The hour was growing late at Tuesday night's Boys & Girls Clubs' Stake 'N Burger Dinner at The Chattanoogan hotel. Tennessee football coach Butch Jones' inspiring talk was over. Outside, ominous storm clouds grew darker and the wind grew fiercer.
But Boys & Girls board member John Shulman had unfinished business with the crowd of 600 or more. There was much money to be raised if the organization was to feed all the youngsters it needs to feed at its four locations over 45 hot summer days.
So the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach began asking for donations of $5,000, which is what it costs to supply one meal and two snacks for all the kids who'll visit those four units for one week this summer.
Because the great Gordon L. Smith Jr. was the only one to pledge that amount, Shulman swiftly dropped the donation request to $3,000.
"Put me down for $3,000," said Jones, drawing a huge ovation from the crowd and a hug from the former boss of the Mocs.
If you want to know why the Volunteers are fortunate to have Jones as their head coach, that's a pretty good example. If you want to know why the Scenic City is blessed to have Shulman still call it home as he begins his coaching gig at the McCallie School next season, his fundraising skills for the Boys & Girls Clubs shouldn't be ignored, either.
For by the time Shulman was done "guilting" the crowd, as he said, the organization was pretty close to its goal of $45,000 and Jones had made a whole lot of new fans for his football program, including Shulman.
"I wasn't always a fan," he said. "But I am now. We all need to cheer for Tennessee."
We all need to cheer for the Boys & Girls Clubs, for the role they play in guiding so many of our city's less fortunate down a path of success rather than regret.
The UT coach certainly did his part. He told of how he daily asks the Vols players if they're going to be a river or a flood. A river goes in one direction; it has borders; it's organized. But a flood goes everywhere, in all directions, out of control. Be the river, he said.
Jones spoke of how your conscience is your body's "red engine light. When your red engine light comes on, you better pay attention to it."
He also said, "Success is never owned, it's only rented, and the rent has to be paid every day."
And as Jones spoke, both the young people and the adults were glued to his words, much as his young players will need to be this coming season.
"We're going to set a record for playing freshmen in the SEC," Jones joked.
But this night was most about the Boys & Girls Clubs kids, such as Tyner sophomore Shellie Hampton, who frequents the Alton Park club and wants to be a veterinarian one day, at least partly because of his visits to the Warner Park Zoo through the club.
"The snow leopard is my favorite," Hampton said. "I don't play football, but I do want to go to Tennessee one day."
Then there's Davon Sherrer, a rising sophomore at Howard who plays both running back and linebacker for the Tigers and who often helps with the younger kids at the Highland Park club.
"The club provides a safe, fun environment," Sherrer said. "I try to be a big brother when I'm there, just send them down the right path."
No one has found the right path more than 15-year-old freshman Carlisha McKenzie, a rising sophomore at the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. For her work with younger members the last four years, for her academic success, for her time in Girls Scouts and her school's robotics program and for her desire to study astronomical engineering one day at MIT, the organization awarded her its Outstanding Youth Award.
"I grew up learning leadership skills and that it's OK to be intelligent," she said. "I've also learned that mistakes shouldn't define you and that your goal should be to make the world a better place."
Said Jones: "You need to talk to my quarterback, Joshua Dobbs (whose non-football career path is aeronautical engineering). I'll get you his cell number."
With recruiting like that, MIT's loss could be UT's gain.
These are also the reasons good folks such as Smith and Jones and Shulman are so important today, and why the hateful, heinous views of doddering old fools such as disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling must be buried forever.
"Twenty-seven percent of our city's residents live below the poverty line,." Chattanooga Boys & Girls club president Michael Cranford noted. "That's as opposed to 15 percent nationwide. There are 49 million Americans who don't make enough to adequately feed themselves. And 17 million of those are children."
One night of pledges, however generous, won't fix all of our town's problems. But it won't hurt, either. It may have even earned the Big Orange more than a few new football fans.
More important, it might have convinced a promising engineering student to one day bring her intelligence to UT instead of MIT. And that's the kind of recruiting we really need to make our small corner of the world a better place.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...