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Becker was released on June 23. The next day he was charged with first-degree murder after Thomas died at Covenant Medical Center, and Parkersburg was left to wonder whether its coach was gone because of a terrible case of miscommunication.
The people of Parkersburg will remind you that being a good Christian means being able to forgive—even the family of an accused killer. Two days after the shooting, Joan Becker got out of her car in front of the Thomas house, and by the time she reached the stoop she was weeping. The door opened and she was welcomed inside. "We need to pray for the Beckers too," said Todd Thomas, 28, the younger of the coach's two sons. "They need just as much support as we do."
While the Beckers may be judged outside Parkersburg, within its borders they are portrayed as a model family that did everything possible for a wayward son. Mary Schwennen said she plans to cook meals for the Beckers in addition to the Thomases. "We don't blame them for this at all," said Aplington-Parkersburg superintendent Jon Thompson. "We send them nothing but our best. I know it might seem strange, all the support they're getting here, but it feels right to us."
Scott Becker, a senior who will help anchor the Falcons' offensive line, was back to hanging out with teammates late last week, playing video games in the basement of John Tuve's house. Scott was one of Coach Thomas's favorites, polite and unassuming, the player the coach tabbed this year to escort a potential transfer around campus. "It doesn't have to be awkward," said Alex Hornbuckle, the running back. "We're all trying to act normal—as normal as possible. Scott can't think any of this is his fault." The school has already taken one essential step, closing the red barn and moving the weight room back to John Tuve's horse-riding arena.
If Coach Thomas was the one who rallied Parkersburg after the tornado, then who will galvanize the town now? The day Thomas died, when his family returned to the house, they were greeted by Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann. Wiegmann played for Thomas, as did Green Bay Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman, who arranged for Todd Thomas to fly home early from a vacation in Jamaica. Detroit Lions defensive end Jared DeVries, another Aplington-Parkersburg grad, stopped by the Thomas house last week, and Brad Meester arrived on Sunday night. All four NFL players from the area served as pallbearers at the funeral on Monday morning.
Next season the Falcons will have co--head coaches, Al Kerns in charge of offense, Jon Wiegmann in charge of defense. Kerns is a fiery motivator, Wiegmann a savvy strategist. But the person who will get the players through the summer and fall is still Ed Thomas. What he preached last season—in the words of Brandon Simkins, "To suck it up and go"—is applicable once again. When Thomas's older son, Aaron, met with the team last week, he told players to seek help if they needed it. But he also told them, "Don't use this as an excuse. Nothing is changing here." Aaron is a basketball coach at Union High in LaPorte City, Iowa, and his message was not so different from the one his father delivered in the wake of the tornado.
When Aaron and Todd walk the field in the morning, they pick weeds. They look for mushrooms. Aaron was the one who, about four hours after his father died, went up the hillside to ask Bob Smeins if he could take over mowing duties. Smeins, who filled in for Coach Thomas in the past and knows as well as anyone how he wanted his field, was flattered. So last Friday, in his straw hat and sneakers, with Montgomery Gentry blaring from the radio, he took a seat on the big orange lawn mower, revved the engine and started to cut a path back to normal.