A life coach: Kirk Ferentz steps in to help out an old friend

In a small Iowa town devastated by a spring tornado, this Upper St. Clair native has made a difference that has nothing to do with wins and losses


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When University of Iowa football coach and Upper St. Clair native Kirk Ferentz makes a promise, he delivers.

Just ask Ed Thomas.

When Thomas' life shook, lifted clean off its foundation and was obliterated to piles of rubble -- literally -- Ferentz made sure Thomas, one of the most successful high school coaches in Iowa, had a friend to count on.

Thomas, 57, has been the coach at Aplington-Parkersburg High School for 33 seasons. In that span, he's been in six state title games, won two of them and has had one losing season. Four former players are playing in the NFL.

But May 25, he met something not even the most diligent game-planner could out-coach -- even a perfectly executed trick play was not going to help. Truth be known, he was lucky to survive.

Early that Sunday evening, Thomas and his wife, Jan, huddled in the basement of their three-bedroom home as emergency sirens blared and a storm weaved a path that would eventually take what would later be determined to be an F5 tornado directly over their house.

The storm hit at precisely 4:56 p.m.

Thomas said everyone around town knows as much because to this day the hands on some clocks are still frozen with that time serving as the ultimate bad memory.

When Thomas emerged from his basement minutes after the storm roared through, the house around him was gone -- as were over 200 other houses in the town of about 2,000 people.

Aplington-Parkersburg High School was leveled.

City Hall was demolished.

Eight people in the tiny town were dead. It all happened so fast.

"What stands out in my mind is walking out of my home, looking down the highway and seeing all the disfigured trees and debris everywhere," Thomas said. "It hit me then that all that rubble used to be houses. That isn't something easy to comprehend, that's not something very easy to accept."

Ferentz, 52, also saw something that wasn't easy to accept -- he couldn't sit idly by while parts of the state were ravaged by the tornado and subsequent flooding. So, just after the tornado hit, he called Thomas, whom he knows from the recruiting trail, and made the high school coach a promise -- once Iowa's players returned to the Iowa City campus for summer workouts, he'd make sure they'd come to Parkersburg to help with the cleanup.

Ferentz followed through on the promise to his friend and fellow coach June 11. About 40 Iowa players, along with Ferentz and other staff members, showed up in Parkersburg to mend the town that looked irredeemably broken.

"To see a picture in a newspaper, or a clip on television is one thing," Ferentz said. "To stand there in the midst of it and see the devastation with your own eyes is something quite different. You know, it is something quite sobering. We had to be there to help, no question."

Some of the Iowa players helped clear away remaining rubble.

Some hammered nails, framing what would become new barns.

Others went to a barn in Parkersburg and assembled a weight room where coach Thomas' team will train this summer.

"Did it surprise me that coach Ferentz came up to help and brought his team? No, not at all," Thomas said. "Kirk Ferentz didn't come up here to have people take pictures of him or have people write stories about him -- he came up here to roll up his sleeves and help people in need, and that is exactly what he did.

"He did that because that is the kind of man Kirk Ferentz is."

And keep this in mind: The state of Iowa has no Steelers, there are no Pirates and nothing like the Penguins -- the University of Iowa is the game in town, all over the state.

From Davenport to Waterloo, Des Moines to Dubuque and everywhere in between, the Hawkeye State is crazy for Iowa football, with Ferentz serving as one of the state's most recognizable and influential figures.

For Ferentz, he spoke of how lucky he felt realizing that his program -- and Iowa City as a whole -- wasn't affected as much by the storms as much of the state was.

He also harkened back to his roots and drew a parallel to explain why there is no doubt Iowa will find the resolve to rise from this tragedy.

"The people of Iowa and the people of western Pennsylvania are very similar in a lot of ways," Ferentz said. "They both have a great sense of pride, they both have a fighting spirit and they both have a will that you just can't break. You will see it here in Iowa, just like if it were to happen in western Pennsylvania, people will fight back, and they will be back stronger than ever."

Thomas is counting on that.

Sure, he takes pride in telling people that he's going to rebuild his house.

For now, an apartment above the True Value Hardware store in downtown Parkersburg is where he and Jan call home.

A fractionated address is a constant reminder of how small it is -- 218 1/2, Third St., Apartment C. For now, though, it is home to one of Iowa's top high school football coaches.

It is that coaching that is a deeper part of Thomas' identity than just about anything else.

Which is why he lights up when the conversation shifts to Sept. 5. That's the Friday night Aplington-Parkersburg is scheduled to play its first home game of the football season -- "and it is going to happen, I guarantee it, whatever we have to do," he said -- against West Marshall.

"I tell our kids and the parents of our kids the same thing every year," Thomas said. "I say to them, 'If we only teach this group of young men how to play football, we as coaches have failed them.'

"Never, ever has it been more true than now, and never will they have a learning experience like this one, never will they learn more from anything than from what happened to them on May 25th."


Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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