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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Howard football coach John Starr talks to East Ridge counterpart Tim James before a Region 2-4A game on Oct. 23 hosted by Starr's Hustlin' Tigers. Starr said Howard's Tigers Giving Celebration, which he started five years ago, will take place this year with some modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic. Starr said "everybody's welcome" at the event from noon to 2 p.m. Monday at the school's gym.

Howard School football coach John Starr could have been forgiven for not answering his cellphone Friday afternoon.

When you have to smoke 15 or more hams, plus fill a couple of those industrial-sized foil pans with made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese, slow-cooked green beans and gosh knows what else in a span of 60 hours or so, every second counts.

But Starr was also eager to get the word out that coronavirus pandemic or not, Howard and many of its student-athletes and cheerleaders would be serving a socially distanced Thanksgiving feast Monday at the Hustlin' Tigers' Henry Wesley Bowles Gymnasium.

"I was a bit concerned we wouldn't be able to have it this year," said Starr, who started the Tigers Giving Celebration five years ago as a way to bring a little community joy to all those financially strapped souls who live near the Howard campus on South Market Street in Chattanooga.

"With (COVID-19) cases going up, I was afraid the city and county might shut it down. But we're going to do it from noon to 2 p.m. As always, everybody's welcome, and as long as we have food, you can come back two or three times. We expect more people than ever before, and we've fed 300 or more each of the last two years."

There is one very big difference. In past years, large tables have been set up in the lobby of the gym for guests to gather and eat and find fellowship. No one will be allowed inside the gym on Monday, save those preparing and serving food.

"If the weather's nice, and it's supposed to be, we'll have some tables set up outside," Starr said. "We only ask that you socially distance as much as possible and wear masks when you're not eating. We're just trying to keep everybody safe. But come to the door, tell us what you want and we'll fix it for you."

Oh, and did we mention that it's all free, paid for through donations big and small and by Starr himself?

And talk about eating good in the neighborhood. In addition to Starr's famous smoked hams, there will be baked chicken and turkey and dressing. There will also be the aforementioned green beans and mac and cheese, as well as mashed potatoes. If he or his family can find the time, there might even be some collard greens, along with rolls and traditional Thanksgiving desserts.

Then — and these two dishes are almost always the stars of the feast — there's his mom Opal's sweet potato souffle and his sister Greta's equally irresistible carrot souffle. Asked once if those are vegetables or dessert, Starr smiled and answered, "Both."

He soon added: "I have family members that started cooking (Thursday). This has come to mean so much to my family and to the students at our school."

Indeed, when it looked as if the luncheon might be postponed this year, Starr said the student body seemed as upset as him.

"They started talking about it three or four months ago," he said. "Our football team, our basketball team, cheerleaders. They love it, they love helping their neighbors. It's been so rewarding for me the last few years to see how much they want to be a part of it and how worried they were that we wouldn't be able to do it this year."

As COVID-19 cases nationwide have now reached 12 million and the U.S. death toll has passed 250,000, we've never needed something as uplifting as the Tigers Giving Celebration more than now, especially in areas such as those that surround Howard, where poverty and crime and hopelessness abound.

"There's a lot of people hurting out there," Starr said. "This is a tough, tough time for a lot of folks. I wouldn't be surprised if we serve more people on Monday than ever before."

Starr has been serving this community ever since he took the job as Howard's football coach five years ago. Almost from the beginning, he would bring breakfast items to school for all of his students — athletes or otherwise — who showed up each morning with an empty stomach.

That commitment increased this past spring, when Starr and his wife Jennie began fixing boxed dinners for those Howard students who weren't getting fed at home after the coronavirus forced the school to transition to online learning in March.

To show the importance of that particular act of kindness, when this newspaper asked one of Howard's students where he'd be without the football coach's personal meals-on-wheels program, the student responded, "There are nights we don't eat without Coach Starr."

Everyone who shows up at the Howard gym between noon and 2 p.m. Monday will have a chance to eat all they want or need, at least as long as the food lasts.

"And we've never run out before," Starr said with a chuckle.

No, it won't be exactly be like previous editions of the Tigers Giving Celebration.

"The biggest thing I'll miss is not being able to sit down with total strangers and talk about life in general," Starr said. "How they're doing. Can we help them beyond this meal, things like that. I look forward to that every year."

So maybe it's not perfect, at least by the impossibly high standard Starr and his family have set in previous years. But nothing much is these days. We should all just be thankful the Tigers Giving Celebration is still providing a perfect example of hope and charity in these wretched times.

Or as Starr said before heading off to smoke his hams, "This gives us a chance to make people happy for at least one day."

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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