Ask any former high school football player to reflect on his playing days and you’ll undoubtedly notice a certain sparkle in his eye. He’ll crack a smile, look off into the distance, and wave his hands as if he were fending of blockers or stiff-arming a potential tackler.
But sometimes high school football means more to a community than just a game.
It may sound trite, but in Parkersburg, Iowa—a deeply religious community in America’s heartland—high school football is an institution. Each Friday night is a community event. Football is the source of community identity. Football is a community lifeline. Indeed, the Aplington-Parkersburg Falcons have helped unite the sleepy Iowa town after two devastating tragedies. First, in 2008, tornadoes and floods ravished the community, decimating businesses and homes. Buildings could be rebuilt, but nothing shook the foundations of Parkersburg more than the destruction of the Aplington-Parkersburg High School football stadium.
The community rallied together, ultimately placing a priority on rebuilding the football stadium rather than their own homes. You see, a return to normalcy in Parkersburg was defined more by their Friday night community routine than any other aspect of their lives. As one parent eloquently put it, “They might not have their home or their car or their X-Box or any clothes, but they still have each other. They still have football.”
A second tragedy beset the community a mere two months ago: Falcons head coach Ed Thomas was murdered by a former player in the high school weight room. After 35 years of coaching, Thomas was as much a Parkersburg institution as high school football itself. But the team—and the community—pulled through. ESPN ran a special on the tragedy, showing footage from Thomas’ emotionally charged funeral. In one of the most poignant gestures I’ve ever seen, countless Iowa high school football teams, all dressed in their respective team jerseys, lined the road as the funeral procession drove to the cemetery.
Last Friday, the Falcons took the field against archrival Dike-New Hartford for the first time since their coach’s murder. ESPN carried the game nationally, and I tuned in. The play-by-play commentators discussed both the tornado and the murder, noting Parkersburg’s unique resilience. Reese Davis mentioned that university researchers have recently descended upon the community, studying how Parkersburg was able to rebound from adversity so quickly and so successfully. Herm Edwards replied that the answer was simple: “Faith, family, and football.”
But the scene at Thomas’ funeral procession, with hundreds of local football players paying the ultimate respect to a coach they never knew personally, points to a larger phenomenon. What sets Parkersburg apart from other communities isn’t so much their profound religiosity; rather, it’s strong community cohesion and extraordinarily high levels of collective efficacy that distinguishes Parkersburg from comparable communities. Unlike other communities, local residents here are more engaged, more willing to help their neighbors out in times of need. Political scientist Robert Putnam has made a career analyzing this social process, studying how civic engagement affords social capital, which in turn can be leveraged for political power and other resources. Faith may be important, sure. But it’s strong social organization and a collective identity—defined by the local football team—that makes Parkersburg so unique, and so resilient.
When I played high school football, I distinctly remember gazing up into the stands, thinking, Where are all these people were coming from? I mean, they couldn’t all be parents cheering for their sons, or former gridiron giants reflecting on their glory days. In fact, the majority of fans were local community members, old and young, coming together each Friday night to collectively embrace the local team.
I never really grasped what prompted them to put their lives on hold and come watch us play week after week. Now I do.