Jake Walker remembers the moment he learned about the powerful tornado that struck Catoosa County in late April and the helpless feeling it left him with.
The private first class soldier was in Iraq when his sergeant pulled him aside.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Walker, a 2003 graduate of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe who was back at his alma mater Saturday to take part in the LFO/Ringgold alumni baseball game. "We had been pretty busy, and I hadn't had contact back home in about a week. My first sergeant came up to me and told me to contact my family back home.
"I didn't know what to expect because I had lived here my whole life and nothing like that had ever happened. Fortunately everyone was all right, but it was really sad."
When Walker learned from former teammate J.D. Davis that he was trying to get a game together to help raise money for the Ringgold athletic fund, he checked to make sure he would be home and quickly committed.
"I had a lot of good memories of playing games at Ringgold," said Walker, who started at his old second base position in Saturday's 23-22 LFO win. "I got a chance to see the damage, and it's terrible. It's one of those things you think will never happen to you. Instantly, I wanted to know what I could do, and when Jonathan [Davis] told me about this, I told them I was in."
Walker had never met Billy Massingale before an impromptu practice earlier this week, but the two became quick friends. Massingale, a 1986 LFO graduate, has surived five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq in a military career that began right out of high school.
Currently a member of the National Guard who hopes to retire sometime in 2013, Massingale couldn't say yes fast enough when former Warriors teammate Steve Heard informed him of the game.
"Baseball has been such a big part of my life," said Massingale, who played under Chip Liner, who served as the LFO coach Saturday. "I didn't take it as seriously as I could have in high school because I knew I was going to go into the military, but I do remember that any time we played Ringgold, even if it was in the summer, it was a rivalry."
He and Walker share more than an alma mater and life in the military. The memories of competing in high school and forging strong friendships came flooding back last week, and like most of the 50 players who suited up Saturday, they shared stories (some actually true) and laughed for several hours.
For a time Saturday, the two could put the images of war behind them and play a child's game that never gets old.
"What doesn't come back to me?" Walker asked of the memories. "We came up here for practice and it's so awesome. As you grow older, people start to have families and grow apart and you don't get to see your friends. We came out and we fell right back into place, like we were getting ready for the playoffs in 2002.
"This is awesome. It's every ex-athlete's dream and it means a lot, obviously, to what they hope to get done in Ringgold. If a little bit of my time can help these guys get their equipment back, or whatever, it's more than worth it."
Massingale, a husband and father of three who still competes when he can in a wooden bat league in Chattanooga, is glad he got to share Saturday's event with his family.
"My wife asked me one day why I love baseball so much," he said. "I told her, before I went into the military, baseball was almost religion. It was fun and it was innocent. I've seen the horrors of war and it stays with you, and when you can forget about something for two hours out on the baseball field, and especially enjoy that time with your family and loved ones, even now at age 44, there's nothing like it."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...