What is my purpose here on earth? That might be one of the most commonly asked question ever throughout all of history. Make money, be happy, be a father or mother, accumulate stuff, help others? How do I know I am doing what I should be doing? How do I know if I am doing the right things? These are all very good questions.
Yesterday was the 3 year anniversary of a very sad occurence in our state. June 24th 2012 marks three years to the day since Mark Becker shot coach Ed Thomas.
Last fall I read the book The Sacred Acre:The Ed Thomas Story by Mark Tabb. It was an amazing book. This story is very personal to me because I grew up around this story. Let me first say, that I never actually had a conversation with Ed Thomas, but I most certainly knew him. I played on the Hudson football team that played against Ed’s Aplington Parkersburg team in the 1993 State Quarterfinal game in the UNI Dome. They beat us that night and went on to win the 1993 state championship that year. I must admit that was one of the toughest losses I ever endured in my football playing career. We really thought that we had a chance to beat them that night, but it was just not meant to be. They were a superior team that night and really all that season. They had great talent and great leadership starting with their amazing coach Ed Thomas. I had so much respect for that team. The discipline, toughness (both mentally and physically), and fight they showed was just amazing. From that night on, I totally respected coach Ed Thomas and what he did with his football team that year and all the years that followed.
That night was the only time we ever stepped on the field against Aplington Parkersburg in football. In basketball, they were in our conference so we played them at least twice and sometimes three times each season. My last career high school basketball game was a loss against AP at Hudson. Through football and basketball I knew and played with 2 of the 4 NFL AP players. They were Brad Meester and Jared DeVries. I also had the wonderful privilege of knowing Aaron Thomas, Ed’s youngest son. I was a Jr. and Aaron was a Fr. when we played that football game. I was a Jr. and Sr. and Aaron was a Fr. and So. when we played them in basketball.
When the tornado ripped through Parkersburg on Memorial Day weekend in 2008, I was at a friend’s house in Boone. Two weeks later on my way home to Waterloo, I drove through Parkersburg and witnessed the damage myself. I was blown away at the sheer destruction that had occurred. I quickly found myself lost because there were no markers to use to get your bearings. I had been through Parkersburg so many times and it looked nothing at all like this. I just could not wrap my mind around this level of destruction.
On August 28th, 2008, I watch on TV with a whole bunch of people around the country as, only a couple of months after the tornado, AP played their first home game on their field. Ed Thomas had rallied the team, rallied the whole community to get to this date and be ready to play this game. This game was filled with emotion for me and many people. These were our people. They were Iowans. They grew up in a small town just like I had. It was like it had happened to me. I had never been so proud of Coach Thomas or that team as I was in that moment. They got knocked down hard, but they got back up and fought hard and they had won. They had beaten the odds.
Then the morning of June 24th, 2009 happened. I was in East Tennessee for work. It had seemed just like any other ordinary morning. Then I got a text message on my phone from my stepmom. It said that Coach Ed Thomas had been shot. WHAT? I walked into the lunch room at the plant and saw the story running on CNN. I soon learned all the terrible details. How Coach was supervising lifting in the makeshift weight room in the school’s bus barn, when a former player, Mark Becker, entered the building and shot coach several times in the head at close range and then ran out of the building.
I was in complete and udder shock. How could this happen? How could this happen to such a kind person such as Coach Thomas? It just didn’t make any kind of sense to me. The sad reality is that it never would make much sense to me or anyone whose life was ever touched by this great man.
I am not going to go into great detail about the events surrounding his death. If you want to know more about the story, I would say definitely read the book. You can also watch some of the following video clips that tell much more of the story:
Video shown at the 2010 ESPY’s when he was awarded the Arthur Ashe Award.
Video of the family accepting the 2010 Arthur Ashe Award.
Video of E:60 Heartland.
Video tribute to Coach Ed Thomas.
Video coverage of Coach Thomas on the field.
While going through and reading The Sacred Acre:the Ed Thomas Story, I saw a few key parts that really struck me that I would like to share with you. Things that defined who coach Ed Thomas really was and what he stood for. Again, I really want to encourage each of you to purchase this book and read this remarkable story for yourselves. You can purchase it here.
The first key part I found was when Ed’s son Todd was getting married to his wife Candice, Ed was to give the prayer before the meal at their rehearsal dinner. Before saying the prayer, Ed said “I don’t have a lot of fatherly advice to give you except this. Always, always put God first in your relationship. And after that, make sure you put one another and you family ahead of anyone, or anyone else besides God.” What great advice this was. This is a really great formula for having a successful marriage. If everyone followed this advice, we would not have a problem with divorce in our country. What Ed said is really talking about serving. When you can put serving at the forefront of any relationship, it will be a successful relationship.
Another part from the book that really struck me occurred the day prior to the day that coach Ed Thomas was murdered. Coach Scott Heitland, from Dallas Center-Grimes High School was putting on a lineman clinic. Coach Thomas was helping out at the camp and at the end of the camp, he gave what would turn out to be his last speech he would ever give to a group of people. Here is what he told those young football players:
“You know, guys, I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, for thirty-seven years, to be exact. And I have to tell you that my fire and commitment and enthusiasm for this game are stronger today than they’ve ever been. I don’t know how many more years I’ll get to do this, but I plan on making the most of every one of them.”
“Ant that’s what I want to challenge you young people with today, especially you seniors. Make the most of this opportunity you have to play this game, to leave a legacy. You see, this is about more than the game of football. The way you choose to practice, the way you choose to play each game, they way you choose to devote yourselves to giving your all every play of every game for four full quarters-all of that says a lot about how you will choose to live the rest of your lives.”
“Every day that you get up out of bed, every day God gives you on this earth, is an opportunity for you. He give you each day to do with it whatever you want. You can waste it, or you can use it for good. Just remember, what you choose to do with each day is very important because you are exchanging a day of you life for it, and you don’t know how many days you will have. When tomorrow comes, today will be gone forever. All you will have is whatever you traded this day for.”
“You know, I believe the greatest gift God has given any of us is the power to choose. That’s what you get to do with every day you get to spend on this earth. You get to choose how you’re going to use it. I don’t know about you, but I want to choose to use each day for gain, not for loss. I want to choose good, not evil. I want to choose whatever is going to help me succeed and be a better person and make a positive impact on the lives of others, rather than choose things that lead to failure.”
“The future is just a long string of right nows.”
“I’ve found that football and life really aren’t that complicated. You always get out of it what you put into it. When you make good decisions on and off the field and choose to work hard and do your very best, no matter what you are doing, good things happen. And when you make a mistake and blow it, and goodness knows I’ve made a lot of mistakes through the years, you get back up off the ground and learn from it.”
Wow, pretty much said it all right there didn’t he? Coach Thomas is saying that we should make the most of every challenge we are faced with, every day we are given, and through our actions leave a legacy for others to follow. Coach Thomas showed us that it is about a whole lot more than just the game of football. How a player plays the game of football reflects how that w=person will choose to approach their lives. They are on in the same. God gives us each day and only we can choose to do something with it or to waste it. We have the power to choose. We can choose gain, not loss, good, not evil. We can choose to do what will cause success, to be a better person, to have a positive impact on others. Life and the game of football is not as complicated as we make them out to be. We get out of it what we put into it. What a perfect last speech!
Another part of the book that really stuck out to me was the address that Al Kerns made at Ed’s funeral. Al Had been an assistant coach for Ed for 30 years and was really has best friend. Al had this to say about his best friend.
“There were a lot of things that made Ed unique, and one of those was his clairvoyance. No matter where he was, he could sense a weed taking hold in his football field. I’m one of the guys who always gave him a hard time about the time and energy he put into that field, but you know, this tractor and that field are metaphors for the way he lived. He treated that field like he treated every one of us. There must be millions upon millions of blades of grass out on that field, but he gave each one love and encouragement on a daily basis. He worked to make the roots deep sot hat it could withstand all kinds of pressure, especially when people walk on it and impede its upward growth. When bad things appeared, such as weeds and fungus, he eliminated them by physically pulling them out or by applying three times the amount of chemicals recommended by the EPA.”
“It’s funny. I’m color blind. Yet hardly a day went by without Ed pointing toward the field and saying to me, ‘Doesn’t it look green?’ I would agree, ‘Yes, it sure is green,’ even though I couldn’t see it. Ed could”
“As I think back on my thirty-plus years of working side by side with Ed, I don’t think about all the games he won or all the awards or the praise he received, even though all of that was well deserved. No, all I really know from being around him for so long is that he made people around him wish to be better than we are by looking at the way he lived.”
“Thanks, Ed, for being an inspiration. We will move on, but we will never forget.”
I really like the association that Al Kerns made between how Ed Thomas cared for the grass on the football field to how he cared about people. I guess you really can tell a lot about a man by how his lawn looks.
I think that being a farmer is one of the greatest occupations anyone could ever have. I definitely think there is a direct relationship between farming and what God is trying to do here on earth.God created everything including the plants, animals, and humans. God put man in charge of caring for, nurturing, and providing for the needs of both the plants and the animals. Farmers are the ones who do this more intimately than anyone else. Farmers work on behalf of the plants and animals to give them the best opportunity to grow and prosper. This is the same thing that God does for us. I think that Coach Thomas was really on to something here.
Another thing that really stood out to me in this book was the address Aaron Thomas gave at Ed’s funeral. Here is what Aaron said:
“But I’m going to tell you this and challenge you with this: You can be sad for the rest of the day, but come tomorrow, it’s time to get going. That’s the only way my dad’s memory is going to live on. There is not one of us who can make up for what my dad did. There is not one of us here who will be Ed Thomas, but this can be a better place than it was with Ed Thomas. But for that to happen, it has got to come from each one of you.”
“I don’t care what your job is. If there was one thing I learned from my dad, it is that no job is too small. So I don’t care what you do. When you step out tomorrow, you give it everything you’ve got. If work starts at 8:00 am, you make sure you’re there at 7:57. You’re not rolling in late. If you’re done at 4:00 pm, you work until 4:05. Don’t shortchange anyone. Don’t shortchange yourself.”
“My father talked a lot about character. Character is you doing what is right when no one is looking and no one will know. My dad was a great man of character, and that’s something I’ve taken from him. But come tomorrow, it’s time we all get going.”
“My father would be so proud to see this church full. Not because of these circumstances, but because of the fact that Kelly shared the message of how you can be saved and know where you’re going. I know there are people in here who have never heard the gospel. I don’t think that’s the ultimate reason for my dad’s death, but it will play a part.”
“So as a community-and when I say community, it doesn’t matter whether you are from Parkersburg, A-P, the state of Iowa, or anywhere else-if you truly honor and care about my father, come tomorrow, you will pick yourself up, get going, and do what you’re supposed to do. If you want to honor my family and my father, it won’t be just this week. The question is: Can you sustain it? He did it for thirty-three years here. Can you sustain it day in and day out, doing what’s right, making people better, and taking care of each other? If you can do that, my father will live for a really long time through all of us. If you can’t, that’s when my father’s death becomes a tragedy, and that’s when it’s a shame.”
“Today we can be sad. Come tomorrow, it’s time we all get going. The true test of character is: How do we respond to adversity? This is adversity. How are you going to respond? What are you going to do tomorrow? God bless you all, and we thank you so much for coming and loving our father.”
Wow! If that doesn’t give you motivation to be a better person, I don’t know what will.
What was Ed’s mission? It was the Lord’s mission for all of us. It was given to us by Jesus in the Great Commission:
19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
15 ThenHe said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.
47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations,beginning at Jerusalem.
This mission is to continue the work that Jesus did while He was here on earth. We are to spread the Good News of the Gospel to technically everyone we come into contact. That means friends and enemies. People we like and people we don’t like. People who like us and even people who hate us. The first half of each of those statements is a lot easier than the second half.
Ed tried to save people. He wanted people to be the very best they could be and to have a heart for God. He wanted to share God’s message with everyone so that they could have a better life here on earth because of it. That is something that Ed really got. That is why, if he were still here, Ed would forgive, pray for, and want Mark Becker, the man who murdered him, to be saved. Would we be able to do that? It really makes you look at yourself. the true test of our character comes when adversity comes.
We honor Ed by continuing his mission. God’s mission for us. Not for a short period, but for the long haul. We have to have the ability to sustain it. Ed lives on through us. As long as we continue his mission, a part of Ed will remain with those of us who knew him still here on earth.
In the past few years since I gave my life to God, this has become my mission as well. I hope it can be yours as well. By Ed dying, his message has spread so much farther than it ever would have prior to his death.
The part of the book that really demonstrates more than anything to me the impact Coach had was at the funeral procession. The book describes the scene like this:
After the service was over, the funeral procession made one last trip to the place that will always be synonymous with Ed’s life and work: the Sacred Acre. The hearse drove slowly past the field where Ed had invested his life in the lives of his players and students. From there, the procession drove to the cemetery. All along the way, players from teams that A-P had competed against through the years lined up along both sides of the road, holding four fingers high, something Ed’s teams did at the start of the fourth quarter of every game. For Ed, the four fingers held high said, “We will finish stronger than we started.”
The question that is before us is how will we finish? What will we do with our lives? Will we make a difference with the time we are given? Will we make the type of difference that Ed did? As long as we still have days left on this earth we can. The choice is ours.
One of Ed’s famous quotes was the following:
“If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach.”
Coach Ed Thomas
I don’t think you ever have to worry about that coach. I don’t think there is a soul who ever met you who was not changed in some way by you. I knew you through one football game back in 1993 and my life is forever changed because of your influence.
Coach, on behalf of everyone who has had the pleasure of ever knowing you, I want to thank you for reminding us what is truly important. You will never be forgotten! This one is for you Coach!