (Ed Thomas Field), it serves as an unmistakable reminder of his importance. The onset of fall camp is another. Early August was Ed's favorite time, an opportunity to begin to mold better players, students, sons, and citizens. Two years later, the season continues to take a toll on his family.
"Those are tough days," said Jan. "He could hardly wait for the first day of practice. He was all wound up the night before."
Now, a new Falcon team revels in that excitement. The town has finally moved on. People have resumed everyday routines, taken steps toward establishing a new normalcy. But Ed's legacy remains. And in a sports era beset by insatiable superstars and corrupt coaches, laden with twisted morals and backward priorities, it offers a refreshing, and enduring, message: Do what's right. It was a mantra he lived (and coached) by.
"He wasn't a millionaire, he wasn't a CEO, but he worked extremely hard at what he did and was very passionate," said Aaron. "If you're passionate, you're gonna make a difference. You're gonna have an impact."
Two years after his death, Ed Thomas continues to give back. His impact truly knows no bounds.