By David Cook – 4-9-17

For too long, the Howard School’s football field has been nearly unplayable.

“A dust bowl,” said coach John Starr. “We were playing football and dust was flying up.”

Not anymore.

Earlier this week, a local man gave $25,000 to hire a landscaper to redo the Howard football field.

Then two other donors — Jay Kennamer and Brent Burks with the McMahan law firm — pledged to renovate the press box and concession stands.

“Kids should be able to play their sports and not have to worry about funding and conditions,” Kennamer said.

And Starr announced the Tony Brown Foundation — Brown is a former City High star who went on to play for the Tennessee Titans — was getting involved.

“A beautification project,” Starr said. “A number of NFL guys will jump in and help pressure-wash the stadium, along with a paint job.”

This is the second Howard field transformed in the last few months. After gallantly working all winter to make their field playable, the Howard baseball team received more than $75,000 in outside donations, not counting the recent gift of an indoor batting cage and pitching mound. (Thanks, Ricky Hartman).

A lowball estimate? Howard’s received some $125,000 in gifts since 2017 began.

This recent gift for $25,000?

It comes from a man named Darrell Wyke.

To find him, drive into the grit of East 23rd Street, to an athletic gym in a place where there shouldn’t be one: past the liquor store and fast food and chain-link poverty.

Each morning around 5, the doors open and the gym — We Sacrifice, We Excel — becomes a microcosm of society, a little Chattanooga. Headmasters and CEOs, students from Alton Park, moms from Signal Mountain.


“It’s simple,” Wyke said. “Everybody needs the same thing. Everybody needs to be recognized and everybody wants to be heard. It doesn’t matter if you live in the inner city or on top of Lookout Mountain. Every human being wants to be recognized in some capacity.”

Wyke, 51, is a trainer who’s a minister, or rather, a minister who’s a trainer. A preacher in Bridgeport, Ala., for the last 13 years, he was also the strength coach at Baylor School, which won 50 state titles during his tenure. He transformed the lives of so many Baylor kids, parents will see him years later in the grocery store and won’t let him leave without paying for all his food.

The walls in his gym testify: pictures from pro athletes, marathon-running moms, college-bound high schoolers, middle schoolers just wanting to make the team. Wyke is inspirational, patriotic. “I’m as American as Abe Lincoln,” he likes to say — and truth-telling. He’s also connected — name any pro athlete, and he’s probably two or three calls away.

But also name any homeless Chattanoogan around East 23rd Street, and Wyke knows that person, too. Every Thursday, he leaves the gym, buys 125 Burger King cheeseburgers, and goes to the Union Gospel Baptist Mission, talking and sharing with homeless folk there.

“He’s a father figure,” said Udarius Strawter.

Last year, Strawter and nine other student-athletes from Howard started training with Wyke and his brothers — Shannon and David — who also run the gym.

“All those kids need is to know that somebody loves them,” Wyke said. “Somebody cares about what they’re doing.”

Howard rolled through a winning season. Nine of the 10 Howard guys inked scholarships to play in college.

“He taught me how to work hard,” said Strawter, who will attend Shorter University, “and how to treat other people like I’d want to be treated.”

Wyke grew up in Selmer, Tenn. — population 4,488 and home of Sheriff Buford Pusser — in a house so small he and 11 siblings slept three to a bed and so cold the wind blew through the walls. His grandfather was a sharecropper whose father was a slave; his grandmother, a Cherokee.

He was first in his family to make it past high school. He played defensive line at Lambeth College, where he met his best friend, Danny Crockett.

“Man, he’s family,” Wyke said.

Crockett is the Nashville businessman behind Franklin American Mortgage, which title-sponsors the Music City Bowl. (Crockett dreams of the championship game in Nashville.) He, Wyke, and some pro athletes they won’t name — “call us the Nashville Five,” Wyke said — have an investment club of sorts: donating money to various causes and nonprofits throughout Tennessee.

So when Wyke saw the Howard field — its puny sprinkler system, its dusty, crownless turf — he called Crockett.

They put $25,000 together, and the ongoing transformation of Howard’s campus continues.

“Jesus is the vine and we are the branches,” Wyke said. “If I’m connected and I’m abiding and I’m doing what’s right, then I’m going to produce fruit.”

Even out of dust.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@ or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.




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