NASHVILLE – Michael Lash was 28-years-old when he moved to Nashville from Utica, New York, and he never imagined life would lead him into the streets, and under the Jefferson Street Bridge.
A veteran of the military, Lash was homeless for roughly 15 years. He slept in a tent city by the Cumberland River, and went to bed on many nights with little hope.
"You lose faith, you really do," Lash said. "You wonder: How did this happen to me? Why me? And, you just get drunk and try and forget about it all."
On Tuesday night, Lash was back under the Jefferson Street Bridge, surrounded by hundreds of members of the homeless community – and the Tennessee Titans.
Lash's life, however, is much different now. He found a way out of what he described as a "living hell." He has a job, an apartment and a car. The family he lost touch with for nearly 25 years is now communicating with him again. And nearly 10 years after nearly dying from esophageal varices after drinking Listerine to get drunk, which put him in a coma for two weeks, he's now sober.
Every Tuesday, Lash now returns to visit the homeless population to provide inspiration and hope, and when he saw Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, general manager Jon Robinson, quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Marcus Mariota and dozens of other Titans doing the same on a rainy night, it warmed his heart.
For the sixth year in a row, the Titans teamed up with The Bridge Ministry to feed the homeless a Thanksgiving meal on Tuesday night. Roughly 100 members of the organization – from players to coaches to members of the front office – took part in the event. So did other staff members, along with the Titans cheerleaders, members of the Blue Crew drumline, and T-Rac. Family members joined the group as well.
"All these people out here in the homeless community, they are looking for hope, and a reason to believe things will one day get better. I know, because I used to be one of them," Lash said. "On a night like this, you see a lot of smiles on their faces from having these football players and coaches out here, it is like a present."
Candy Christmas, CEO/Founder of The Bridge Ministry, thanked the team for its continued support. The Bridge Ministry is a grassroots non-profit that seeks to address poverty and homelessness in the Nashville area through faith-based programming and by providing everyday necessities to those they serve.
Christmas said Nashville has a homeless population of 11,000, including 4,000 children. Earlier this offseason, the Titans presented the Bridge Ministry and Second Harvest with a check for $50,000. Each year at the event the Titans have presented checks while feeding the homeless. On Tuesday night, the Bridge Ministry presented the Titans with the Bridge Award for "Excellent Achievement and Outstanding Generosity."
"It is amazing, the heart that the Titans organization has for the less fortunate," Christmas said. "To see them care about the community and to come out here and serve others, in the rain, just the way they give back, it is humbling."
An estimated 500 men, women and children from the homeless community turned out on a rainy night. In addition to the meal, clothing, toiletry items and non-perishable items were also distributed.
Every Tuesday, the homeless gather under the bridge, located not far from where the Titans play on Sundays, and just a few miles from the team's practice facility in Metro Center.
Last night, the Titans loaded into several buses, and got to work. While some members of the Titans organization served food, others worked to deliver items to the homeless. Dozens of players were on hand, handing out food, and hugs.
"We get more out of this than you guys do, I promise you," Vrabel, who was on hand with his wife Jen, told members of the homeless community. "I learned last year that under this bridge there's faith, there's hope and there's love. And I am proud of our organization, our players, for what they do off the field. They want to be here. This is their day off, we are preparing to play Indianapolis. We want to share this holiday season with you guys and wish you a happy Thanksgiving. And we want to tell you to keep the faith, keep the hope and find love."
Robinson led a "Titan Up" cheer -- and got a nice ovation.
"Outside of us winning ballgames on Sunday nights, this is one of my favorite nights of the year," Robinson said. "To come fellowship with you guys, to put an arm around you guys and show you the love that our Lord and Savior showed all of us. And I want to wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays."
Tina Tuggle, Community Relations Director for the Titans, said she's regularly asked by members of the organization about the annual event before she even has to put in on calendars.
"The one thing that I am most excited about is the willingness of our team to participate in this," Tuggle said. "The Bridge Ministry happens every Tuesday under the Jefferson Street Bridge, rain, snow sleet or shine. But the fact that this is an opportunity to bring our staff and come out here, it means a lot. And there's a lot of people here that I have seen over the years, and they are excited to see us. So that makes you feel good that you are making a difference, and I love it."
Lash, who is now 58, knows he's lucky.
After going to 14 different rehab clinics, and living on the streets for so long, he finally got on his feet. He said he tries to provide encouragement to those struggling in the streets, looking to do the same.
"I pray for all these people down here, pray that they find a home, a better place," said Lash, looking around as the song "Amazing Grace" blared from the speakers. "And nights like this, it gives them a little more hope. It shows them that people care. It helps, it really does."
Titans punter Brett Kern loves hearing this. It's why he's taken part in serving Thanksgiving meals to the homeless since the first year the team starting doing so back in 2014 -- and it's why he's brought his 10-year-old son the past three years.
Bryce Kern followed his father through the crowd delivering meals in Styrofoam containers, and watched as his dad offered words of encouragement.
"I think any time you get a chance to serve other people, just pour into their lives for however long you get, whether it is giving them a meal, walking with them to their seat and seeing how they are doing, maybe praying for them or with them, it helps," Kern said.
"Everybody that you see here, they all have a different story, life has taken them in different directions, so to be here and to be able to serve them in the little time that we are here, it is a blessing for me to be able to help these people out and just give them a good meal or doing anything you can to brighten their lives."
For the sixth year in a row, the Titans teamed up with The Bridge Ministry to feed Nashville's homeless a Thanksgiving meal under the Jefferson Street Bridge. (Photos: Donald Page)