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David Cook

Not long after the news broke that City Hall hoped to spend $4 million — roughly half from taxpayers, half from private donors — on mood-lighting the Walnut Street Bridge, I spoke with Antoine Ward, who teaches and coaches middle school football at East Lake Academy.

We didn't talk about the bridge. Or lights. Never mentioned the city budget. Or the county's.

Instead, we talked about football.

And helmets.

But within that conversation, all this other stuff — $4 million and bridges and budgets — was there, too.

See for yourself. As you read Ward's story, ask:

How does money flow in this town?

Who spends it?

Who receives it?

And who doesn't?

After all, there are many bridges in this town that need lighting.

The story begins with football, which is like heart vitamins for many young East Lake men.

"Young men are better with football," said Ward. "It is a magical transformation."

Football provides a cauldron that disciplines, awakens and loves. Grades improve. Respect for authority and team deepens. Behavior, once crooked, straightens.

"When it starts getting tough, and you have summer practices, and there is a responsibility to your teammates, and when they see you not giving it your all, they're going to hold you to a higher standard," said Ward. "Football makes you level up."

That's why, earlier this spring, Ward, 35, was so distraught.

He was going to have to cancel next year's football season.

"Those helmets were worn out," said Ward.

His team's 30 helmets were old and unsafe. Buying new helmets, or reconditioning old ones, costs money. Ward's team had none.

Ward wasn't going to let his players — he prays for them each night like they're his own kids — take the field without proper helmets.

He faced hard math: 30 helmets for $2,400.

Could he find two dozen people to raise $100? Or 100 folks at $24?

He got initial help from friends at Silverdale Baptist Church. (Thank you, Gus.)

Then, Ward thought of Darrell Wyke.

Wyke, 52, may be the most important city benefactor you've never heard of, a sort of Jack Lupton of the inner city. A physical trainer and preacher who seems to be everywhere there is some kind of need, Wyke partners with his old friend, Nashville's Danny Crockett, the leader of Franklin American Mortgage Company, to help tutor, train, rebuild, mentor, donate, endow and embrace much of forgotten Chattanooga, especially at Brainerd High and the Howard School.

"I believe that every American kid has the right to have the opportunity to succeed in life," said Wyke. "That's my mindset, that's my mission in this city. That's Danny's mission."

A few weeks ago, Ward goes to Wyke's gym — We Sacrifice, We Excel, located on East 23rd Street — and tells him about the helmets. Wyke immediately promises to buy a few.

Then, later that night, Wyke changes his mind. A few isn't good enough.

"Let's buy them all," he decided.

Money's a strange thing, isn't it?

In one part of the city, people consider spending $4 million on bridge lights.

Yet only a few miles away, Ward is desperate to find a fraction of that, six ten-thousandths of $4 million, for new helmets.

And why didn't Ward simply turn to the county — which is charged with supplying the athletics department its budget — for new helmets? (County officials, don't chastise him. He's loyal, and wouldn't answer that question. But the rest of us can.)

"It is a forgotten part of town," said Ward. "People don't really pay attention to the East Lake area."

Wyke does. One afternoon in May, he arrived at spring practice.

He told the players the news.

Brand-new helmets.

"It was like Christmas," said Wyke. "They were giddy."

Over the years, I've learned a lot from Wyke. My own giving has grown — from next to nothing to, well, more — because of his influence.

"My goal in life is not to be rich or to have wealth," he said. "My pleasure is in giving. I go out of my way, family, friends, known, unknown. I believe in really extending myself."

This fall, 30 young men in East Lake will be able to play football because of him.

Yet there are a million other stories just like this across Chattanooga, waiting for a happy ending.

A million other bridges that need lighting.

Bridges between despair and hope.

Between isolation and community.

Between nothing and something.

Families and ministries and teams and bands that are struggling in fierce ways.

In such a darkness, money can be a light.

"I give to people when I don't necessarily have it," said Wyke. "God says he gives to us and the excess we have is to go to those in need."

Our $4 million excess should not go toward lighting one bridge when so many others are in darkness.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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