by Whaid Rose

Revisiting the Ed Thomas story—a timely reminder that investing ourselves in others – pouring into others – is never a losing proposition

It’s been said that Christian faith requires reconciling conflicting pieces of our experience—the realities of good and evil, tragedy and triumph, life and death, mountain-top blessings, and down-in-the-valley moments. Bringing these opposite realities into harmony—seeing how each is part of God’s good plan for His children—remains a significant challenge for men and women of faith.

That’s the perfect setup for the inspiring story of Ed Thomas, the 2005 NFL High School Coach of the year.  He is reported to have won 80% of his games, led two state championship teams, and sent four players to the NFL in his 36-year career.

But Thomas’s passion for football was second only to his passion to develop the lives of his players.  Early in each new season, he would remind parents that if the only thing he taught their sons was how to play football, he had failed as a coach.

Rather, he pledged to teach them life lessons that would make them better husbands, better dads, and better members of their church and community.

Inspiring the Strength to Survive and Build

It was this spirit that galvanized Parkersburg, Iowa, a small mid-Western town of about 1900 people.  So when an EF5 tornado with wind-speeds of up to 200 miles per hour leveled the town, it was Thomas and his team who quickly rose to the occasion, inspiring the strength to survive and rebuild.

Among other things, team members dug the graves of the eight tornado victims, and Thomas came up with a plan to restore the mangled football field in time for the first game of the season less than three months away.

For Thomas that season opener would be more than a football game. It would be a time of healing and renewal for the community. So with no time to spare, Thomas spent every waking moment restoring the devastated football field into a beautifully manicured piece of ground.

Enduring Legacy

Enduring Legacy

The Sacred Acre

From this term, The Sacred Acre emerged, a reference to a sports venue now hallowed by what it meant to Thomas and the good people of Parkersburg. There they gathered to watch their favorite team play its first game since the tragic tornado—the most memorable game in the team’s history.

But not all stories have happy endings. Considering that Thomas’s passion for football was only a means to an end, that his ultimate goal was to pour his life into his players, what happened on June 24, 2009, was a tragedy of tragedies. One of the young men into whom Thomas was pouring his life killed him in the High School weight room

What follows is a story of untold pain and grief, coupled with uncommon faith and courage. This is what Mark Tabb captured in his book, The Sacred Acre: The Ed Thomas Story, published by Zondervan (2011), with a foreword written by Coach Tony Dungy.

Tabb tells what happens next as Thomas’s wife Jan and their sons help their small rural community deal with the pain of the senseless murder of its beloved Coach Thomas. In an incredible gesture of love and forgiveness, they reach out to the family of the murderer!

This amazing story first caught my attention during a radio interview with Tabb about his new book. Sensing its potential impact, I wrote about the story in a Culture of Excellence piece, knowing that Ed Thomas is said to have left a “legacy of excellence.”

A Leader Whose Influence Lives On

Revisiting the story years later, I did a quick check for ongoing efforts in Ed Thomas’ memory. Not surprisingly, I found that his influence lives on through various efforts, including a foundation and a leadership academy. The town of Parkersburg still celebrates Thomas’ legacy, apparently, and all across the nation, his influence is still being felt.

This story speaks, not just to the realities of life in a broken world, but also to the endless potential impact of one whole life poured out for others. Thomas was a leader whose passion to serve others continues to yield fruit long after he’s gone.

This doesn’t take away the pain and loss of Thomas’ death but mingles them with purpose and hope. It helps us reconcile conflicting aspects of our faith, reminding us that it is often from the ashes of suffering and grief that God brings beauty, exchanging joy for mourning and “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:3).

Pouring into Others

One wonders how Ed Thomas might react if he could see the continuing impact of his life. Quite likely, he’d be surprised and humbled. He would remind his admirers that pouring into others is never a losing proposition. And he would challenge them to order their lives accordingly.

His story speaks eloquently of others-centered leadership, untiring commitment and courage, the triumph of good over evil, the mysterious workings of grace in transforming a plot of common ground into sacred space, and the enduring impact of investing ourselves in people. Let this be the motivation each of us needs today!