The Iowa farming towns of Aplington and Parkersburg have a combined population of around 3,000, and Aplington-Parkersburg High School has an enrollment of almost 300.
Yet this small school produced four active NFL players -- Detroit Lions defensive end Jared DeVries, Jacksonville Jaguars guard Brad Meester, Kansas City Chiefs center Casey Weigmann and Green Bay Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman.
"It's definitely something you don't see every day, a small community like that," Kampman said. "It's a special, special place."
Kampman attributes much of the school's ability to develop NFL players to Aplington-Parkersburg head coach Edward Thomas, the 2005 NFL High School Football Coach of the Year. Kampman and Weigmann nominated their mentor in 2003, and he became a Top Five finalist. The entire foursome nominated him this season.
"This year we got Jared and Brad to do it as well -- to make sure he got the recognition we believe he deserves," Kampman said.
Through running his smashmouth, Wing T offense, Thomas has won two state titles and 15 conference or district championships while posting a 249-58 record during his 31 years as head coach. Kampman, a linebacker and guard in high school, learned proper fundamentals from him, including components of his footwork that he uses in the NFL.
"He believes the game can be won on that first step," Kampman said.
Kampman also learned how to approach the game. Known for a relentless style in which he battles offensive linemen until the whistle blows, Kampman posted career highs in tackles with 105 and sacks with 6.5 in 2005. He developed that high-motor style in high school.
"You just emptied your tank every play. At the end of the game, you'd just be exhausted because you gave it all," he said. "As a young man, you just ate that stuff up."
Thomas also taught his players how to conduct themselves off the field. While emphasizing the adversity and teamwork of football mirrored life in the real world, Thomas instilled Christian principles in his student-athletes. He lived and coached by the tenet that good things happen to good people.
"He strives to make men better through the game of football," Kampman said.
The fiery Thomas had an ability to stoke his player's adrenaline. Before each game the players would gather in the school's dark gymnasium and lay on the floor without their shoulder pads or helmets. When they felt mentally ready, they would clap and chant, and Thomas would enter to deliver an inspiring speech.
"It just got you ready to go," Kampman said. "He was a great, great motivator."
Before one of Kampman's last high school games, Thomas entered the darkened gymnasium in his traditional way. He then described the sanctity of high school football, using the fence that surrounded their football field as a metaphor.
"Once you get on the other side of the fence, you'll never have this opportunity again," he said. "There's nothing as pure as high school football."
Kampman enjoyed great success on those Friday nights. As a senior he earned first team All-America, second team USA Today and Class 2A "Player Of The Year" honors. He helped guide Aplington-Parkersburg to a three-year record of 26-7 and three consecutive playoff appearances while setting school records for career tackles with 447. Because of those accolades, the school retired Kampman's high school jersey.
That honor moved Kampman, and he wanted to do something to show his appreciation to Thomas.
"We hadn't gotten a chance to really do anything for him," Kampman said. "This is just a real nice honor for him to be recognized for the many years he put into that program."
As part of the award, Thomas received two tickets to Super Bowl XL, a $5,000 check and a $10,000 grant to the football program at Aplington-Parkersburg. Kampman called Thomas on the phone after he received the honor, and the coach's reaction was as humble as expected.
"He had such heartfelt gratitude," Kampman said. "He was like, 'You guys didn't have to do that.'"
The four NFL players did, and Thomas became the 11th NFL High School Football Coach of the Year. The Aplington-Parkersburg coach represents everything for which the award stands for.
"You got goosebumps playing for the guy," Kampman said. "The essence of playing under the lights on Friday night -- he brought that to the forefront."