A Good Man Down

Chris —  July 7, 2009

Sports Illustrated article on the tragic murder of an Iowa football coach:

imageBob Smeins lives on the hillside overlooking Iowa’s other field of dreams. On Friday nights in the fall Smeins has always liked to sit on his deck and watch the Aplington-Parkersburg High Falcons play football. The rest of the year, he liked to sit on his deck and watch a legend tend to the grass. It has been called the Carpet, the Sacred Acre and, officially, Ed Thomas Field, after the 58-year-old coach who laid down the sod. Thomas walked that field every morning, yanking weeds, killing dandelions, fertilizing the soil, kneeling down to study blades of grass for dreaded brown spots—the surest sign of chemical imbalance. Before the school installed sprinklers, Thomas carried a hose. After the school hired custodians for the field, Thomas still insisted on mowing it himself, against the grain from the goal line to the five-yard line, with the grain from the five to the 10 and so on, just like groundskeepers did it in the pros. "I would wave to him down there sometimes," says Smeins, a 76-year-old retiree, "and he wouldn’t wave back. He was so focused on that field. It was his life."

The football team was allowed to run on the field but never walk. Others were allowed to run on the track that encircles the field, but never on the field itself. During track meets, Thomas strung a rope around the field, in case opposing teams did not know the rules. "It’s probably the best field in the state," said Aplington-Parkersburg High principal Dave Meyer, "except maybe for the University of Iowa." The field has standard-issue metal bleachers, no box office, no fancy scoreboard. What makes it special, what makes it sacred, is the love that Thomas poured into the turf.

Last Friday morning, though, the field was looking a little neglected. No one was mowing the grass. No one was picking the weeds. A few troublesome mushrooms had invaded the sidelines. So Smeins did what he knew Thomas would have done. He went down from his house on the hill, and in his sneakers and straw hat, he walked into the long red barn with the white roof that stands just behind the football field. The barn was intended to store school buses, but it was used this year as a temporary weight room. That’s where Thomas kept the big orange lawn mower he used to cut the grass. It’s also where he was shot and killed two days earlier.

Parkersburg sits among the cornfields, soybean farms and silos of northern Iowa. It’s one of many small towns in this state that seem to be left over from another era. Patrons at the Kwik Star are allowed to pump their gas before they pay. Men at Tom’s Barber Shop hang out and chat after they get their buzz cuts. Some residents say they have not locked their doors since the 1980s, which is understandable, considering that until last week there had not been a murder here since the ’20s. Parkersburg is a place where an upstanding person is usually described as a good Christian and an out-of-towner is asked, in the most casual way possible, what religion he practices. But even people in Parkersburg are having a hard time wrapping their faith around what God has wrought in the past 13 months.

Read the whole thing here.

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