PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- Moments after the most emotional game of their lives, Aplington-Parkersburg co-head coach Al Kerns told his players to take a knee, close their eyes and listen.
Kerns didn't have to say whose voice he was asking them to hear Friday through the cool Iowa air. They all knew he was talking about slain coach Ed Thomas, whose words still resonate with the Falcons months after his violent death.
"What you did to get yourselves up off the ground and win this football game tonight, I want to thank you," Kerns told the team. "It means a lot to us as coaches, it means a lot to our community, and I hope to the whole state of Iowa.
"We love you guys."
The Falcons, playing for the first time since their coach was killed in June, ran onto the field through a 75-yard tunnel formed by hundreds of former players to highlight an emotional pregame ceremony. They then paid their beloved former coach the ultimate honor by beating rival Dike-New Hartford 30-14.
Thomas coached Aplington-Parkersburg High in northeast Iowa for 34 seasons and was named the NFL's High School Coach of the Year in 2005. He led the Falcons to a pair of state titles and sent four players to the NFL. He died in June after a former player allegedly walked into the high school weight room and shot him during offseason workouts.
"We lost a very good man. A man of great faith, a man of great character," Aplington-Parkersburg superintendent Jon Thompson told a standing-room only crowd at Ed Thomas Field.
Among the players on the field was Falcons senior lineman Scott Becker, whose older brother is accused of shooting Thomas. Mark Becker, 24, is charged with murder, although his lawyer has claimed he isn't mentally fit to stand trial.
Scott Becker received a warm reception during introductions; no surprise to his mother, who said Friday that the community has "done nothing but embrace us, support us and pray for us."
"We couldn't stay living here if we didn't have the community's support and my family's support and my church's support," said Joan Becker, who attended the game with her husband, Dave.
Reminders of Thomas and his legacy were everywhere during the game that was broadcast nationally on ESPN from the small town of Parkersburg, about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.
The practice field fence was decorated with plastic red cups spelling out "Coach T. Faith. Family. Football." The Falcons, like many Iowa teams this fall, wore helmet decals reading "FFF '09," in honor of the words Thomas often spoke; the logo was painted into the grass on a hill above an end zone. Some fans wore T-shirts reading "Wear'n Red in Memory of Ed."
Friday night's opener was, for the second straight year, an emotional Falcons debut.
Thomas spearheaded efforts to get Ed Thomas Field, previously named in his honor, ready for the 2008 opener after a tornado leveled about one-third of Parkersburg, killing nine people in the area and badly damaging the stadium.
Thomas believed fixing up the "Sacred Acre," nicknamed for the reverence he showed for the field, would serve as a rallying point for the community's rebuilding. A new $19 million high school, which Thomas also was instrumental in helping design as the school's athletic director, opened Monday.
"We're trying to get back to normal," said Parkersburg resident Dennis Ihde, a neighbor and close friend of Thomas. "The tornado certainly affected everybody physically, emotionally. But this really hit us emotionally."
Thomas left behind one reminder of the tornado, a twisted metal sign reading "Falcon Country" that barely survived the storm. The Falcons ran onto the field Friday night under that sign, though for the first time Thomas wasn't leading the charge.
The team's coaches walked slowly to the sidelines, many of them teary-eyed. Ed Thomas's two sons -- Aaron, who took over as the school's athletic director, and Todd, who returned as an assistant -- shared a brief handshake just before kickoff.
But once the game started, coaches and players were able to focus on winning a football game.
That was the easy part for the Falcons, who raced out to a 22-0 halftime lead and were ahead 30-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
"I got really emotional" during the pregame ceremonies, said senior Jimmy Clark. "We all came to play afterwards."