NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans loaded into three buses on Tuesday night, and made their way in the direction of Nissan Stadium.
On this night, however, their destination wasn't a football field. It was under the Jefferson Street Bridge, home to the largest homeless population in Nashville.
The Titans teamed up with The Bridge Ministry to feed the homeless a Thanksgiving meal on Tuesday night. Roughly 70 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. Family members joined the group as well.
An estimated 600 men, women and children from the homeless community turned out on a chilly night. It marked the third year in a row the Titans and The Bridge Ministry teamed together for the event. In addition to the meal, gloves, hats, scarfs, boots, toiletry items and groceries were also distributed.
"I think this is very important,'' said Titans coach Mike Mularkey, his wife Betsy by his side. "We are so engulfed with the game, but it is not always about winning or losing or scoring touchdowns. It is about helping people that are less fortunate than we are. And being here just reminds you how blessed we are. This gives us a chance to get out for a cause.
"I don't think people realize how many homeless people there are until you come to an event like this and you can help them. It is a very moving experience for me."
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.
Titans team with the Bridge Ministry to feed Nashville's homeless a Thanksgiving meal on Tuesday night. (Photos: Gary Glenn, Lilly Kate Hollis)
Last night, members of the Titans organization served food and other items to the homeless. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back DeMarco Murray, linebacker Brian Orakpo, cornerback Jason McCourty, tackle Jack Conklin, center Ben Jones, safety Rashad Johnson, quarterback Matt Cassel, tight end Anthony Fasano, linebacker David Bass, long snapper Beau Brinkley, kicker Ryan Succop, quarterback Alex Tanney, return man Marc Mariani, linebacker Justin Staples, running back David Fluellen, tackle Tyler Marz, guard Karim Barton and defensive back Jeremiah McKinnon were among a big group of players who delivered food to the homeless, going through the aisles, one by one.
Some of those players, and others, also took part in the 11th Annual Tracy Lawrence "Mission Possible Turkey Fry," benefiting the Nashville Rescue Mission during Thanksgiving, earlier in the day. "It is about giving back, and sharing some love during this time of Thanksgiving and creating some joy and happiness for these people,'' Mariota said. "It is important to give back. Just an opportunity to give them a meal, but a little bit of happiness is important.
"A lot of people are very appreciative. And really for us, we are thankful. It is an opportunity to share a special time of the year and give back to people who really need it. For me, it is really cool to be able to do this with the team and share moments with the guys."
Early in the evening, Titans general manager Jon Robinson, Titans Community Relations Director Tina Tuggle and Mularkey stood in front of the crowd and presented a check for $25,000 to the Bridge Ministries. In return, the Bridge Ministry presented the Bridge Award to the Titans for their generosity.
Candy Christmas, CEO/Founder of The Bridge Ministry, thanked the team for its support.
Titans cheerleaders help serve thanksgiving meals to Nashville's homeless at the Nashville Rescue Mission. (Photos: Gary Glenn)
Christmas said roughly 11,000 homeless people live in Nashville, including 4,000 children.
"It means a lot, not only to the (Jefferson Street Bridge) community, but to the homeless of Nashville,'' Christmas said. "It really makes them feel special and valued. So many homeless people say people look around them or through them or walk on the other side of the sidewalk to get away from them. The Titans organization comes down here, and I think that is amazing. They could be anywhere tonight and they are serving food to homeless under this bridge. It is amazing the Titans organization wants to give back."
Tuggle said the organization wanted to find a signature holiday event it could be involved in each year. And she said the feedback has been great.
"This is the community we live in,'' Tuggle said. "We pass by here on Sundays going to a game, so being able to come out here and provide food and gloves and hats and scarfs is meaningful, and it shows the organization has a heart for the community we live it.
"One of the guys told me, 'I go to every game.' Because our Jumbotron is so big, you can see it outside the stadium. So he feels like he is at every game even though he is not in the stadium. These are people who care about us, and we want to show we care about them, too."
Carolyn Pollard shows up every Tuesday night under the Jefferson Street Bridge for a meal. She was among those who said the team's appearance was special.
"It is beautiful and it is great,'' she said. "It means a lot. It is a blessing they came and did this for us."
Robert Wade, who's 55, posed for a picture with Mariota after the quarterback served him a plate of food.
"A very nice young man,'' Wade said of Mariota. "I told him I appreciated it, and I told him I think he's doing a good job. But I also told him he has to hold onto the ball better."
Mariota couldn't help but smile as he patted Wade on the back, and walked away. Moments later, Mariota was serving up another plate of food.
Players said they enjoyed the night, and the feedback.
"It has been awesome,'' safety Rashad Johnson said. "The people have been very receptive, having us out here. And really, the world needs more of this, loving on people and giving back. It is beautiful. It is very inspirational and humbling at the same time.
"I actually got a little critique myself, but it wasn't about the play on the field. It was about the mascot. The guy said we need to get rid of the raccoon and we need a true Titan as the mascot. I had to laugh at that one. Hey, that's what this is all about, laughing and having fun and trying to brighten the day of others."
Titans players, cheerleaders and T-Rac take part in the 11th Annual Tracy Lawrence "Mission Possible Turkey Fry," benefiting the Nashville Rescue Mission during Thanksgiving. (Photos: Gary Glenn)