Bob Smeins lives on the hillside overlooking Iowa's other field of dreams. On Friday nights in the fall Smeins has always liked to sit on his deck and watch the Aplington-Parkersburg High Falcons play football. The rest of the year, he liked to sit on his deck and watch a legend tend to the grass. It has been called the Carpet, the Sacred Acre and, officially, Ed Thomas Field, after the 58-year-old coach who laid down the sod. Thomas walked that field every morning, yanking weeds, killing dandelions, fertilizing the soil, kneeling down to study blades of grass for dreaded brown spots—the surest sign of chemical imbalance. Before the school installed sprinklers, Thomas carried a hose. After the school hired custodians for the field, Thomas still insisted on mowing it himself, against the grain from the goal line to the five-yard line, with the grain from the five to the 10 and so on, just like groundskeepers did it in the pros. "I would wave to him down there sometimes," says Smeins, a 76-year-old retiree, "and he wouldn't wave back. He was so focused on that field. It was his life."
The football team was allowed to run on the field but never walk. Others were allowed to run on the track that encircles the field, but never on the field itself. During track meets, Thomas strung a rope around the field, in case opposing teams did not know the rules. "It's probably the best field in the state," said Aplington-Parkersburg High principal Dave Meyer, "except maybe for the University of Iowa." The field has standard-issue metal bleachers, no box office, no fancy scoreboard. What makes it special, what makes it sacred, is the love that Thomas poured into the turf.
Last Friday morning, though, the field was looking a little neglected. No one was mowing the grass. No one was picking the weeds. A few troublesome mushrooms had invaded the sidelines. So Smeins did what he knew Thomas would have done. He went down from his house on the hill, and in his sneakers and straw hat, he walked into the long red barn with the white roof that stands just behind the football field. The barn was intended to store school buses, but it was used this year as a temporary weight room. That's where Thomas kept the big orange lawn mower he used to cut the grass. It's also where he was shot and killed two days earlier.
Parkersburg sits among the cornfields, soybean farms and silos of northern Iowa. It's one of many small towns in this state that seem to be left over from another era. Patrons at the Kwik Star are allowed to pump their gas before they pay. Men at Tom's Barber Shop hang out and chat after they get their buzz cuts. Some residents say they have not locked their doors since the 1980s, which is understandable, considering that until last week there had not been a murder here since the '20s. Parkersburg is a place where an upstanding person is usually described as a good Christian and an out-of-towner is asked, in the most casual way possible, what religion he practices. But even people in Parkersburg are having a hard time wrapping their faith around what God has wrought in the past 13 months.
On May 25, 2008, a tornado with winds exceeding 200 mph cut a hole three quarters of a mile wide in the heart of Parkersburg, killing eight people, destroying 220 homes and leveling the high school campus. Then, just this past week, on June 24, the most recognized figure in town was gunned down, allegedly by a 24-year-old Aplington-Parkersburg graduate named Mark Becker, who played football for Thomas; whose father, Dave, played football for Thomas; and whose younger brother, Scott, is currently on the team. Dave and his wife, Joan, attend First Congregational Church, same as the Thomases, and Joan had spoken at Sunday school on June 21 about the demons her son was struggling with. Thomas, who had counseled Mark Becker in the past, bowed his head and prayed for him.
"Getting hit back-to-back like we have—one year and then the next—it just doesn't seem fair," said Alex Hornbuckle, the Falcons' star running back. "I keep asking, Why? Why does this keep happening to us?"
Thomas delivered sermons when ministers were away. He consoled husbands whose wives were ill. He presented baby boys with FUTURE FALCON certificates. He taught kids to play football, sure, but he also taught driver's ed, making his students learn behind the wheel of a John Deere mower before he gave them keys to a car. He worked every day but Christmas, except this year, when he took a vacation to Hawaii and complained that he could not relax. In 37 seasons he won 292 games, most of them four yards at a time, with his old-fashioned wing T offense. The Falcons were never particularly big or fast, and they rarely threw, but they were disciplined, conditioned and country-strong. Before every play they would sprint to the line of scrimmage and try to snap the ball before the defense was set. When Thomas sensed a touchdown, he would call out, "Take it to the barn!" in his high-pitched howl, wire-rimmed glasses bouncing on the bridge of his nose.
Thomas won two state titles and coached four current NFL players, which is stunning when you consider that there are only 1,900 people in all of Parkersburg. Everyone in town, it seems, either played for Thomas or has a relative who did. Of the 220 students now at the school, 90 are on the football team. Even Jeff Jacobson, a special agent working the Thomas murder case for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, is a former booster whose son, Andy, played for Thomas. "You know how the Bible says to build your house on the rock?" said Chris Luhring, the Parkersburg police chief, who played for Thomas. "He was the rock that this community was built on."
The night Thomas died, 2,500 people showed up at the field for a vigil, including some of his staunchest opponents. "He could beat you 42--0 without demoralizing you," said Bruce Wall, coach of Jessup High.
On the fence surrounding the practice field, dozens of red Dixie cups were shoved between chain links to spell out COACH T., followed by a heart. In the windows of a house on Fourth Street, handwritten signs read WE WILL MISS U COACH and GOD BE WITH THE THOMASES. At First Congregational Church a message hung on the door: THE SANCTUARY IS OPEN FOR PRAYER. Parents of players struggled to talk to their sons, and the sons struggled to talk at all. "Stanley won't speak to me, and I don't know what to say to him," John Tuve said of his son, who is a rising senior wide receiver and defensive back.