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Last year, when the tornado struck, people could pound nails into two-by-fours, using hard labor as a coping mechanism. "That was easier," said assistant coach Brian Benning. "This year it's all inside of you."
The day that part of Parkersburg blew away, Thomas huddled in the basement of his house off Highway 57, holding hands with his wife, Jan, and listening to the wood splinter over his head. The tornado needed only 34 seconds to do its damage, and when Thomas emerged from the basement, he found nothing of his house left. He walked through the destruction, down the two-lane highway, toward his second home. Neighbors looking for direction followed behind. When Thomas got to the edge of the field, he stared at the mangled bleachers, the twisted uprights, the Sacred Acre punctured by wood and glass. Standing next to Principal Meyer the next morning, he pledged to rebuild the field in time for the 2008 season opener, setting an example for everyone else who was displaced. "That field," said Jacksonville Jaguars center Brad Meester, Aplington-Parkersburg class of 1995, "is what brought the town back together."
While Thomas sent his players to dig graves for the dead, players from rival high schools arrived in Parkersburg by the busload, dropping to their knees and crawling across the field to pick up shards of glass. John Tuve generously paved the horseback-riding arena on his property and turned it into a makeshift weight room, and the University of Iowa football team came from Iowa City, 110 miles away, to set up the equipment. Thomas consulted with David Minner, a horticulture professor at Iowa State, to find the perfect type of grass and settled on a hybrid tall fescue. He laid the sod before the 2008 season, just as he said he would, and the Falcons went 11--1.
Thomas's vision to resuscitate his football field and in turn his town was gradually fulfilled. New houses, including Thomas's, with a small fish pond in the backyard, sprouted along Highway 57. The high school, which had moved classes into the middle school in Aplington, five miles away, announced that it would reopen its campus on Aug. 15. During a banquet this past May honoring the athletes of the week selected by a local TV station, Thomas beamed as he discussed the previous year. "It's amazing," he said, "how you bond together when you face adversity in your life." This promised to be a glorious summer in Parkersburg.
"Now I actually think the devastation might be worse," said Mary Schwennen, whose three daughters graduated from Aplington-Parkersburg. "Sure, my home's not gone. My belongings are not gone. But those are things. This is a life. Our sense of safety will never be the same."
Thomas did his last piece of coaching at 7:45 a.m. on June 24, overseeing a morning weightlifting session for about 20 students, most of them freshman and sophomore football players, but also a few members of the girls' volleyball team. Thomas stood next to Brandon Simkins, a promising running back and defensive back who will be a sophomore next season and might, Thomas thought, make the varsity. Brandon reported to Thomas that he had bench-pressed 265 pounds, which entitled him to a coveted FALCON POWER T-shirt. As they talked, Brandon said he'd seen Mark Becker stumble into the weight room in a dark blue jumpsuit that made him look sort of like a construction worker. Becker had come to lift before, so Brandon thought nothing more of it.
Suddenly Becker reached into his jumpsuit, grabbed a gun and pointed it in the direction of Brandon and Thomas. Brandon had no idea whether the gun was aimed at him or his coach. He took a step back, closed his eyes and dropped his head. "I was dead," he said later. But Becker had been looking for Thomas, Principal Meyer would say later. He had already gone to the middle-school campus, where the coach had a classroom in which he taught social studies, and the elementary school, where he taught driving.
Brandon heard a loud bang, which sounded like a heavy barbell plate being dropped. Then he opened his eyes and saw his coach, the one he had dreamed of playing for, falling to the ground. Students bolted for the door, tripping over each other as they fled from the room. "I was trying to pick up kids and throw them out the door," Brandon would say. After they got out, he punched the door closed, hitting it so hard he bruised his fist. "The police asked me to draw everything I saw," Brandon said. "I couldn't do it because my hand was still shaking."
Parkersburg yearns to understand why anybody would have wanted to kill its most beloved citizen—"Our icon," says barber Tom Teeple—but the closest thing to an explanation may be something that, according to Brandon, Becker told a volleyball player as he left the room: "The devil made me do this." Becker, who was an above-average linebacker ("tough son of a gun," Teeple remembers), graduated in 2004, enrolled at nearby Wartburg College and played junior varsity football there. But he dropped out after one semester, according to Wartburg spokesman Saul Shapiro, and later enrolled in and dropped out of Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo. According to reports, Becker was arrested for assault in November, for criminal mischief in December and for possession of drug paraphernalia in January, when he admitted to police that he was a methamphetamine user.
Becker worked as a cook at the Old Chicago pizza restaurant in Cedar Falls—"We had no problems with him," said manager Scott Gilroy—until June 20, the day he allegedly broke into a house in Cedar Falls and took a baseball bat to the windows. Becker then led police on a high-speed chase, which ended when his car hit a deer six miles north of Parkersburg. The Butler County sheriff's office sent him to Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward. Butler County sheriff Jason Johnson said he asked to be informed when Becker was released, but Covenant Medical Center claimed in a statement that no such request was filed.