basketball coach killed

Aaron Thomas – The Life and Death of My Dad

by Bernie Swain

Aaron Thomas is the head basketball coach and athletic director at Aplington-Parkersburg High School in Iowa. In 2010, Aaron was awarded the Missouri Valley Conference Most Courageous Award, and he and his family were given the Espy’s Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.

Sunday, May 25, 2008, began like most Sundays do in Parkersburg, Iowa – folks going to church, taking care of chores, and spending time with their families. My Dad, Ed Thomas, the football coach at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, was no exception.

It was an overcast day and as my father drove to school the sky quickly darkened. He was in his office when the tornado warning sirens sounded. He rushed home. As he walked in the front door, Mom yelled, “Down to the basement!” They hurried to the relative safety of their cellar. Three minutes later, a tornado tore through Parkersburg. It completely destroyed my parents’ house and a third of the buildings in town. Eight people died.

I was fifty miles away, but hopped in my car and drove faster than I should have. I’ll never forget the devastation I saw as I approached Parkersburg.

Finding the house was easy. Finding them was more difficult. They were nearby, helping their neighbors. While my father was an optimist, almost to a fault, that day, he had a blank look in his eyes.

The school where he coached was devastated, but my father never stayed down for long. His mantra: “We’ve got to dust ourselves off and get to work.”

For the next thirteen months, he worked diligently. It was great to see. Everybody joined in – it wasn’t uncommon to see hundreds of volunteers working all over town. Dad was particularly touched at the number of Aplington-Parkersburg alumni who came back to help – players, teachers, and students. One of his favorite sayings was: “Never forget where you came from.” During his career as coach, four of his players had gone on to the NFL. All four came back to help rebuild.

There was a lot of media coverage, and all the major networks came to our no-stoplight town. Dad became our de facto spokesman, and he did a lot of the interviews on the football field. I was proud of how articulate and committed he was. As he explained it to me, “Aaron, it’s really easy to be a leader when everything is going your way, but your true qualities become evident when you face adversity.” That was pure Dad.

The Shot Heard Round Aplington-Parkersburg
On the morning of June 24, 2009, my phone rang. I noted the time: 7:56. It was Mom. “Aaron, someone came into the weight room at school and shot your dad. It doesn’t look good.” My dad died soon after I arrived at the hospital.

We learned more details about what happened of the murder, the first in Parkersburg since 1923. My father was just finishing up the last lifting session of the morning when a former student named Mark Becker walked into the weight room and shot Dad at least six times with a 22-caliber pistol. There were twenty-two students there when it happened. This was a tragedy, a crime committed by young, mentally ill man.

Forty-five hundred people showed up at Dad’s visitation. Those people weren’t there because father was a good football coach. They were there because he was a great man.

Life After My Dad
After my father’s murder, I stopped stop taking life for granted. At some point, we’re all going to face events we didn’t ask for. How we respond measures our character. Dad used to say, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”

My father stood for integrity, hard work, and community. His faith mattered most to him, then his family and football were a close third. You knew what you were going to get with Dad. He never cut corners or tested the winds. He was true to himself and could only be true with others. I aspire to live my life to that same standard.

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