By Kris Freeman for White House Football
The sun faded into the sky at Nissan Stadium just minutes before two high school football teams took the field for the first time on a professional field in the state of Tennessee.
The night centered around raising money for the resilient but broken and distraught community of Waverly, devastated by a preseason flood in Middle Tennessee. Communities rallied, people gave, thousands served, but at 7 p.m. the football sat on the tee.
And Bryson Harper kicked it.
Three hours later, the White House Blue Devils were the first prep football team to win a game at the home of the Tennessee Titans, and forever will be. Nissan Stadium temporarily became the House that the Devils Built, and the bigger vision and mission focused on rebuilding the homes and future of the friends and neighbors in a newfound football rivalry.
For two cities, one game, one heartbeat and one mission, it was a journey of family and ultimately for the White House Blue Devils, it was a journey of football.
3:15 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
The school bell rings for the final time of the day and Seth and Dawson Bumbalough join Zach Hasty, Shane McDonald, Tim Aric, Mitchell Parker and a host of other Blue Devil coaches filling a pair of tour buses with gear. Parked along side the field house, the seats fill with players, decked casual and focused, as Coach Hamilton is the final person to walk through the field house door.
The journey begins.
Down Interstate 65, White House departs at 3:50 p.m. toward the home of the Tennessee Titans and arrives at the interior tunnel. Coach Hamilton exits bus one as it makes the slow turn around to enter the gated security ramp, and then bus two follows.
4:55 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Steve from security points the players past the home team tunnel to the field, but there is no doubt what they can see awaiting at its long and downhill path. The sunlight and grass peeks under the shadows with the players glancing one by one and carrying gear from the buses to the locker room of Nashville SC and the Tennessee State Tigers. At the end of that long tunnel is the gridiron of their heroes.
Two MLS soccer goals sit quietly in the bus hub as the lights and engines slowly park into darkness. Photographers head to the second level to check in for the media moat and the Blue Devil Network crew takes the elevator to press box level and booth 8, the home of the visiting professional radio crew.
As the players unload belongings into the locker room, there is a silent and whispering tension. The pre-game walk across the field is soon.
Jaden Semich leads the BDN crew down the hallway of the press box where Coach Dave McGinnis sits in booth 7, legs folded and telling a story, and the brief cases open to unpack the gear.
Noah Freeman smiles upon the field from the 35 yard line and Dewayne McDaniel grins with the thought” “I have never been here before.”
Mike Keith drops by to say hello. This is really happening.
The light in the tunnel brightens as the players make their way to the field for the first time. The press box production crews beam with excitement watching the players in awe. There is a vast emptiness yet to be filled in the air, as thousands of fans stand outside the gate awaiting to pile into the lower bowl.
5:30 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
The gates open and the Blue Crew makes its way to the lower rows of Section 112 and soon the Band of Pride will set up camp in section 113. Cheer will be field level just below the students.
Meanwhile, the special teams players now dressed and ready embark down the turf-covered concrete ramp to the home tunnel entrance, led by Coach A.J. Day, and stop to pause.
Ranen Blackburn, senior quarterback for the Devils, stands on the right. Montrel Black, his brother in arms and senior classmate in the backfield, looks forward and then grins at Ranen, as the two smirk without saying word. Seniors Pierce Scholato and Bryson Harper take deep breaths in the second row, and then the jog is followed by a run and then the run is followed by sound, and the sound is followed by light.
The pads are on, the stadium lights glimmer, and the crowd sees the first glimpse of the Blue Devils.
5:45 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
The smile of Amarion Lucas is balanced with the stare of Landen Ridings, Nathan Seipp and Mathew Miller. There are untold conversations of teammates in stretches, taking in the brilliance and awe of the moment.
What once was overwhelming becomes a routine drill. The stretch lines and warm ups finish and the kicks are done.
And it’s time for the big boys to hit the field.
6:00 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Imagine the thought process of senior Spencer Noah, this time last season relegated to a set of crutches and a bystander. Now one of four regular game captains, he prepares for a game that one year ago had slipped his grasp due to injury.
The black paint drips from the face of junior Cole Pitt and sophomore Luke Kelton, and Derek Long smiles every time he sees the camera.
Josh Underwood, a sophomore making his third start at tight end, grabs the inside of his collar and takes deep breaths, two painted crosses smeared down his cheeks.
Christian Mejia and Riley Eaton stand among the linemen, Isaiah McGill takes the pitch on scout team offense, and Parker Hollinsworth dreams of big boy touchdowns and anchoring the center of the line.
White House elementary school kids find themselves on the video board. Athletic trainer Taylor Kruse organizes the supplies and a table. Coach Gunnar Scholato grins big, knowing he’s 1-0 as a player in the stadium and soon could be as a coach.
Jennifer Marion readies the managers.
It’s about time.
6:35 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
While Waverly goes through senior night and parent recognition prior to the game from section 103, Hollinsworth is the final Blue Devil to make his way up the tunnel and down the gated pathway to the locker room.
He walks with Tim Aric, Mitchell Parker and Kevin Cook in tow.
The players circle up. The Devils check teams. The coaches give speeches. Mike Keith’s voice echoes on the TV monitors in the locker room.
And man to man, the boys in blue grab a brother and chant about what it means to be a White House football player.
With a cry of BDP on three, they break it down.
The referee walks into the locker room and asks for the captains just as Coach Hamilton says “love is all we have.” As the official departs, he shouts to the team, “I love you too” as smiles beam across every players face.
Chris Johnson taps his helmet to Rick Buford’s noggin.
Bryce Bumbalough realizes he is about to coach a game on a professional field with his two brothers.
The captains are on the line. The team comes out. Noah’s voice rings “touchdown Blue Devils” across the sky as the hype video comes onto the jumbotron. Parents snap thousands of football in simultaneous succession.
With the cheerleaders holding the sign and the Blue Devils receiving final instructions from Coach Hamilton, they come through the welcome line and explode on to the sideline to a White House crowd all across the way.
6:55 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
There is an eerie gentleness on the Blue Devils side of the field. So quiet you can hear the clicks of the photographers, White House turns and faces the northern end zone for the presentation of the flag and the playing of the national anthem by the Waverly High School band.
It’s time for football and the Blue Devils kick. Harper places it on a tee.
7:00 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Waverly takes the kick and for the first of 16 times on the night, Cade Hutcherson emerges as the unsung Blue Devil with the tackle.
But the Tigers march down the field with Jacob Dooley connecting to Bryce Stanfield for a touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead. The Blue Devils look a little shaken the from moment on the sideline, and that continues with a four plays and out series with a punt.
7:15 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Waverly has a chance to take the lead by two scores but Cade Holliday combines with Luke Kelton and Rhys Blackburn for a third down stop to force a punt. And it’s time for the White House offense to click into gear, but not before adversity strikes again.
Ranen goes 65 yards down the home sideline for the score, but the Blue Devils are called for an illegal formation and the play is called back with with 1:23 remaining in the first quarter.
Reece McAfee runs it for three yards and this time Blackburn can’t be stopped as he busts the seam into the middle of the field for 67 yards and a score. As he skies into a celebration with center Parker Hollinsworth, though, the Blue Devils fail to convert the PAT when a timeout is forced because of having 10 men on the field. An earlier injury led to White House missing a replacement player on the special teams unit, and then after the the stoppage of time, Harper misses the extra point to leave the game 7-6 at end of the first quarter.
7:30 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Waverly is unfazed and marches 13 plays to the White House 35. But on 3rd and 6, Paul Hurt and Pierce Scholato take down Emrick Houston and Dooley overshoots his top wide receiver target and brother on fourth down to turn the ball over with 8:15 left.
The big play Devils waste no time taking the lead.
After two short gains, Blackburn rolls to his left-hand side on third down and appears to scramble, then finding a wide open Bryson Harper as the defender falls down. Harper races to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown.
Lost in the celebration is Blackburn, trailing the play to pick up the football from the back of the end zone and tossing it to the official before Harper connects on a PAT for a 13-7 edge at the 6:34 mark left in the first half.
Waverly goes eight plays and 69 yards and Dooley takes him himself for his first and only rushing touchdown, giving the Tigers a 14-13 edge with 3:22 to go.
7:55 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Knowing they have the ball coming out of the third quarter, White House has its most critical drive of the game with just minutes before the half. Blackburn scrambles right for 22 yards and out of bounds at midfield, but then the Blue Devils avoid sure disaster when Luke Kelton trails the play and picks up the ball on a fumble at the 48.
White House nor Waverly turned over the football in the game, but trailing by one point this would have been a tough momentum swing.
Instead, Blackburn sets up McAfee for seventeen yards across the middle, and the tailback lined up at receiver gets drilled on the hit but holds on.
The Blue Devils take a shot at the end zone and the ball sails through the outstretched arms of McAfee near the middle of the field, and Harper comes on to give the team the lead.
Josh Holden snaps and Harper hesitates, as a gasp goes through the stadium. But Harper’s boot is low yet true, giving the BDP boys a 16-14 lead heading into the break.
8:15 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
The locker room theme is pretty simple. Wear them down, and play White House football. The Blue Devils are beginning to open up the offense with two big plays for touchdowns and another pair of big plays to set up the field goal. The question is, will the depth challenges for Waverly start to matter in the second half?
With a challenge by Coach Hamilton, White House breaks it down and returns to the field. There are 24 minutes to go to make history. East, west, four, six, run, downhill, tackle, play, hard football. The formula is easy but the execution takes skill.
8:25 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Josh Holden snaps to Trey Matthews and Cole Pitt gets stretched by Coach Day at the 50-yard line. The Blue Devils prepare to receive the kick, and Waverly avoids the return and kicks the ball out of bounds. White House starts at the 35.
To the air they go, with Austin Beeson screeching for 52 yards on the pass from Blackburn. The penalty bug bites the Devils again, and a collective groan comes from the broadcast booth and the sideline as White House is called for holding, and punts just a few plays later with the entire reception wiped out.
Blackburn’s punt is a beauty, going 53 yards out of the quick kick to the 4, and Waverly spends 11 plays and never makes it past the White House 49. With a drive in full motion at midfield, Hutcherson cuts down Dooley on first down with Holliday finishing him off, then Dooley sees his pass go off the fingertips of a receiver for the third time on a sure touchdown before Luke Kelton slings Houston to the ground on third and long. Houston punts and pins the Devils at the 6.
8:45 p.m. Thursday | September 16, 2021
Blackburn is one step from a 94-yard touchdown run but has to run out of bounds after running into his own man on the Waverly sideline and a 29-yard gain. Held in check to this point, McAfee does the same thing he did one week before at Portland with a powerful runs splitting two defenders and sprinting 65 yards to pay dirt. McAfee gives the Devils a 23-14 lead with 6:14 left in the third.
With the Devils playing with very few people on both sides of the ball, the fresh and hyped up defense shuts down Dooley again, with Rhys Blackburn and Montrel Black sacking him at the 50. Scholato and Blackburn shut down third and long with a hard tackle at midfield and the Tigers punted White House inside the 10 again.
Starting at the 8, White House faced third and long at the 10 when Ranen floated a pass to the right side to his brother for a 20-yard first down. Reece McAfee gained eight to the 38, but the show was just getting started.
Reece was not done.
9:00 p.m . Thursday | September 16, 2021.
Reece was gone, again. His fourth long touchdown run in the second half in two weeks was 62 yards and White House took a commanding 30-14 lead on the Harper PAT. With the kick, Harper tied Matt Gossett for sixth all-time in career PATs at White House.
Waverly would add three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but it would not be enough. White House put the game away for good when Harper raced 60 yards with 6:25 left, but the bad snap on the point after left it a 36-21 game.
Despite scoring twice more with the aid of a blocked punt, the Tigers could not recover the onside kick.
White House won 36-34.
9:30 p.m . Thursday | September 16, 2021
The team went through handshakes with an admirable and exhausted group of Tigers whose night was so much more than football itself. Combined with the pressure or raising almost $40,000 for the community plus additional donations from organizations, there was still 965 yards of total offense. Because it was ultimately a football game.
Jogging to the base of section 112 and 113, the team joined the Band of Pride and the Blue Crew for an admittedly out of sync alma mater.
Amarion Lucas and Tony Jeffrey smiled for the camera perched in the lower bowl.
Spencer Noah raised his arms in victory.
Grayson Cook kept running those footballs.
Coach Hamilton spoke with Amy Wells of Titans Radio and local press and Ranen Blackburn leaned up against the grandstands to finish his interviews.
Steve in security high-fived Kris Freeman.
9:40 p.m . Thursday | September 16, 2021
Coach Day lunged into the locked room and the team celebrated with Coach Bumbalough grinning from ear to ear. It’s that slow clap Bum does when he’s happy and smiling that everybody loves, though. Awaiting Coach Hamilton, players untaped and loosened pads as Ranen walked slowly past the Tennessee Tough wall headed into the locker room. Replays and postgame was on the television monitors.
Amarion asked if he could have a random Powerade sitting alone in a cooler.
Coach Hamilton lauded his team as the first to win a high school football game in the stadium.
Other coaches reminded the team of the challenges ahead.
“One more thing, you will be at school tomorrow” as the note of it being a Thursday night became realistically evident.
As so, they cleaned, packed, loaded up and went home, a champion of this temporary residence.
On a somber night against a team looking to rebuild its future, there were certainly some bittersweet thoughts about celebrating while the Tigers returned to their reality.
10:00 p.m . Thursday | September 16, 2021
On a dark bus, there was a striking calm.
The night was about so much more than football.
Before the game, Michael Hamilton said “at 7 p.m., they are going to play football and that’s what we came here to do.” Forever in the hearts and minds of the Blue Devils would be the plight of a team that earned the respect and admiration of everyone in Tennessee.
Waverly strong was every bit as strengthened as the night called for it to be.
But there was also a journey, a journey of football.
And White House etched its name in the story of the Titans stadium.
No one can top it, no one can take it, and no one can rewrite it.
The journey to the first one will live forever.