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Thousands gather to remember Iowa high school football coach

PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- Thousands of mourners gathered Monday to remember a slain high school football coach as a man of faith who believed in leading by example.

Family, friends and former players packed into a church, community center and parking lot for the funeral for Ed Thomas, the 58-year-old longtime coach at Aplington-Parkersburg High School who was gunned down Wednesday in the school weight room.

Pastor Brad Zinnecker of First Congregational Church said the huge turnout was a testament to Thomas' faith.

"They recognized a man after God's own heart," Zinnecker said. "His personal life and public life were one and the same."

The number of mourners easily topped the roughly 1,800-person population of Parkersburg as people filled the church, watched a broadcast of the funeral in the community center and spilled into a parking lot to listen to the service.

Media coverage of the funeral was limited, with reporters banned from entering the buildings. However, a transcript of an audio recording of the service was released after the funeral.

In the transcript, Al Kerns, a longtime assistant coach, described the relationship Thomas had with members of the community.

"He only saw the best in all of us," he said. "He never said no when others asked of him, so other people could never say no to him."

Kerns, who has been named a co-coach for the team this fall, drew laughs when he described how Thomas would show his players how much he cared.

"If Ed loved you, he'd chew you out. More than once," Kerns said. "And he could make you feel this big, but there was love in every bit of it. And sometimes, we all needed that."

One of Thomas' sons, Aaron Thomas, told mourners his father would have wanted the community to "get going" after his death and to do something to improve the town. He recalled that in May 2008, after Parkersburg was struck by a tornado that wiped out about one-third of the town and killed six people, Ed Thomas was a key leader in pushing for the recovery of the community about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.

Aaron Thomas urged mourners to wake up Tuesday with a renewed sense of purpose. He said they should get to work early and leave late, because even finding time for small tasks can make a difference.

  -- Longtime assistant Al Kerns, on Aplington-Parkersburg High School coach Ed Thomas 

Among those in attendance were members of football teams from across Iowa, dressed in their jerseys.

Thomas worked as a head coach for 37 seasons -- 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg. He was named the NFL's 2005 High School Coach of the Year and over his career amassed a 292-84 record and two state titles. He coached a number of players who went on to the NFL, including Green Bay Packers linebacker Aaron Kampman, Jacksonville Jaguars center Brad Meester, Detroit Lions defensive end Jared DeVries and Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann. All four served as pallbearers.

Authorities have charged Mark Becker, a 24-year-old former player at Aplington-Parkersburg, with first-degree murder. He remained in the Cerro Gordo County Jail on a $1 million bond.

After the funeral, University of Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley reflected on Thomas' impact on his players.

"Ed Thomas was a very strong individual, as you can see today," Farley said. "He used football as an avenue to change the lives of young men and women."

Jon Wiegmann, the other co-coach at Aplington-Parkersburg, said the upcoming season would be difficult without Thomas.

"We're going to have to become much better coaches," Wiegmann said. "We know we're dealing with young men going through severe pain. (This season ) is not going to be about wins and losses. It's going to be about rebuilding a team."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.

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