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Paying my respects

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If you would have asked me three years ago what I would want to see in Iowa if I could visit, I wouldn't have hesitated with my answer. It would be the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa where the Hollywood hit movie starring Kevin Costner was made. The flick was a family favorite growing up and my mom always had a crush on Costner, so I had made it a priority to see it up close someday.

Well, how times have changed. I am visiting Iowa this week courtesy of a current Jaguar but another city and another field. There will be time in the future for Hollywood. I wouldn't want it any other way because I now consider my Field of Dreams in Parkersburg, Iowa.

Yes, I want to see the "Sacred Acre" where head coach Ed Thomas spent 37 years patrolling the sidelines, leading to two state titles and 19 state playoff appearances for Aplington-Parkersburg High School. Thomas spent hours mowing the grass on the field, manicuring every little detail so it was perfect come Friday night when the whole town converged to root on the Falcons.

Thomas was more than a coach; he was a mentor to many in a school with an enrollment of about 300. The Jaguars are fortunate to have two of his former players on their roster in center Brad Meester and defensive end Aaron Kampman.

Everything changed for Parkersburg in 2008 when a tornado struck the city of 1,800 and the high school was completely destroyed, along with many homes and businesses. I was entering my fourth season with the Jaguars and had a working relationship with Meester but nothing more than that. I still remember Meester stopping me in the locker room and saying, "I want to do something." In Green Bay at the time, Kampman was saying the same thing.

A week later, the Jaguars and Meester joined forces to make an A-P Falcons Tornado Relief hat to wear during mini-camp, and more than $90,000 was raised for the city thanks to a generous donation by Wayne and Delores Weaver. It was a sight to see so many players, coaches and fans wearing the hats during practice.

It was Meester's mission to make this happen and he worked overtime to get the word out while also dealing with the struggles of loved ones who were forced to rebuild in his hometown.

In late June that year, I put a phone call in to Coach Thomas to make sure they had received a box of hats that were sent to him for the players and coaches to wear during the season. In a five-minute conversation, everything that Meester had told me about his former coach rang true. He thanked the Jaguars for their support and said he was going to work to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. He said the field would be ready for the first game in three months. I told him I couldn't wait to visit and see a game in person.

The field was ready was two months later. Who can forget his speech to the team in a makeshift locker room on the night the team returned to the field? It's all over You Tube and been shown several times on ESPN.

*"Going on that field tonight at seven o'clock when this thing starts, we have won in a lot of ways. We got back off the ground. We had a choice and we made the choice to rebuild and move forward. Our community is proud of you. They are proud of this program. *

  • "When we go out on the field, there is a sign above that reads, Falcon Country. A lot of people asked why we put it back up. It's all dented and smashed. It resembles what our community and town is all about. Get back up off the ground and go. *
  • "Tonight every player that has ever played on that field, I guarantee you is thinking about you, every single one of them. Many of them will be here and a lot of them can't be. I have thought a lot about tonight and what it was going to mean to go out there and what it would feel like to go back out there. I hope you guys realize how truly blessed we are. You guys have been a source of hope for this community. We will never get tonight back. You will have an experience tonight that you will not forget the rest of your life."*

I followed the scores of their games throughout the season and wanted to get up there in 2009 to visit the city as it got back to normal. Then tragedy struck on the morning of June 24 when Thomas was shot and killed by a former player while the team was lifting weights.

Listening to the 911 call is chilling as the operator taking the call loses her breath when she is informed Thomas was shot. The Jaguars were finishing up an offseason workout at the stadium when Meester's wife, Jamie, called me to relay the news to her husband.

The people of Parkersburg lost more than a football coach. They lost a friend.

I have only been around Kampman for a short time but we have already had many discussions about Thomas and the impact he had on his life. It's easy to see that Thomas cared about the person more than the player because you would be hard pressed to find two greater families than the Meesters and Kampmans.

Following his death, Thomas' wife, Jan, and their sons, Aaron and Todd, established the Ed Thomas Family Foundation. The foundation will benefit those causes that Coach Thomas' family believe will extend his influence and honor his priorities. Thomas had four main priorities: faith, family, character and integrity.

The foundation's first major fundraiser is this weekend in Waverly, Iowa and Meester and Kampman will headline the event which kicks off with a dinner Thursday night followed by golf on Friday.

I will provide some updates throughout my trip to Iowa and will include photos and anything else I can find.

Some people would rather spend their vacation before training camp at a beach or by a pool. Not me; I want to spend my time walking on the "Sacred Acre" with my A-P hat on. I will let you know how it feels.

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