To the town of Parkersburg, Iowa (pop. 1,889), Thomas was a coaching legend of epic proportion.
In his more than three decades at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, he led the Falcons to two state titles, cultivated four athletes who went on to play football in the NFL from this tiny rural community, and earned the prestigious NFL High School Coach of the Year Award in 2005 and the 2010 ESPY Arthur Ashe Award (must. watch. video.)
As impressive as his football resume may seem, Thomas was most known for his service to community and inspiring leadership; he was crucial in rebuilding the school after the entire town was devastated by an EF5 tornado in 2008. The Thomas family home was even destroyed, yet the school was ready for the first game of the season thanks to his guiding force.
His words are also ready-made to be quoted time and time again. Thomas was known for saying: “If you do the small things well, the big things will take care of themselves.”
What he was saying is you’ve got to master the basics – form and technique – before you even make it to the field. Otherwise, how will you perform effectively? This applies just as much to addressing a problem in the boardroom as it does to the runningback making split-second decisions on the field.
Thomas’ lessons, as easily applied to the Friday night game as the game of life, are carried on by his former players and his adult children – who now coach in his place.
No doubt Thomas would still be plugging away, teaching the fundamentals of football and the really important things like family, if not for tragedy intervening.
Two and a half years ago, a former football player and diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic entered the school’s weightlifting “barn” and proceeded to shoot Thomas several times in front of nearly two-dozen then-players. CNN hadn’t even moved on to the next big story before the Thomas family was holding a press conference, urging the town to support the Becker family whose son had taken their father’s and husband’s life.
Yes, it’s evident in their winning games that Thomas’ players got the fundamentals down. But it’s also notable that his sons, and the community that later banded together to support both families impacted by this tragedy, mastered another Thomas true-ism: “If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed you as a coach.”
In your personal and professional life, focus on those seemingly little things as Thomas did with his players and the broader community. Because, time and time again, we are reminded, sometimes tragically, that it’s those “little things” that matter.