SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. -- We never know the difference a simple gesture can make in someone else's life. Taking a moment from our busy schedule to help someone who can't possibly repay us could actually bring a bigger blessing into our own life than we could have imagined.
A selfless staff at The Bridge nursing home in South Pittsburg and a group of teenagers have reminded everyone in this community of that recently by making such a difference for some of the elderly residents. One is 64-year-old Jimmy Case, who although bedridden, made a request this fall to be taken to a South Pittsburg High School football game.
Much like a Pirates running back, the staff at The Bridge took the ball and ran with it.
On the Friday of the Pirates' first playoff game, nine residents from the nursing home were transported to the game. Because of the lack of mobility for most of The Bridge's residents, it took an hour and a half for the staff, all volunteering their time, to set up the residents' wheelchairs. They placed the residents in the corner of the northern end zone on the home side so the football players and coaches would pass them on their way onto the field.
As luck would have it, the Pirates had three long touchdowns in which the runner sprinted down the home sideline, making a beeline for the corner of the end zone where the residents were.
Jimmy Walker, an 18-year resident at The Bridge who couldn't remember the last time he got to watch a high school game, yelled with each long run, "Come to me, Pirates! Come to me, boys!"
"It was like taking a bunch of teenagers to Disney World," said Stacy Abernathy, who coordinates the seniors activities as the quality of life director.
But it wasn't just the residents who got caught up in the playoff excitement. Concession-stand workers brought popcorn, nachos and cheese and hot chocolate to the residents. South Pittsburg's cheerleaders handed each one an orange and black plastic football, and a local sporting goods store donated caps for them to wear.
Following the postgame prayer in the locker room, a couple of senior players suggested the team go back out to the field and thank the residents for coming to cheer them on. Making a single-file line, the Pirates stooped down to hug or shake hands with the elderly fans.
"They just kept telling us how proud they were of us, and you could tell they were really happy to be there," said Jakoby Reynolds, a junior offensive lineman. "We wanted to show them how much we appreciated them being there to support us. It makes us feel special and real proud because it's just something else that shows us how everybody in the whole town is behind us."
As the residents were loaded back onto the van one-by-one, each still grinning from ear to ear, the staff agreed they would make a return trip the following week for the quarterfinal game. The group of nursing home residents were not able to make the trip to Knoxville for last week's semifinal game, but six of them will join most of the rest of town in making the trip to Cookeville for today's Class 1A state championship game.
Wearing a weathered orange hat with black "Pirates" across the front, Jimmy Case said his favorite part of the game is simply watching the players run onto the field.
"I get fired up," Case said. "I've always followed them, and just being able to watch the boys play again is what I like."
There will be one staff member for each resident, with a list of the medication and special needs for each.
"We've taken residents fishing, to the Rave theater, to ride the Chattanooga Ducks boat and all sorts of activities," said Greg Mitchell, the administrator at The Bridge. "But nothing has made the impact of taking them to see the Pirates play football.
"It means so much to them because they still feel that hometown pride with the football team that everybody else who has lived here does. It's a very close-knit, special community, and the residents here still have those same feelings of wanting to be a part of it."
Earlier this week, every coach and player on the team signed a football, and Thursday morning Pirates coach Vic Grider took star seniors Terrell Robinson and Jiajuan Fennell to The Bridge to present the ball to Case. Overcome by emotion, Case struggled to get the words out but managed to tell Grider and the two teenagers that their visit and the ball was the most special gift he had ever received. And he promised to be there today to watch them play.
"Sometimes we get wrapped up in ourselves as a team and what it means to us as coaches and players," Grider said afterward. "But that really hit home for me and Terrell and Jiajuan. It reminded us that we're playing for a lot more than just ourselves. It reminded us how special our program is because we've got a whole community that loves it and is counting on us to do something special."