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Grace Baptist Academy head football coach Bob Ateca watches warmups during Grace's football game against MTCS at Grace Baptist Academy on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It was early, early Saturday morning, his Grace Baptist Academy football team making its way back from its 34-30 road win at Franklin Grace, its final game of a 2-7 season, before Bob Ateca could finally reflect on all he and his family — both his own family and his family of players — had overcome the past eight months.

"It's been a rough year," said Ateca, which might be the understatement of the new millennium for most of us, but especially for him. After all, most of us haven't had our home and the school where we work both flattened by a tornado on Easter night, as well as dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and having several of the Eagles' key players unexpectedly quit football before the start of summer practice.

"But we made it through and it was great to end it on a nice note."

Everyone is attempting to make it through something these days. Fear. Anxiety. Financial hardships. Health concerns. Overwhelming stress bordering on depression.

It's all been Too Much for too long. We're now anxiously residing in When Will This End?

But almost no one anywhere has had to endure what the Atecas have from the moment the final 30 minutes of Easter produced a tornado that not only destroyed their Holly Hills home of 10 years, but also the entire Grace Academy campus along Shallowford Road.

"We had to replace everything," said Ateca, who is also the school's athletic director, of his own house. "We lost our cars, our clothes, furniture, everything."

It took two hours for the Atecas' son-in-law, Trask Davis, to walk through the rubble with a flashlight to guide Bob, his wife Gina and their 17-year-old daughter Miriam, a junior at Grace, out of the neighborhood, so they could stay with their older daughter Anamare and Trask in Ringgold.

"Those first few hours, the school never crossed my mind," Ateca recalled. "I was just concerned for my wife and daughter. But once the sun came up, I was able to see the campus. It was a complete loss."

In one of those things that makes tornadoes so difficult to understand, some fragile collectables that had belonged to Gina's mother were somehow spared in the Atecas' china cabinet. A GoFundMe site helped the Atecas replace anything their insurance hadn't covered.

Still, to lose a lifetime's worth of property and watch your place of employment destroyed by the same act of nature would crush the spirit of a lot folks. Not Ateca, said Grace headmaster Matt Pollock.

"Bob's been a constant inspiration about how to deal with difficult times," Pollock said Friday afternoon. "We talk almost every day and Bob's always telling me, 'What has been lost can be regained.' You're looking at a man who's suffered way more than you and I have and he's not blinking. When you think you're having a bad day, Bob is motivation for all of us."

Even in the best of times, coaching football in small private schools such as Grace is difficult. With the campus and athletic fields all destroyed by the tornado, with the pandemic having shut down all in-school learning and athletics a month before that weather event, Ateca's job was about to get much tougher.

"We thought we were going to have a pretty good team coming back," said the veteran coach. "But whether it was the campus being gone, or the threat of COVID-19, or maybe just deciding that it was more fun sitting on the couch doing nothing, we had some kids decide not to play. Against Franklin Grace, we dressed 26, and four of those were eighth graders."

Ateca refused to surrender to obvious excuses, however.

He met with the players who still wanted to play.

"I told them they were going to be known as Men of Valor," Ateca said. "I told them the theme of the year was FAMILY — Forget About Me. I Love You."

The record may not have reflected it, but the teamwork and camaraderie did.

"Whenever something went wrong, he always picked us back up," said quarterback Cooper Knecht, who threw four touchdowns against Franklin Grace. "Coach kept saying, 'It's going to be OK, we'll get through this.' He made sure we were a family. He never lets us get down. The ball bounced against us all year, but we stuck it out. We're all so sad to see it end."

Count Ateca among the saddest.

"It was so wonderful to listen to them enjoying themselves on the bus home from Franklin," he said. "They could have walked away. But they didn't. I'll remember this team forever."

Ateca could have walked away from all of it. No one would have blamed him. Instead, he remained, never blinking, never failing to show up.

Or as Pollock noted: "Bob's always moving forward. He's 100 percent all in."

Ateca is even rebuilding his home — they hope to move in by Thanksgiving — on the same plot of land where his destroyed home once stood. He and Gina even salvaged a few bricks to display in the new dwelling.

"I feel like you don't ever walk away," he explained of his decision to rebuild. "I'm responsible for that location."

He will be the first to tell you there are a lot of folks who are responsible for the kindnesses shown his own family and the school in general.

"I'd love to name them all but I know I'd leave somebody out" Ateca said. "I'll just say that whether it was a gift of $1,000 or a box of peanuts, it has all meant so much."

A man of deep faith, Ateca was asked how much all of this has changed him.

"Tough question," he said. "I guess that God is always there regardless. Sometimes you forget that."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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