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May 17, 2006

Iowa high school an unlikely football factory

At first glance Miami and Parkersburg, Iowa, would seem to have little in common.

The same would hold true at second glance and third glance and right on through glance about 117.

But here is one thing they have in common: Each of those cities has a high school with four graduates in the NFL.

For Miami, with its 40 high schools and 2 million-plus population, that's hardly a surprise. You'd probably figure on more than one.

For Parkersburg, with its one secondary school Aplington-Parkersburg High and population of less than 2,000, that's more than a surprise. And the A-P is on the verge of adding a fifth NFL player. The Discovery Channel should be looking into this.

"It's a special place," said Aaron Kampman, a defensive end for the Green Bay Packers and A-P class of 1998. "It's a farming community, a real blue-collar place, and those types of things kind of rub off. You learn how to work hard and do things the right way."

The players from Parkersburg aren't household names, but neither are they overnight guests in the NFL. Kampman is the youngest, and he already has been in the league for four years, all with the Packers. He joined mainstays Casey Wiegmann (class of '91; about to enter his sixth with the Kansas City Chiefs), Jared DeVries (class of '94; has played all seven of his NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions) and Brad Meester (class of '95; has played all six of his seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars).

The player who could make it a quintet for the A-P is Landon Schrage, a long snapper and class of 2001. He's a rookie free agent with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Aplington-Parkersburg Five
Casey Wiegmann
Center, Kansas City Chiefs
Age: 32
College: Iowa
Notable: Wiegmann is the godfather of the Aplington-Parkersburg players, having graduated in 1991. Bounced around the NFL with the Colts and Jets before finally seeing regular playing time during three-plus seasons with the Bears. Went to the Chiefs in 2001 and has been a starter ever since.
Thomas on Wiegmann: "I think what Casey did by being the first one (from Aplington-Parkersburg High to make the NFL) was give all of the kids here an opportunity to have those dreams and goals."
Jared DeVries
Defensive end, Detroit Lions
Age: 29
College: Iowa
Notable: All-American at A-P. All Big Ten as a senior at Iowa and garnered some All-American mentions. Still Iowa's all-time leader in sacks. Has mostly been a special teamer for the Lions. Tied his career high with three sacks last season. Has a brother who is an assistant to Thomas at A-P.
Thomas on DeVries: "Jared was a 215-pound defensive end and fullback. He was excellent on both sides. He had a great motor."
Brad Meester
Center, Jacksonville Jaguars
Age: 29
College: Northern Iowa
Notable: All-state at A-P. Two-time Division I-AA All-American. Highest draft pick of A-P players (second round). Converted to guard as a rookie with Jaguars and started every game. Moved back to center position in 2003 and continued as starter. Had started a team-record 92 consecutive games until being sidelined by injury in 2005.
Thomas on Meester: "Brad played for me at only 225 pounds, and it was interesting because Iowa and Iowa State passed because they didn't think he could get big enough. So he goes on to be a two-time All-American and plays at 305, 310."
Aaron Kampman
Defensive end, Green Bay Packers
Age: 26
College: Iowa
Notable: All-American at A-P. Also an all-state basketball player. All-Big Ten as a senior. Worked his way into the starting lineup for six games as a rookie and has been a starter since. Registered a career-high 6.5 sacks last season.
Thomas on Kampman: "Aaron had more size while he was here than any of the others. He played at 245. He has all of our weightlifting records."
Landon Schrage
Long Snapper, Baltimore Ravens
Age: 23
College: Iowa State
Notable: Three-year letterman at A-P. Played defensive end and tight end. Also lettered in basketball and track. Walked on at Iowa State and earned a scholarship as a long snapper his senior season. Was considered one of the top long snappers in the draft, but didn't get selected and signed as a rookie free agent.
Thomas on Meester: "He was a deep snapper here, too. When he went to Iowa State, he couldn't put on weight so he started snapping all of the time. But he's a good one."
"Landon called me when he was going through the agent process," Kampman said. "He's a good young man. I hope he makes it. He'll serve some team well.

"If he can beat out the guy in Baltimore, he may play longer than any of us. Our guy here is 37 years old. You can do it for a long time if you're good at it."

Apparently all of these guys from this farming community in northeast Iowa are good at it. The grindstone never has a chance when an A-P player puts his nose to it:

Wiegmann will enter the 2006 season with a string of 79 consecutive starts at center for the Chiefs.

Meester, a guard/center, established a Jaguars team record with 92 consecutive starts before the streak literally was snapped this past season when Meester suffered a torn bicep. He is expected to be ready to go when the season starts.

Kampman has started 45 consecutive games.

DeVries, arguably the most decorated of the four coming out of college, is the only one who doesn't start. But obviously he's well thought of in Detroit; the Lions re-signed him this past offseason to a new five-year contract.

Ed Thomas, 55, is the head coach at the A-P. He's in his 31st year at the school. He is taskmaster and friend, pacing the sidelines on Friday nights and patrolling the lunchroom on weekdays.

"I've been asked often how a school our size could produce like it has," Thomas said. "Of course those kids have God-given talent. They all have great family backgrounds, and that has a lot to do with it.

"The have a great work ethic and a desire for achievement. They knew what they wanted to accomplish and had a plan to get there. At every level they just stepped up."

Fortunately for them, Thomas has never stepped out. Kampman credits the remarkable continuity of Thomas and his staff as another reason for the success of A-P athletes.

"He had the chance to go to different levels, but he likes Friday night under the lights," Kampman said. "It's one of the purest forms of the game.

"I have fond memories of my time with him a general feeling of the intensity with which everything was done. His pregame speech, the way we played, way we conditioned. It was all about breeding success, and that stays true to this day."

Wiegmann said Thomas was like a second father to him. He remembers a time in high school when he told the coach he was going to quit his summer job.

"Coach told me not to," Wiegmann said. "He said if I quit on that I'll quit on other things in life."

Thomas and the community are the common denominators. Crayola might want to consider a new shade, Parkersburg blue collar.

"The tradition started way before me," Wiegmann said. "It's what I looked up to when I was going through there when I was in elementary school. They had pictures of the athletes in the halls, and that's where I wanted to be up on the walls. I knew I had to work to get there."

All of the NFL guys remain close with Thomas. Wiegmann said he was home a few weeks ago, and Thomas, a run-first, run-last, run-often coach ("I think we passed about 50 times a season," Wiegmann said) was telling him about the next generation of players.

"He's got kids scouted out all the way down to flag football," Wiegmann said. "He knows what he's got coming up. He's not in charge of the junior high program, but they run the same offense. It's all guys who played for him.

"He's got it down to a science. He knows what everybody will play when they get to high school."

Thomas has retired the jerseys of his four players to make the NFL. The whole community comes together for the celebrations. He believes Schrage's jersey will be next.

The coach has enjoyed himself at all of the ceremonies, but he remembers a particular moment at Kampman's.

"(Iowa coach) Kirk Ferentz was up here when we retired Kampman's jersey," Thomas said. "The neatest thing was to look at the elementary kids and wonder if they were thinking, 'I could be the next one.' "

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