COLUMN: Next win bittersweet for Howard

The three state championship rings that Bob Howard can brandish at any time tell you he’s not your run-of-the-mill high school football coach.

But behind the hardened exterior, Howard is just like everyone else in his profession. He wants to win; whether it’s on the gridiron or while playing a game of tiddlywinks, he wants to be first.

That’s why Howard will stalk the sideline in Algona tonight doing everything in his power to help his 10th-ranked (Class 3A) Webster City football team improve to 5-0 and take one more step towards the state playoffs.

But the next win – whether it comes tonight or two years from now – will be bittersweet, so much so that Howard doesn’t even like mentioning it.

“I’m uncomfortable even talking about this. I really am,” Howard said somewhat muted. “It’s tough …”

Why the deflection? Howard knew this day would eventually come, but he also knew he would never – ever – be quite ready for it.

Howard’s current career record of 291-82 puts him 13th on the state’s all-time wins list, trailing the late Ed Thomas (292-84) of Aplington-Parkersburg by just one victory for the No. 12 spot. Tying and eventually passing Thomas feels, well, just wrong.

“It’s a tough thing to see anybody pass Ed because everybody who knew Ed knew what kind of person he was and what kind of coach he was,” Howard, who reached 200 career victories faster than any coach in state history while at Sigourney-Keota prior to his arrival at Webster City in 2007, said. “When Ed comes into the equation it almost magnifies the reasons you probably shouldn’t talk about it because Ed never would have.”

Thomas’ story is cherished from border to border in the state. His values, his teachings, his life – they’ll all be revered for as long as the lights shine on Friday nights in the fall.

Thomas spent 37 years at Parkersburg – the program combined with Aplington in the early 1990s – and won a pair of state championships. Along the way he sent four players onto the NFL while preaching his priorities to the hundreds of athletes that were lucky enough to suit up for him.

Faith. Family. And Falcon football. In that order.

“He was an unbelievable motivator. He could get through to anybody,” Kurt Luhring, who played for Thomas at Parkersburg from 1982-85 before eventually becoming a coach himself, said. “He could see you in the hallway after school and after a one- or two-minute conversation you’d walk away with your chest out. He made you believe that you were better than what you thought you were capable of being and he could always make you feel better about yourself. There are only a handful of coaches out there capable of that stuff.”

Thomas was taken from his pupils far too soon. Sadly, it was one of his former players that did the taking.

On June 24, 2009, former Falcon football player Mark Becker, who had recently been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, walked into the team’s makeshift weight room inside the A-P bus barn and shot Thomas seven times. He did it in front of 22 students.

Thomas died from the attack. Becker was later convicted of first-degree murder.

The tragedy was a sucker punch to the gut of everyone in the communities of Aplington and Parkersburg. Football fans statewide mourned.

Howard felt the pain. He and Thomas had known each other for years and were good friends.

“He was good friends with so many people and he could make you feel like he was your best friend,” Howard said of Thomas. “I don’t know of anybody that ever had anything negative to say about Ed Thomas … his memory is a big deal.”

Luhring, who spent four seasons as the head coach at Webster City from 1998-2001 before moving on to Clear Creek-Amana, saw Thomas’ compassion every day as a standout running back and defensive back for the Falcons. But he says his standing with Thomas wouldn’t have differed had he never sniffed the field.

“He could connect with everybody. You truly felt like he cared about you as a person and it didn’t matter if you were a star on the team or a third-string offensive tackle,” Luhring said. “That’s why he had so many kids out for football.”

Thomas’ last four A-P teams combined to post a 36-6 record with four playoff appearances and, with heavy hearts, the Falcons went 6-4 in the months following the legend’s passing in the fall of 2009.

There was no indication that Thomas planned to hang up his whistle anytime soon prior to his passing. So while his career bio sheet says he sits on 292 victories, Howard knows he would have easily passed 300 and would probably still be climbing the leaderboard had the unfortunate events of June 24, 2009 never occurred.

“It’s too bad we can’t extrapolate what he would have won and put it up there because he would have been way ahead of anything I’ve got,” Howard said. “If he was still with us he’d probably be approaching 330 or 340 wins by now.”

Howard will celebrate his players’ achievements whenever Webster City wins its next game. But he won’t pat himself on the back. He probably won’t even smile.

Instead he’ll think of his friend – the one that was taken from all of us far too soon.