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Chattanooga Police Officer Dennis Pedigo, left, and USMC Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley, who were both injured in the July 16 shootings, head to the coin toss before the Mocs' season-opener football game against Jacksonville State at Finley Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — All around wounded Chattanooga police officer Dennis Pedigo stood giants of Tennessee Titans past on Sunday morning. There were legends such as Eddie George, Samari Rolle and Derrick Mason, dozens of them gathered at Nissan Stadium for an alumni weekend celebration prior to the Titans' 10-7 loss to the Falcons.

Soaking it in as he balanced himself on the crutches he still must use to protect an ankle shattered 101 days earlier by a terrorist's gunfire, Pedigo said with a smile, "I've never been to a pro game before. This is great. It wouldn't matter who was playing."

We've all shed tears, offered prayers and donated vast amounts of money — more than $1 million to the Chattanooga Heroes Fund — as a result of the five lives lost in the July 16 terrorist attack at the Navy and Marine reserve center on Amnicola Highway.

That attack changed our community forever, robbing us of our communal sense of innocence and security as it painfully reminded us that sometimes the bad guys win, however determined our efforts to stop them.

But other than the families of those five victims, no one's life has been changed more than Pedigo, who hasn't been back to work since he was shot, can't stand for more than 45 minutes or so without his leg swelling and has no idea when all of this might go away.

"They're saying six months to a year, no one knows for sure," said his wife, Melanie. "It's just been overwhelming. At first it was frightening. Now we're trying to get the kids back to normalcy. We think we're close to normalcy."

There is nothing normal about going to work one day as a traffic officer, being assigned to work a funeral procession on your motorcycle, suddenly hearing a 911 call about a terrorist attack in your town, then being shot by a madman with a high-powered rifle as you arrive to help the victims.

"He is without a doubt one of the toughest men I know," said Pedigo's supervisor, Sgt. Gary Martin, a few weeks ago. "He selflessly ran into gunfire to prevent death. I have no doubt that he and other officers prevented people from dying."

One hundred and one days later, Martin, fellow officer and friend Randy "Rudy" Poland, Melanie and Alan Pressley — the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant employee who put the excursion together, including calling on the generosity of the Titans brass, who provided tickets, field passes and parking — all left the Scenic City at 8 a.m., bound for Nissan Stadium.

Poland and Pedigo were operating on scant sleep, with Poland having arrived home after midnight from the Tennessee-Alabama game in Tuscaloosa and Pedigo up later than that after taking in a speech from former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in Nashville on Saturday night before returning home to Chattanooga, then heading back to the state capital less than six hours later.

"So you know how much he wanted to see this game," Martin said with a grin.

But the Titans wanted to see Pedigo just as much. The voice of the Titans, Mike Keith, and broadcast partner Frank Wycheck, the former Titans tight end, welcomed the Pedigo party to the broadcast booth. Ralph Ockenfels, the club's vice president of marketing, guided them around the sideline during pregame festivities.

"To see (Pedigo) get to have this experience is what this is all about," Keith said. "For him to have made the sacrifices he has for our country, and then he wants to see what we do — it's a great honor for us to get to have him here."

It's certainly an honor to have women and men such as Pedigo willing to serve and protect us. A Lookout Valley High School graduate, he's been on the police force for 17 years, previously overseeing everything from the department's K-9 unit to youth league sports (especially football) in Ooltewah.

But the rehabilitation has been long and hard and expensive. A GoFundMe site set up by Martin has brought in more than $20,000 to date, but bills remain. Pressley — who has long brought so much joy to so many through the shadow boxes he builds — helped stage a fundraiser last week at Rib and Loin for some of the Pedigos' closest friends and family members.

Pressley made Pedigo, a huge University of Georgia football fan, a shadow box featuring a get-well note from Herschel Walker and photographs. The Chicago Bears — the officer's favorite pro team when he was growing up — sent along an autographed miniature helmet. Proclamations and well-wishes were presented.

"Dennis doesn't like the spotlight," Melanie said. "But for all the people who have supported us, it's good for them to see him and see how he's doing."

The kids see their dad doing better every day. Ten-year-old Mollie once again lights up Snow Hill Elementary School. Brodie, 12, and Howie, 13, are playing football at Hunter Middle School. Logan, 21, is charting his future at Chattanooga State.

Life goes on, as life does. But it goes better when we stop to honor those who protect our freedoms, especially those whose lives are lost or altered by that sacrifice.

"We're always talking about football players having toughness and courage," Wycheck said after Pedigo exited the broadcast booth. "But that's just a game.

"When you look at Officer Pedigo, you're talking about a guy with real toughness and courage and selflessness. To take a bullet to try to save lives is the ultimate example of courage and bravery. It puts a lot of things in perspective."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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