RINGGOLD, Ga.-Brent Tucker and Robert Akins were surveying the ongoing work to rebuild the athletic facilities at Ringgold High School recently when a stranger approached them.
Since the tornado of April 27, strangers don't come to Ringgold any more -- only new friends waiting to be discovered.
"He walked up to us and said, 'I need to find Coach Tucker,' and I quickly said, 'You've found him,'" the head baseball coach recalled. "He introduced himself -- and he didn't want any publicity -- but he said he was from Chattooga High School and that he had a small collection he had taken up and wanted to help out in any way possible.
"Those kinds of things ... they really blow your mind," Tucker said.
Those kinds of things have happened almost daily in Ringgold, the state's hardest-hit community on that ominous spring day. The Ringgold campus took a direct hit from a category EF4 tornado. Every athletic field received some damage, with the baseball field being demolished and one end of the football stadium blown away.
Two days later, a bucket was passed around during a baseball game at hated rival Cartersville, where fans, including one who had been ejected from a game at Ringgold, generously donated.
It was an impromptu start of an effort that has raised nearly $300,000 to help replace the things insurance and disaster relief money won't, things like uniforms, equipment, lawn mowers, wrestling mats, tackling dummies and track hurdles, said Akins, the head football coach and athletic director.
"Insurance would only replace a portion of what we lost, so we knew we needed to raise significant funds," he said. "You just don't realize all the things that make up an athletic program until they're gone."
Yet there's no guarantee that $300,000 is going to be enough.
The physical reconstruction is on pace for the Sept. 6 start of school. Athletically, the main and auxiliary gyms are complete. The exterior walls of the football fieldhouse were erected last week, a storage shed for baseball has been completed and the block work on both baseball dugouts is up. The steel construction on the wrestling/cheerleading room is in place, and work will begin soon on the football bleachers and the field itself.
Since the Tigers will play at Finley Stadium this season, the rebuilt Don Patterson Field won't be ready until December and should be the final piece.
Akins, who has headed the fundraising effort, said final estimates of how much is needed won't be known for some time. "Something different seems to come up every day," he said. The only organized event on the current calendar is a golf tournament at Windstone.
The fundraising's success has ensured that the school's athletic teams will not be without any necessities this year, something Akins said he couldn't imagine in the days following April 27.
"I didn't know what to expect when we started this thing," he said. "Everywhere we turn, people are just reaching out and touching us in a lot of ways.
"And it's not just money. [Heritage football coach] Tim James went above and beyond," Akins said. "Two days after the tornado, when we went in to clean out the fieldhouse, he was with us loading stuff up into a U-Haul. All the people over here [at Heritage] are good people. They've really said, 'What's ours is yours.'"
Help Thy Neighbor
That people have responded to the school's plight isn't surprising. It's the wide range of the involvement that has captured Ringgold's heart, from the Atlanta Falcons donating $20,000 of football gear to an anonymous donation of $100,000, to people with no connection with Ringgold athletics freely giving of their time and money.
Jack Payne was on the scene early April 28 with his son, Trey, handing out nearly 4,000 bottles of water to workers and anyone in need. Payne, a general contractor who works with the Wal-Mart Emergency Response Team, has seen disaster, but not on this scale.
Not in his hometown.
"I'm used to working with corporate emergencies in other states, but to see it on a residential scale like here ... that was awful," he said. "It made you feel awful."
Trey Payne plays football for neighboring Heritage and, like most of Catoosa County's prep athletes, is close with other players in the area. He wanted to do something to help and had his father meet with Heritage coach James, who introduced Jack Payne to Akins.
Akins soon received a check for $10,000 that went to purchase "Spirit Packs" for every Ringgold player. Thursday, as the team hit Finley Stadium for its preseason scrimmage against Ooltewah, the Tigers came out dressed in new T-shirts, shorts and footwear for pregame warmups.
Jack Payne, through former University of Tennessee great Fuad Reveiz, also had arranged a trip for Ringgold players to go to Knoxville for the Sept. 3 college football game between Tennessee and Montana. He has seen through his son how important prep sports are, one reason he didn't want the Ringgold kids missing out this year.
"One of my son's best friends, Sky Rogers, plays at Ringgold and his family lost everything," Payne said. "Sports are expensive to play, and kids shouldn't miss out just because of something like this. I just wanted to help."
A South Carolina native, Payne moved to Catoosa County after marrying a Fort Oglethorpe native. He believes they're here to stay.
"It's funny, I've offered to buy us a house on the beach somewhere, but she won't leave," he said with a laugh. "It's a great Southern county. It really is like you hear: People in the South all stick together because Southern roots run deeper."
Training camp opened Aug. 1 and the Tigers, as they are quickly becoming accustomed to, were on the road.
They have practiced at Northwest Whitfield and Heritage and spent a few days at Camp Discovery in Ringgold. As the team took the field at Finley on Thursday, players carried their equipment in bags they likely will grow tired of soon.
The constant moving around, Akins fears, could take a toll on his team, though he knows at least a semblance of normalcy soon will return when the Tigers are allowed to work on their practice field later this month.
"The travel is hard because we went from here in the spring to Shaw, then we've had to kind of unpack to go to camp, packed back up to go to Shaw, then to Northwest Whitfield and then to Heritage," Akins said. "I told the guys before the scrimmage to be sure you pack your stuff because we won't have access to equipment. It just gets old, and it wears you out over time.
"Just to get back home, just walking into the high school the other day and taking a deep breath knowing we will have a place to call home ... it really makes a huge difference."
The biggest decision left for the administration athletically is to determine if the renovated football stadium will have natural grass or artificial turf. Laying sod would be the more cost-effective move for now, but an artificial field would save money in the long run, especially since the field is also used for the middle school.
Although the reconstruction will be completed by the end the year, the mental and physical scars will remain for some time. One need look no further than the ridges that sandwich the ravaged Cherokee Valley Road area to get a quick reminder.
"It was so traumatic, and it's changed the whole physical landscape of Ringgold," Akins said. "I think our community will be better than ever eventually, but it will take some time. I think about all the big, old trees that were lost and how now you can hear the train from the other side of town, where you used to not hear it because there was a buffer zone.
"The first thing the tornado did was scatter us, but slowly but surely it's helped us pull everything back together."