East Ridge High School's Raymond James Stadium will be empty and dark tonight for the biggest home football game in school history.
Because the 2,000-seat, crumbling concrete home side stands were condemned on Aug. 31, the Pioneers' fans have been visitors in their own home all season, including last week's second-round playoff win over Chattanooga Christian.
But with the crowd expected to swell well past last Friday's 1,500 for tonight's TSSAA Class AAA quarterfinal game against Notre Dame, Pioneers coach Tracy Malone and his school's administration opted to move the contest to Finley Stadium and its artificial turf for the 7 p.m. kickoff.
"I'm an old-timer, I'm always looking for every advantage, so I kind of wish we were playing at home again," said Shane Mercer, who played for James in the early 1980s and whose son, Will, is now a sophomore lineman for the Pioneers.
"But if this is what the kids want, I'm fine with it. We've been overcoming obstacles all year — told we can't do this and can't do that — so why not?"
To drive down the community's Ringgold Road is to know that not all the obstacles are contained in that condemned stadium. The city's main drag is filled with high-interest loan shops, thrift stores, empty buildings and used car lots.
As Malone told a group of alumni and boosters earlier this season, "This is not the East Ridge High you remember, but they're still good kids."
Regardless of where they play, there are 45 good kids on tonight's playoff roster continuing the best season in school history. The Pioneers now stand at 12-0 after a 10-0 regular season that included a narrow 14-9 win at Notre Dame on Oct. 2. Win tonight and they'll travel to Knoxville to face the winner of Alcoa and Christian Academy of Knoxville in the semifinals on Nov. 27.
But the fact East Ridge has done all this with Malone being moved to a cramped office — a former storage room off the school gym — or the team using a small locker room in the old gym isn't the only important story.
"Our town needed this," said Sarah Turner, a 1997 East Ridge grad who's worked at the city's iconic Kingwood Pharmacy the past 11 years. "This is my family's hometown — my brothers went to East Ridge, my sons go to East Ridge now — so it's sad about the stadium. But this football team has created so much excitement. Kids are going to the games again, all sitting together in a cheering section. My oldest son, Logan, who's 17, even wears an orange body suit and paints his face orange for the games. My youngest, Garrison, will also be there. I don't know that I've ever seen the school this excited about anything."
Mercer, who graduated in 1983, echoed those sentiments.
"It's bringing the community back together," he said. "When I was growing up here, you'd go to the ball fields and there'd be two, three, four generations of families there. Everybody knew everybody. We've lost a lot of that, but this football team has everybody talking again."
A single example: A stomach bug hit the team the last couple of days and Malone asked the school's supporters through the team's Facebook site Thursday morning if they could donate sports drinks to help with dehydration and such.
"It's now 2 p.m.," said Malone on Thursday afternoon, "and we've already had well more than 100 bottles donated. I've got to pick up six cases that were just left in the principal's office. We've got a lot of people who care about this team."
Ben Hunsucker, who was Mr. East Ridge during his senior year at the school in 2009-2010, helps Malone coach the football team once he wraps up his language arts teaching responsibilities at East Ridge Middle each day.
"At the start of the year, all anyone wanted to talk about was the stadium," said Hunsucker, whose father, Scott, starred in track at the school before graduating in 1979. "They'd all say, 'That poor stadium. We've got to find a way to help.' Now those same people just want to talk about us winning."
No one paints a better picture of the East Ridge that first fielded a football team in 1959 and the one today than Danny Gilbert, who graduated in 1975. Though he earns his living as the principal of Soddy-Daisy High School, tonight will find him in the Finley stands rooting for his alma mater.
"This is special in a lot of ways," said Gilbert, who later coached both wrestling and softball at East Ridge. "I think that football team has given that community a great deal of pride. I know I've gotten emails all week from my classmates urging me to come tailgate before the game, and I can't wait to see everybody."
Gilbert said that weighing 105 pounds during his childhood left him too small to suit up for James' Pioneers. But it didn't stop him from attending every home game.
"We lived on Ida Belle Lane off Germantown Road," he said. "It was probably 2 miles, about a 15- or 20-minute walk to the stadium. Back then, Kingwood Pharmacy sold game tickets for $1, but they were $2 at the stadium. So I'd buy three tickets at the pharmacy for $3, then sell them at the stadium for $6. That way I'd cover my tickets and have enough left to buy a snack. I did that for years."
Regular-season East Ridge tickets are now $6, and the school no longer allows Kingwood to sell game tickets at any price.
"Too complicated to deal with in an audit," noted Malone.
The future of the home side of Raymond James Stadium appears mired in red tape and red ink.
But that doesn't mean East Ridge's historic season isn't impacting its community at large.
"That's the thing about sports," Hunsucker said. "It's a good starting point to rally the town for bigger things."
Malone, now in his fourth season, said, "I think the biggest thing this has done for our community at large is prove that you don't have to go to another school to be successful."
Contact staff writer Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.