In recent months, Thomas had tried to counsel his alleged killer at the request of the young man’s family, which attends the same church where Thomas served as an elder, and where the coach’s wife and two grown sons accepted condolences on Sunday during visitation. Some stood in a line that stretched for six blocks, four and five people abreast, for 4-1/2 hours to honor the coach. A handful of men pulled red wagons with coolers filled with bottled water that they passed out to those waiting.
On Monday, the silver-colored casket was lowered into the grave, which one current and two former players helped dig. More than 2,000 came to pay their respects, including Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz. About 700 squeezed into First Congregational Church, 700 more watching the service on closed-circuit TV at the Veterans Memorial Building, five blocks away, and scores outside the building, listening to the service via speaker.
The pall bearers included four current NFL players who learned the game under Thomas at Aplington-Parkersburg – or A-P as they call it around here. Many still wonder how four corn-fed boys from a town of 1,900 made it to the NFL within the same decade. The players – Jared DeVries, a defensive end for the Detroit Lions; Aaron Kampman, a defensive end for the Green Bay Packers; Brad Meester, a center for the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Casey Wiegmann, a center for the Denver Broncos – credit the work ethic in Parkersburg and Thomas.
His murder will test this community in a way no natural disaster could.
Hinders, a God-fearing man in a God-fearing town, is among residents who believe it’s no accident the tornado spared all eight churches in Parkersburg. Nor does he believe it’s a coincidence that Thomas – a man known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as for his two state championships and record of 292-84 over 37 seasons – was gunned down.
“You couldn’t pick anybody bigger in this town to shoot,” said Hinders, 60, who has been the town clerk here for 27 years. “That’s evil. …
“It’s spiritual warfare. Satan and God are fighting, and in the end I believe God will win.”
Thomas’ alleged killer, Mark Becker, 24, attended the church where Thomas was an elder. Unlike with Phillip Markoff, no one is asking “Is Mark Becker Christian?” Witnesses claim, though, that he could be heard screaming as he ran to his car: “Make sure Satan knows! Satan’s gotta know!”