RINGGOLD, Ga. - As Robert Akins took a moment to reflect on his day, the Ringgold High School athletic director and football coach didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
So he did a little of both.
A few hours of work Thursday in mid-90-degree temperatures netted the ever-growing Ringgold High School/Ringgold Middle School Athletic Fund about $17,000, pushing the grand total to nearly $100,000. The money is slated for rebuilding the schools' baseball fields and football stadium, which were demolished by the April 27 tornado.
The day's donors included $10,000 from Modern Woodmen and $5,500 from Ringgold Chrysler-Dodge. Nearly $2,500 came from a musical benefit at the Rhythm & Brews club in Chattanooga, an event organized by former football player Davey Smith, who was coached by Akins during his tenure at Boyd-Buchanan High School.
Akins has been touched by the outpouring of support from the Chattanooga area and beyond - he recently received a $1,000 check from South Georgia's Vidalia High School - but when Smith offered his help, it reminded the veteran coach why he has remained in his profession.
"That's why you stay in coaching," smiled Akins. "It's really not about money or wins and losses. It's about the relationships you build with kids.
"Davey and I have always had a great relationship. To have him come back and do this out of the blue ... that's big to me because it shows where his heart is and that our relationship is as strong as it ever was."
Smith teamed up with former Ringgold athlete Nathan Farrow and fellow songwriters Arlo Gilliam and Channing Wilson for the recent fundraiser. Like his old coach, he described the relationship forged over two-a-day practices and playoff heartbreak as something money can't buy.
"My time at Boyd-Buchanan with Coach Akins was filled with some of the fondest memories of my life," said Smith, who graduated from the school in 2001. "He's one of those guys I would put on a pedestal as high as anyone I know. Just a special, special man."
Farrow, who played football and baseball at Ringgold, is a volunteer fireman in Catoosa County and was one of the first responders following the tornado. What he saw that night still burns in his mind.
"It was just complete devastation," he said. "There were really no words to describe what I saw. That was pretty tough seeing the football field. I spent four years of my life playing there, so to see the field and the fieldhouse destroyed was tough.
"I played baseball also and Coach [Bill] Womack was a big mentor of mine, so to see the baseball field in such bad shape was really difficult."
Though the financial support has been heartwarming and generous, Akins notes that new costs are being uncovered every day. Insurance and money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover a good deal of the cost, but much will remain. Akins was handed a $46,000 estimate this week for the track-and-field equipment that was destroyed, something he had overlooked.
"I really don't think we'll have an idea of how much it is until the insurance company comes back and gives us the figure, and then there will be a gap that we have to come up with," he said. "FEMA has already told us we can't play or practice on any of our fields. To redo those fields will cost roughly $300,000 and FEMA will pay 75 percent."
Which is why Mike Robbins and his family-owned Chrysler-Dodge dealership - which suffered $450,000 in damage itself - got involved and why Modern Woodmen representative Lisa Lewis convinced her altruistic company to quadruple its usual single-event charity total.
This is a community, each said, that will not let its kids suffer even after such a devastating event.
"If you're really going to help anybody, you help their kids," Lewis said. "Adults will go without things, but they will do anything to provide for their kids."
Robbins said his children go to the Ringgold schools and he has been a member of the high school's Quarterback Club for years.
"I just felt like we needed to step up even more than we had," he said. "One of the things we love so much about Ringgold is the ability to go the football games on Friday nights. You know everybody in the stands, you know the police officers standing outside and it's just a very close-knit community. It was very upsetting to see it all torn up, very tough."
On Thursday, though, the world was just right for Akins, the man who will lead the athletic programs back from oblivion.
"Everywhere we turn people are reaching out and touching us in different ways," he said, wiping away either sweat or tears or both. "It really gives me confidence in the human spirit to know it's alive and well and that people still love like they always have. It's just come out at the time when we need it the most.
"Yeah, it was a good day."