PARKERSBURG -- When the Aplington and Parkersburg school districts merged in 1992, the late coach Ed Thomas gave each member of his football team a symbolic chain link.
Annemarie Goldhorn, a manager for the squad from 1992 to 1994, had hers attached to her keys during Thomas' funeral Monday in Parkersburg.
"If he could catch you without it, you owed him a pop, and if you could catch him without it, he owed you a pop," she said. "Nobody ever caught him without it."
The Aplington-Parkersburg football coach left a lasting impact on his community and beyond, drawing more than 2,000 for Monday's service.
News of his murder stunned the nation Wednesday.
Goldhorn's longtime friend, Barry Harrenstein of Hubbard, a manager for the team during the 1993, 1994 and 1995 seasons, got the call from his mom early Wednesday while making repairs on his grandmother's Parkersburg home.
"She said, 'Somebody shot coach Thomas,'" Harrenstein said. "And I sat there for a minute because I couldn't put the words together and actually have that make sense."
Word quickly reached four former Aplington-Parkersburg men playing in the National Football League -- Casey Wiegmann (Denver Broncos), Jared DeVries (Detroit Lions), Brad Meester (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Aaron Kampman (Green Bay Packers) -- who flew home and were casket bearers at the funeral.
"That was one of coach's biggest things was never forget where you're from," Wiegmann said. "My family's still here, so I always come back. I was back right before Mother's Day. (Thomas) was so proud to show me the new weight room and the new school."
Kampman considered Thomas like family and someone who embodied Midwest work ethic and values.
"Obviously, my parents come first, but after that I'd have to say Ed's right up there," he said. "From an influential standpoint, he continued to reaffirm the values that I know I was taught in my home."
Thomas seemed to care about students outside his district as much as he did his own, said Eric Frey of Waterloo. Frey attended school in the Aplington district during Thomas' early career as a teacher and coach at Parkersburg.
"I ran track, and he talked me into going out for football for a different team just because he wanted to see what I could do and get the most out of myself," Frey said.
Also, nearly half-dozen high school football teams came from around the state, many to honor a man they never met.
Jake Brokel, who will be a junior at Mount Vernon this fall, and about 30 of his teammates wore their jerseys and listened to a speaker feeding audio from the service to a parking lot at the Veterans Memorial Building.
"Our coach knew him, so we came down," Brokel said. "It was all voluntary. Just seemed like a good team thing to do."
The Tipton district has never played Aplington-Parkersburg either, but Thomas was a strong role model for coaches and players. Each carried a yellow flower.
"We had a few discussions with him this spring about building our program the way that he built his," said Tipton coach Josh Bahr.
Closer to home, Dike-New Hartford head football coach Don Betts called Thomas a "class act."
Thomas was a great football coach but an even better person, Betts added.
"We've competed against them," Betts said. "They're our biggest rival, but the rivalry always ends on the field. There's a lot of respect that our folks had for him."
Harrenstein will never forget Thomas' pre-game speeches when he closed the doors and shut out the lights. Players would be scattered around the room, sitting or laying down to mentally ready themselves.
"It was pitch black," Harrenstein recalled. "Not once did he ever trip over anybody as he walked around. All you could hear was his voice echoing in that room, and it just made the hair on the back of your neck stand up."