Waverly Central football regained something meaningful Friday night — a long-awaited return home |Estes

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WAVERLY – Something special happened here Friday night.

Something best understood through loss, except that this – one long year later – didn’t resemble a loss. Instead, a still-healing community got a bit better, gaining back something meaningful. The local high school football game is a slice of Americana so routine that it could be easily taken for granted in many places. But definitely not here.

Not at Waverly Central High School, where a sign at the entrance still greets visitors with a reminder: “WAVERLY STRONG,” a heart in place of the “O.”

On this night, the Tigers couldn’t have been much stronger.

Their first home game since 2020 – the first since a devastating flood hit Waverly almost exactly one year ago to the day, tearing apart the football stadium, the campus, the town, killing 20 people – was always going to be remembered locally for more than a final score.

But that part didn’t hurt, either. Waverly’s team jumped all over its rival Camden Central, winning 47-20 in a rout that was decided early and sped through a running clock for most of the second half.

“It feels amazing. It really does,” said senior Easton Elliott, who ran through Camden’s defense for five touchdowns and nearly 400 rushing yards. “… It was really emotional for us. We had a lot of people crying before the game. It was just something else. I don’t know how to explain it.”

The first anniversary of Waverly’s Aug. 21 flood coincided with this weekend. And while tragedy didn’t keep last season’s Tigers from playing football – and doing it well, going 9-2 and reaching the second round of the Class 3A playoffs – it did prevent them from playing in their own stadium.

Waverly Central players head to the field before a game against Camden Central at Waverly Central High School in Waverly, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Waverly Central players head to the field before a game against Camden Central at Waverly Central High School in Waverly, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

Waverly’s nomadic season featured weekly road trips. The Tennessee Titans even invited the Tigers to play a game in Nissan Stadium.

Meanwhile, for much of the past year, it was uncertain whether they’d be back in a damaged Ray Hampton Stadium this season. A lot had to be done, from replacing the turf and fences to gutting the team’s field house.

“It was a long process, man, just getting the funds available,” Waverly coach Randall Boldin said. “And the funds became available about two months ago.”

Work still continues. Just this past week, the Tigers were able to return to their old practice field, which had to be repaired, too. They’d been practicing on a field near the front of the school, working through hills and holes because it was a free patch of grass. They also moved back into the field house this week.

It wasn’t truly normal, however, until Friday night. Waverly’s players ran out through an inflatable tunnel after walking through bleachers nearly packed with “the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen here — as a player or a coach,” Boldin said.

Waverly Central fans watch the game during the first quarter against Camden Central at Waverly Central High School in Waverly, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Waverly Central fans watch the game during the first quarter against Camden Central at Waverly Central High School in Waverly, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

Behind the players’ entrance, visible to all on the home side, was lettering painted onto the track that read “Welcome home” alongside blue pawprints.

“Another mom and I and her daughter, we painted that last night,” said Amanda Maples, who assists the team as a medical professional and is the mother of senior player Trey Maples. “We thought it would be a good way to say, ‘Welcome home.’ Because it really is home to a lot of us.”

On the game’s opening kickoff, Waverly’s Avrum McMurry drilled a Camden returner who was in process of fielding the ball. That lick earned a personal foul penalty, but it set the tone. At the end of the first quarter, it was 12-0. Soon, it was 26-0.

At halftime, it was 40-14, and Elliott had already accumulated 311 rushing yards. He scored his fifth touchdown early in the third quarter and spent the rest of the evening on the sideline.

“We wanted to start fast,” Boldin said. “We preached that. … We wanted to be the most physical team on the field tonight. That was our goal. And we can say that we were.”

Waverly Central's Trey Maples (37) takes a picture with his mother, Amanda Maples, after defeating Camden Central at Waverly Central High School in Waverly, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Waverly Central's Trey Maples (37) takes a picture with his mother, Amanda Maples, after defeating Camden Central at Waverly Central High School in Waverly, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

When it ended, fireworks went off over the practice field that the Tigers can use again.

In speaking to his players, Boldin didn’t specifically reference the flood. He told them he loved them, that he was proud of them and he asked them to be safe this weekend.

Not much else needed to be said, really. Everything else, they knew, right down to the field under their knees.

“It’s great,” Boldin said, “to be home.”

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Waverly Central football regained something meaningful — a return home