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Role model coach gunned down

Sandwiched between the media’s obsession with the alleged drug-related death of Michael Jackson and the murder of pro-quarterback Steve McNair, we heard of the tragic death of Coach Ed Thomas, 58, a role model high school football coach in Iowa.

He had been the head football coach of Aplington-Parkersburg High School in Parkersburg, Iowa for 34 years. Coach Thomas was also the athletic director, track coach and taught social studies and driver’s ed. He was hailed as “a man who tried to do everything right and still was a tremendous success by almost any measurement in many areas.”

Coach Thomas was murdered Wednesday, June 24 at 7:47 a.m. by Mark Becker, 24, a former player whose father had played for the coach and whose younger brother was a starter last season. Becker had been released from a hospital where he had been undergoing psychiatric examination only the day before. He entered the athletic weight training area with a gun and unloaded it at the coach who was supervising training for various athletes. The assailant fled yelling things like, “Tell the devil what I did…tell Satan…the devil made me do it!” The previous Sunday morning Mark Becker’s mother, Joan, shared in a church Bible class about the demons with which her son was struggling. Coach Thomas, who had counseled Mark Becker in the past, bowed his head and prayed for him.

His football players, his students, the community and his church knew Coach Thomas as a man who lived by these priorities: God first, family second, then school, football and community. Within hours after he was murdered, the students erected a huge sign and fastened it to the high fence surrounding Ed Thomas Field, which read: “Coach Thomas will be remembered in our hearts as a man of great faith in God.” Over 2,000 gathered at the field that evening for a vigil.

Ed Thomas’ 37-year coaching career was a notable success, vouched for by the following statistics: 292 wins in 37 seasons (average 8 per year); four NFL players coached in high school; 19 appearances in the state playoffs, two state titles, and runner-up four times; and NFL High School Coach of the Year 2005.

This coach was the leader who inspired hope in the community that was devastated by an EF5 tornado 13 months prior to his death. Eight were killed, 200 homes were destroyed (including the Thomas home) along with the high school, the athletic department buildings and the football stadium. Thomas instilled hope in the community as he led in rebuilding the stadium, a makeshift field house, and homes. The stadium was ready in four and a half months for the first fall game, and the team’s record was 11-1 for the past season.

It is no wonder the line for the final viewing of the beloved coach stretched for five blocks and the time extended from 3-11 p.m. and over 2,500 persons overflowed the church, Veterans Memorial building and parking lot to be part of the 90-minute service with audio carrying to those outside the church building.

Four former players who now play in the NFL served as pall bearers along with other selected former players. A Green Bay Packers linebacker had the following to say: “His legacy for many will be associated with his tremendous success as a football coach. However, I believe that his greatest legacy comes not in how many football games he won or lost but in the fact that he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ.”

As I have been rather obsessed with the news relating to Coach Ed Thomas for 12 days and have researched over 20 articles, I have also been somewhat obsessed with two scripture passages. First is Acts 4:14, “When they saw the man they could say nothing against it.”

In other words, when critics can see in a person a display of that which only Jesus Christ can do, they have no answer or argument. I believe God has used what He did in and through Ed Thomas to shut a lot of mouths and calm a lot of critics of Jesus Christ. The second passage is 2 Timothy 3 where Paul emphasizes the great wickedness in today’s society. To live successfully in such wickedness, Paul said there was the need of three things: (l) a righteous role model to follow; (2) the Bible to keep us on the right track; and (3) the Lord Jesus Christ, Savior and ever-present helper. I saw all three of these in the role model life of Coach Ed Thomas. May our community see such is us who are believers on the Lord Jesus Christ.