‘A DREAM COME TRUE’

Friday Night Lights return to East Nashville

  • It’s the first Friday night of the fall and truly perfect. Low humidity and a slight cooling breeze brought a sense of October; not your typically muggy September evening. The enticement of comfort increased the number of patrons at the Red Door Saloon who were jockeying for a spot on the open-air deck, looking to shake off the cobwebs of the work week, making plans for the weekend.
          Up the street, East Nashville High School juniors Alexis Patterson and Kane Scruggs join several friends in the north parking lot of their school, awaiting the start of their weekend plans, plans that for a generation and half had not been an option. “We’ve been looking forward to this,” Patterson says. “Everyone is excited.”
          As a full, bright yellow sun slips slowly past the western horizon, turning orange, then settling into a home-team red hue before disappearing altogether, the teens — and anyone else within earshot, including the people on the deck at the Red Door Saloon and beyond — hear the crackle of a public- address system and the sudden forceful sounds of a full band signaling the arrival of the East High Eagles on their own gridiron for the first time in over 30 years. Friday Night Lights have returned to East Nashville.
          “It’s been an exciting day, it’s really hard to put into words,” says principal Steve Ball, emotion slowing his words at the Sept. 22 dedication of East High’s new J.J. Keyes Stadium. “We’ve been waiting seven years, and this has been great.”
          As the leader of the 85-year-old institution, Ball was instrumental in helping to bring back football to East High in 2009. It had been nearly two-and-a-half decades after quarterback Michael McGuire ran into the end zone from the five-yard-line in overtime to beat Maplewood 6-0 in the old facility’s final game on Nov. 2, 1985.
          Initially, the team played its games at Tennessee Preparatory School’s field, but Ball and first East Literature Magnet High School coach James “Bubba” Spears started talking about a home field almost immediately. Spears brought his mentor, Jerry Pigue, out of retirement, a pair of former archrival Stratford stars, Spears as a quarterback and Pigue as a legendary coach, helping to get the once-hated Eagles program restarted.
          The first year they managed to get lights for the field, but that’s where the plan stalled. Spears left to kickstart the Hillwood program, and Junior Ward got involved. Ward was an all-state, all-everything track standout at East High, graduating as a world class athlete in 1960. It wasn’t long before he found himself back home as a teacher, coach, and mentor to students inside and outside the classroom. After he retired, he became a supervisor of officials that call TSSAA contests. In those duties, he visits games and evaluates the work of the keepers of the rules.
          “I supervise football, and I went to the old TPS about seven years ago, and it was the first night the band played on the field,” Ward recalls. “It was heartbreaking for the alumni who had to go all the way out to TPS, but the kids were having to go out to play. I just thought the kids deserved more than that — they deserved what we all had when we were here. It just kind of steamrolled from there.”
          Ward created the nonprofit East Nashville Football Stadium Foundation and started raising awareness and funds. He called on alums from all walks of life to help return football to the East campus facility, including 1945 grad Richard Fulton, who went on to become a state senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a threetime mayor of Nashville. That, of course, was all after the undersized, but ferocious Fulton gained legend status by blocking three punts in a single football game for East High.
         November|December theeastnashvillian.com 73 The new facility has amenities not dreamed of when the original was constructed. Long, winding ramps that lead to the grandstands and the field to meet compliance with ADA regulations; a visitor’s grandstand on the other side of the field; a skybox for alumni use, and a fully functional concessions building where more than just hamburgers and hot dogs are offered. The variety of menu items has exploded with the addition of outside, local, neighborhood vendors, all getting a chance to establish a business while sharing proceeds with the school athletic department under the watchful eye of East Nashville resident Laura Wilson.
          “We are Citizen’s Kitchens, a commissary kitchen, where small businesses go to grow,” Wilson explains on opening night. “Every time you see a food truck or a mobile food vendor or a baker without a kitchen, they need a commissary kitchen. We are excited to be opening a new kitchen in the basement of the old Hunters Automotive called Hunters Station, with an 8,000-square-foot kitchen to help others grow their business.
          “We’re neighbors and we have a son on a path to go to East, so we are getting involved early,” she continues. “We’ll have a rotating group of vendors to just add a little variety to concessions. It’s great for our food vendors because they have an audience of young people here who are excited about food and those are our people.”

    The current excitement over East High’s new stadium can be traced back to a wrecking ball in 1987.
          Built in 1932 by the Works Progress Administration, the original J.J. Keyes Stadium, named for the first principal of East High who served from its opening until his death in 1936, sat with its back to McFerrin Avenue, where Ross Elementary now is located, rising up over 100-feet at the very top. Constructed of concrete, it was the largest high school football stadium in Nashville, with a capacity of nearly 7,000 people.
          The seating area stretched over 70 yards, from the 10-yard line in the northern endzone to the 15-yard line on the southern end. There were four tunnels that came from underneath the seating area, each emblazoned by a large red letter, E-A-S-T. Once reaching the bottom row of seats, there were eight walkways that went all the way to the top; there were 128-steps from there to the top and back, as any athlete unfortunate enough to suffer the discipline of “running the stadium,” could tell you.
          On the field, J.J. Keyes Stadium was the definition of home field advantage. The cinder track that surrounded the football and encroached on the left field area of the baseball field in turn two, was also the better portion of the left rear part of the northern end zone. Teams often would go another direction rather than send a receiver into that corner. Teams that did manage to score in the northern end zone usually did not kick extra points after the first score. It was barely 10 yards from the goal posts to a short fence, where neighborhood kids would gather to see who could catch the kicked extra point ball. If the ball made it over the fence, it typically did not come back. Many a good Saturday pick-up game on the field was facilitated by a team making their first visit to the old Keyes Stadium.
          There were other unique characteristics to the old stadium. By the time he graduated in 1964, Charles Dahlgren probably had as many laps around the old cinder track as anyone. The middle of five Dahlgren children with East High diplomas, he, like Ward, came back to the school, teaching and coaching from 1971 through its closure as a high school in 1986. He is also one of the few who knew the best-kept secret of the old facility’s idiosyncrasies. “The old cinder track was only 360-yards long, not a regulation 440-yards long,” he explains. “You had to run five laps to make a mile, not four”
          But a decision to make East a middle school beginning in the fall of 1986 took away the need for a football facility. Metro school officials made the decision to not only close the high school portion, but to destroy the stadium to make way for the new Ross Elementary. The history, the memories, the uniqueness that was J.J. Keyes Stadium was reduced to rubble by a wrecking ball and hauled away in less than six months.

    Over 400 former players, cheerleaders and band members from six decades are on the field at halftime when the new stadium is dedicated, again in the name of the school’s first principal, J.J. Keyes. There were elected officials, members of Keyes’ family, officers of the East Nashville High School Alumni Association, and others on hand as the announcement was made.
          “It [East High] reminds me of my old high school back in California,” Ball says. “It has such a rich history. The alumni here are like the ones back home; they have just brought me into their family, and I know what it means to them to bring a home field back to this property.
          “It’s been a real adventure; a seven-year climb,” he continues. “We’ve had great support from the alumni, the district, from the mayor’s office, from the council. All the dignitaries at halftime have a connection to East High.
          “It’s been a dream day come true.” “I feel like back in the old days when we were all here,” Ward adds. “It just warms my heart to see all of the alumni who came out tonight. We’ve got 1,000 alumni in those grandstands from all years. And those kids at the other end, the current students, they are finally now getting what we had all those years ago. It just means so much to all of us.”
          The difference in the eyes of former players goes beyond explanation, especially those from the last decade who watched the once majestic community centerpiece begin to show signs of neglect from a lack of maintenance and care. The field where the new stadium sits was a rock pit, with large boulders sticking out of the ground.
          “This is sacred ground to me,” says John Drake, a 1983 grad who played collegiately at MTSU and is now a deputy chief with the Metro police department. “I grew up playing pickup football on the old field, then played in high school. We didn’t have the greatest of teams, but we worked hard, we tried hard, and we competed. It’s just good to come back now and see a field that used to be a rock pit become an elegant field.
          “I don’t think any of these kids, or the ones to come, will have any earthly idea what we played on,” he adds with a laugh.
          Mark North, President of FANS (Foundation for Athletics in Nashville Schools), may have said it best at the very start of the campaign to bring Friday Night Lights back to East Nashville — “Nothing connects the community with the schools like athletics,” North explained. “A football stadium that lights up on Friday nights is a beacon to the community of all the good things that go on in the school. That’s why we needed a stadium at East High.”
          The night doesn’t have the fairy tale ending envisioned for it: Chattanooga Brainerd captures the first win at the new Keyes stadium, edging the home team 22-16. But even with the loss, there is still joy in the neighborhood.
          After 31 years, the Eagles are home