RINGGOLD, Ga. -- Joe Baron wasn't sure what to expect as he approached what was left of Ringgold High School in early May of 2011. Baron, the co-owner of Warner's Athletic Construction, was answering a call for help from a community that was down and nearly out.
What Baron found was crumpled steel, ripped-away fences, hunks of concrete moved hundreds of yards -- and school administrators in a daze of disbelief. Scoreboards had disappeared.
In the grand scheme of things following the EF-4 rated tornado that hit the community on April 27, a few obliterated athletic fields should have been the least of the concern.
Lives had been lost, hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed. The landscape of this quiet part of northwest Georgia was changed dramatically and much work had to be done, and the rebuilding of the school's athletic facilities was considered an important part of the emotional recovery.
Not only did county leaders work to get a plan in place to rebuild the facilities from the ground up, but they decided to go the extra mile and create something special.
"Sports are community events," Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese said. "For students, participation in sports and attending school events builds school spirit, and these activities hold memories and traditions for generations of alumni.
"There is one word to describe how I felt when I approached Ringgold High School on April 28, 2011: 'paralyzed.' Ringgold High School and Ringgold Middle School were significantly damaged, and the campus and athletic facilities were destroyed.
"A year later when I visit the beautiful restored campus, I am reminded of all we have overcome."
Baron admits he was moved by his first impression of the facilities.
"I was struck by the devastation, and you could tell right away that the football and baseball stadiums were pretty much obliterated," said Baron, whose work cost more than $2 million and involved six subcontractors. "When you have a community that was hurt as badly as they were, you want to help any way you can. My mission was to make it as easy on them as we could."
At times, though, the slow pace of construction was too much for some to handle. Baseball coach Brent Tucker admits his patience was greatly tested on more than on occasion, but once he saw the entirety of the work involved and where it was headed, he bought in.
"Honestly, at first I thought it would be two or three months and we would have our field back, but after living through the past year, I'm amazed it was ready for the start of our season," Tucker said. "It was an overwhelming project and Joe Baron and [former Catoosa County Director of Operations] Damon Raines and everybody involved have done a tremendous job.
"Guys like that have basically become like staff members and are definitely part of the Ringgold family."
While some of the new work stands out, such as the Shaw Industries-installed artificial turf on the football field and the baseball scoreboard, the unseen improvements ultimately may make the most difference. For example, Baron found when surveying the baseball field that parts of the outfield sloped more than two feet. The Tigers had played in soggy conditions for years.
When the school decided to install the artificial turf for football, Baron took most of the removed soil -- more than a million pounds -- over to the baseball field and leveled it. A new irrigation system was installed -- one so efficient that Baron says only a flood will prevent the team from playing. He also brought in new Bermuda sod and what he called "some of the finest infield clay available."
There is still work to be done. New tennis courts are being built adjacent to the softball field, the baseball team's hitting facility and a maintenance building need to be completed and the football scoreboard still must be put up. Athletic director and football coach Robert Akins looks forward to the day -- soon, he hopes -- when the dump trucks and the construction crews are in the past.
"It's taken its toll on a lot of people, to be honest," said Akins, who spent several weeks after the disaster helping to raise money to make up the difference in what FEMA and insurance would pay for the fields, uniforms and equipment. "The facilities, though, are excellent, as good as any around. I do look forward to when we as coaches can put the construction behind us and have more direct contact with the kids and do more coaching."
Generations from now, the tornado of 2011 and its devastation of the athletic fields at Ringgold will be a distant memory. Catoosa County leaders and school administrators, though, know that thousands of children will be able to build memories and make lifelong friends because of a singular vision of excellence.
The fields will also provide proof, they hope, that small-town spirit is alive and well.
"I am so proud of the new athletic facilities on the Ringgold campus," Reese said. "I think they will remind our community of a time when we almost lost hope but we stood strong and we were determined that tragedy would not destroy us."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...