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AP file photo by David J. Phillip / Former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning has helped community causes in Chattanooga on multiple occasions, including recent donations to area high school football programs affected by tornadoes this spring.

Jill Levine took the call a few weeks ago, not quite believing what she was hearing.

"A friend of Peyton Manning's was on the phone," said Levine, the chief of innovation and choice for Hamilton County Schools. "He said Peyton wanted to give $5,000 to each of those high schools whose football programs were most affected by the (April 13) tornadoes, and that the NFL would match those donations dollar for dollar."

Though only Grace Baptist Academy — a private school that was basically flattened by the Easter night storm — suffered any serious on-campus damage, Central, East Hamilton and Ooltewah high schools all had students and coaches significantly impacted by the weather disaster.

Within a few days, Manning's representatives were sent a list with all four schools on it, and a little more than two weeks ago, the checks began arriving.

"That just seems to be Peyton," Levine said of the former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback. "He sees a need and does what he can to help."

Sees a need. Does what he can to help. Isn't that was fathers the world over try to do every day of their lives?

Whether it's cleaning a skinned knee, fixing a bicycle chain that's come loose or, later in life, giving advice or a few bucks here and there to help with more complex problems, those gestures are why so many of us will celebrate the older men in our lives this Father's Day weekend.

And watching and learning from his father Archie, the ultimate Southern gentleman, throughout his childhood years has almost certainly helped mold Peyton, along with more than a little advice from his mother Olivia.

But while Peyton has long preferred to avoid the spotlight on his many charitable acts, these gifts are big news at Central, East Hamilton, Grace and Ooltewah.

"Pretty touching," said East Hamilton football coach Grant Reynolds, who had numerous players forced to relocate because of the tornado and several coaches whose homes were destroyed.

"I actually thought it was someone playing a joke on us when I got a call that Peyton Manning wanted to help. It was very gracious of him, and it couldn't have come at a better time. We'd ordered $11,000 worth of new football uniforms and had scheduled two fundraisers to pay for them, but those fundraisers were canceled due to the coronavirus. So this $10,000 really helps."

Central coach Curt Jones already has his 10 grand earmarked, too.

"We're trying to upgrade our inventory of helmets and shoulder pads," Jones said. "You're always worried about doing the best by your players from a safety standpoint. So we're very grateful for the help Peyton's providing, as well as the help from the NFL."

Ooltewah's Scott Chandler could not be reached for comment, but no one was more grateful for Peyton's and the NFL's help than Grace athletic director Bob Ateca, who saw the tornado destroy both his school and his home in Holly Hills, as well as demolish his family's three cars.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster for both me and our school," Ateca said. "It's also been an honor to have so many people reach out to us. We don't have a locker room anymore. We're using some of the money to buy duffel-like bags for our kids to carry their equipment home in each night because there's nowhere to leave it here. Some of it will go to other things because we need everything."

Asked if he was able to save anything from his own home, he paused, then said softly, "Not that I can think of."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Stadium seating smashed by a fallen pole was among the destruction seen at Grace Baptist Academy on April 14, two days after a tornado tore through the private school in Chattanooga.

As Levine discussed Peyton's generosity, she said, "I'm a big believer in the power of sports."

She recalled her grandfather Ellis McCracken, a high school football coaching legend in Pennsylvania who won a state title at Leechburg (population 2,156 in 2010) in 1954.

"The band marched through my grandparents' home when they won," recalled Levine, whose own sons Jake and Sam are standout golfers. "My grandparents were given the first color television in the history of Leechburg because of that title. Sports can energize a community."

Yet as much energy as Peyton's gifts have brought to Central, East Hamilton, Grace and Ooltewah, the most touching gift of all has been Donelson Christian Academy's gift to Grace.

Much as Grace was ripped to its foundation by the Easter tornado, Donelson suffered only slightly less damage on March 3, when the Nashville school was struck by the same line of twisters that later killed 18 people in the Cookeville area.

Not long after that, the Donelson baseball team was playing in a tournament in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, when three of the local high schools — Fort Walton Beach, South Walton and Walton — raised several thousand dollars to help Donelson rebuild.

Yet when Donelson's team heard about Grace, it asked the school if it could send part of the money it had been given on to Grace.

"We were uplifted so much by what the Walton schools had done for us," Donelson athletic director Dennis Goodwin said. "And Grace's devastation was so much worse than ours that our kids wanted to pay it forward. We wanted to be part of their healing."

A lot of folks are helping Grace heal. In addition to Manning, Silverdale Baptist Academy senior Carrie Patrick raised more than $8,000 through the sale of T-shirts to help her school's biggest rival. Numerous other donations have rolled in.

At a time when so much is tearing this country apart, Ateca has been stunned by the kindness of so many.

"It's hard to put into words," he said. "It's very humbling."

On this Father's Day, overwhelmed by so much unrest and uncertainty on so many fronts, it's also a sign of hope that our best days may not yet be behind us.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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