NASHVILLE, Tenn. –** On game days, they can hear the sounds from Nissan Stadium.
Yet on most days, the hundreds in Nashville's homeless community under the Jefferson Street Bridge are neither seen, nor heard, themselves.
On Tuesday night, the Tennessee Titans changed that by teaming up with The Bridge Ministry to feed the homeless a Thanksgiving meal. Roughly 125 members of the organization – from players to coaches to members of the front office, and their families – took part in the event.
Titans players, coaches and staff assist the Bridge Ministry in serving Nashville's homeless a Thanksgiving meal under the Jefferson St. Bridge in Nashville. (Photos: Gary Glenn, Kayla Schoen)
An estimated 800 men, women and children from the largest homeless population in Nashville turned out on a chilly night. It marked the second year in a row the Titans and The Bridge Ministry teamed up for the event.
"This is an amazing thing for the homeless, and for the working poor. It is monumental,'' said Candy Christmas, CEO/Founder of The Bridge Ministry. "The homeless people will say a lot of times people will look around them, or look through them, but don't actually see them.
"Tonight, they are being seen and their needs are being cared for. For the Titans to take their time and give to the community like this, and to take notice of them, it is an amazing Thanksgiving for them. It is not only exciting, it is also very morale-boosting for them."
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 MetroCenter.
Last night, members of the Titans organization loaded into buses and spent the evening under the bridge. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, receiver Harry Douglas, safety Michael Griffin, linebacker Wesley Woodyard, defensive lineman Karl Klug, punter Brett Kern and tight end Delanie Walker were among roughly 25 players who delivered food to the homeless, going through the aisles, one by one.
They were greeted with hugs, and smiles.
"This is special, to be able to give back, especially to people who need it most,'' said Walker. "I see laughter and smiles, and that brings joy to me."
Andrea Stewart, 32, has lived on the streets for 13 years. She could hardly contain her excitement on Tuesday night when one of her favorite players – Walker – handed her a meal.
"I am a big Titans fan, and I'm an even bigger one now,'' Stewart said. "That's real nice. You don't find too many people trying to help the homeless, so this is real nice what they are doing. … I think the Titans are going to have a lot more fans after this."
James Taylor, who's also homeless, said it meant a lot to him. He joked he doesn't have as much money as the singer with the same name, or his vocal cords.
"I told some of the players I appreciate them coming down, taking time out of their busy life to visit with the little people,'' Taylor said. "A lot of people down here are just down on their luck, and need something good to happen to them. This was good."
In addition to serving food, members of the Titans organization and their families distributed food, toiletry items and blankets, and clothing items.
The Titans provided scarfs, hats and gloves to the homeless.
Blake Parks, COO of The Bridge Ministry, said the turnout from the Titans increased from a year ago, "and to me that is the benchmark of what they receive from being here."
At one point in the evening, Kenneth Adams IV, one of the team's owners and a member of the franchise's board of directors, general manager Ruston Webster and interim coach Mike Mularkey stood in front of the crowd and presented a check for $25,000 to the Bridge Ministries.
Christmas said roughly 11,000 homeless people live in Nashville, including 4,000 children.
"I was talking to coach Mularkey and I was saying, "Did you ever realize four miles from where we go to the office every day, 700-800 people need to be fed? It's something I didn't realize until last year,'' Adams said.
"This is something we are hoping our coaches and players see, and see it as something they can get involved in long term. We are very proud of this event. The organization supports the Bridge Ministry and likes what they are doing down here."
Titans Community Relations Director Tina Tuggle said the organization wanted to find a "signature holiday event" it could be involved in each year. After a big turnout from the organization a year ago, another big group of volunteers took part against this year.
It included the staff, their spouses and children, along with the Titans cheerleaders. Tuggle said the players were eager to help.
"This isn't mandatory,'' Tuggle said. "We ask the players to do a lot during the year. When coach gives me the opportunity to talk about this in front of the team, they come because they want to be here. And that support is awesome."
In return, the Titans said they felt the gratitude from the homeless they encountered on Tuesday night.
The Titans got a big ovation when announced to the crowd. The players exchanged well-wishes with the homeless during the course of the night.
Players said they received some constructive criticism as well.
"They are big fans of ours, and you can tell how happy they are we're here,'' Walker said. "But they want to win, too. They said we need to work more in the offseason to get better. Now I wasn't expecting that. It kind of cracked me up a little bit to be honest."