Last week, an Iowa high school football coach was shot dead in the school's weight room. Police charged a 24-year-old former player. The headline made Drudge but I quickly forgot the story and didn't see much follow-up. Many people talk about the sports page as if it's got the best writing in the whole newspaper. And they're probably thinking of reporters like Josh Peter, an enterprise reporter with, of all outlets, Yahoo! Sports. He looked at the shooting and came up with a story about theodicy, forgiveness and the strength of tight-knit communities. Here's how he began:
PARKERSBURG, Iowa - Not far from the cornfields, in the cool of the morning, Gary Hinders stood waist-deep in a grave. He held a shovel, just like the other four men who took turns digging, first through a foot-and-a-half layer of black dirt, then a mix of sand and clay and finally the stubborn hardpan.
"Never thought I'd be digging this one," he said.
"Not in a million years," one of the other men said.
"At least not for this reason," added a third.
Not a bad way to set a scene. The story has plenty of civil religion -- of the sports variety. For instance, the football field where Aplington-Parkersburg High School football players competed is called The Sacred Acre. That might have something to do with the storm from last year. In May 2008, a tornado destroyed 288 homes -- including Coach Thomas', killed 9 people and ripped through the school, including the football field. After the storm, people congregated on the field.
But it also has actual religion. Let me highlight a few of those parts. Peter explains that the coach's murder will test the community even more than it was tested by the tornado that ripped through town:
Hinders, a God-fearing man in a God-fearing town, is among residents who believe it's no accident the tornado spared all eight churches in Parkersburg. Nor does he believe it's a coincidence that Thomas - a man known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as for his two state championships and record of 292-84 over 37 seasons - was gunned down.
"You couldn't pick anybody bigger in this town to shoot," said Hinders, 60, who has been the town clerk here for 27 years. "That's evil. . . .
"It's spiritual warfare. Satan and God are fighting, and in the end I believe God will win."
The man who is charged with shooting Thomas, Mark Becker, is a crystal meth addict. His family and the coach's family attend the same church. They're all friends, in fact. The coach had been trying to help the young man with his troubles in recent months.
Peter visits First Congregational Church where Thomas served as an elder:
Sunday morning, police chief Chris Luhring stood watch outside of First Congressional [sic] Church - where the Thomas and Becker families attended. Usually, there were two services. But now there was one - at 9 a.m.
Five rows from the back, there they were, the Beckers.
The back pew was open until moments before the service started. That is when the Thomas family arrived.
Brad Zinnecker, the head pastor, called on God's mercy for a congregation that had its "guts ripped out." He spoke of Thomas, recalling a man who could be so fiery on the sideline and yet so measured in church. And some of the worshipers quietly wept.
He prayed for the Thomas family. He prayed for the Becker family. He prayed for forgiveness during the hour-long service, and it already had come. The Thomases and Beckers had spoken earlier in the week, people close to the families said. And the coach's younger son and wife urged people to pray for the Beckers, who would gain no closure when Ed Thomas' casket was lowered into the ground.
Elsewhere in the story people are quoted talking about how Thomas emphasized forgiveness.
The piece is long. It covers a lot of ground. But Peter naturally (and seemingly effortlessly) weaves the faith of this town's inhabitants throughout the story. He not only gets the meaty religious quotes but he puts them in context so that readers unfamiliar with the religious views can still understand. Excellent work.
Image of First Congregational Church, Parkersburg.