Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Howard coach John Starr gestures on the sideline during their game against Brainerd at Eddie Lambert Field at Brainerd High School on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In some ways, Thursday will dawn no differently than most other workdays for Howard School football coach John Starr. He'll rise a few minutes before 6 a.m., then swiftly begin cooking breakfast items for a significant number of Hustlin' Tigers who need a little something extra in their bellies to get the most out of their academics.

"That's my personal time," Starr said Tuesday morning. "People don't realize how peaceful and full of joy you can feel at 6 a.m."

But unlike most days, what will take place in the lobby of Howard's Henry Wesley Bowles Gymnasium between 1 and 3 Wednesday afternoon will be anything but peaceful, yet overwhelmingly joyous.

That's when Starr, with a lot of help from friends and Howard students, will host the third annual Tigers Giving Celebration, which delivers the best Thanksgiving dinner you can imagine for free to all who walk through the gym's doors.

"We haven't turned anybody away yet," said Starr, who expects as many as 350 to 400 of the school's nearby residents to drop in for everything from turkey and dressing, to mac and cheese, to collard greens, to green beans, to rolls and every dessert you can think of.

"We've always had enough food," he said, "and we will again this year."

Of course, at the top of that food list is his mom Opal's famous sweet potato souffle and his sister Greta's equally famous carrot souffle.

Speaking of those creations a year ago, Starr noted, "All I can say is that I have a really hard time determining whether or not they're a vegetable or a dessert. But I love 'em both."

Then there are all those cuts of meats that Starr smokes, everything from hams to Boston butts (smoked for 10 to 12 hours) to turkeys.

Howard principal Dr. LeAndrea Ware grew up just off Alton Park Boulevard near the Howard campus. She became a drum major for band director David Sharp's famous "Marching 100" before graduating in 1990. She recently was voted the Tennessee principal of the year by her peers.

Of the importance of the Tigers Giving Celebration for her students, she said, "It's a testament to what we try to teach every day. It's the value of giving back. Too many people think you need a lot of money to help people in need. Just giving a little bit of something to someone else can mean so much, even if it's just a pair of socks or a warm meal."

Hustlin' Tigers senior linebacker and safety Terran Bell is one of those students who'll be serving his neighbors for the third year in a row.

"It's an opportunity for everyone in our community to come together for a meal," he said. "It's especially important for the people in need, people who may be hungry."

Asked his favorite foods that he'll sample Thursday, he instantly reeled off ham, dressing and sweet potato pie.

Senior cheerleader Imani Rowe also will serve and host Thursday. She also hopes she can come home from college next year in time to work the lunch.

Asked her favorite moment from last year's Celebration, she recalled an older man in a wheelchair.

"He couldn't get up," she said. "So we held him up to get a picture with him, then got him whatever he wanted to eat. So many people can use our help."

Senior linebacker Ivan Hardwick has NFL dreams. He said if he makes it to the pros he intends to come back and give some of his earnings to the people he's met at the Thanksgiving feast.

Recalling one man he served last year who appeared to be in his 30s, he said, "He looked like someone who digs through garbage cans when he's hungry. It's sad. But he also had a big heart. He stuck around and helped us clean up last year. I gave him some extra food, and if he comes around this year, I will again."

It's not only about the food. Or the fellowship. Or the life lessons that are learned through sharing with those less fortunate. After giving out blankets a year ago, Starr has gathered together a mountain of socks for anyone who needs them this time around.

And if you don't think this kind of charity grows more important daily, some 150 hungry folks were fed the first year. Last year that number almost doubled. If 400 really do show up this afternoon, all those hams, Boston butts and turkeys that Starr has lost sleep over the past 48 hours may test his belief that the Celebration will never run out of food.

"We'll be fine," he said with a smile. "We have more people wanting to help every year. My wife Jennie and I have friends from Summerville, Georgia, who are bringing food."

Starr's personal reputation as a superb cook no doubt contributes to the yearly growth, though he wisely points to his mom and sister as the real cooks in the family.

Still, retired Howard basketball coach Moose McGary says of Starr's culinary skills, "If John's cooking it, I'm eating it."

Said Hardwick: "When Coach cooks, you get fed, then go home and go to sleep."

Added Ware, in perhaps the best endorsement imaginable: "I put on pounds just thinking about it."

For everyone who's ever been struggling and truly hungry, joy doesn't get any bigger or better than that.

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Mark Wiedmer

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