PARKERSBURG, 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.
Becker, who was to have gone to a hospital psychiatric ward after allegedly leading police on a high-speed chase Saturday, was arrested a short time later in the driveway of his parents' home and charged with first-degree murder. Bond was set at $1 million, and Becker's next scheduled court appearance is July 2. Police say they are still investigating a motive.
"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."
Friends and family said for all his sporting success, Thomas took the most pride in his Christian faith and carried his morals on and off the field.
"He could go into the locker room and give you the biggest chewing out you ever saw, but you would never hear a curse word," Pruisner said.
Thomas was content to stay in Parkersburg and wasn't much for vacations, but earlier this month he took off for Hawaii with his two sons and their wives in tow. Pruisner later heard Thomas was eager to get back.
"His vacation was out here on the football field," Pruisner said.
The coach also seemed content with his playbook. He stuck to about five plays and ran an old-fashioned Wing-T, an offensive formation that generally fell out of favor when Dick Clark first hosted American Bandstand. They worked for years.
"Some people want to call him old-fashioned," said local barber Tom Teeple, who called Thomas his best friend. "But this is what it was all about to him. Consistency."
If not for a shattered leg in an accident early in his career at William Penn, Thomas may have found himself on the playing field rather than the sidelines. But friends said once he turned to coaching, he never looked back.
Teeple can still rattle off Thomas' slowly improving records as a young coach at a Northeast Hamilton Community School in Blairsburg, Iowa: 0-9, 3-6, 6-3. Thomas didn't ask his players to be great athletes, but he did require them to buy into his system: stay in shape, stay out of trouble and the rest would work itself out.
"He was the epitome of what I would have liked to have been, salt of the earth" Teeple said. "I am a better person for having known Ed."
Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb, Melanie S. Welte and Luke Meredith in Des Moines contributed to this report.