Whitehaven High football coach Rodney Saulsberry fielded a text message early Friday morning from his boss, Vincent Hunter.
Unfortunately for Saulsberry, it wasn’t a message to wish him well against Fairley in the teams’ annual neighborhood rivalry game.
Hunter contacted Saulsberry to inform him of a vandalism incident school officials believed took place late Thursday night at Whitehaven Stadium.
Hours after the Tigers’ final organized practice in preparation for Friday’s home game against Fairley, vandals made their way inside the stadium and spray painted obscenities on the midfield logo as well as in the West end zone, the Tigers’ sideline and part of the track that surrounds the field.
The incident on the stadium’s newly-installed astroturf sent shock waves throughout the Whitehaven community, most notably among Whitehaven and Fairley alumni, Saulsberry said.
“I got calls from Fairley alumni and they were disappointed and discouraged,” Saulsberry told MemphiSport on Saturday. “Honestly, I was extremely upset and disappointed. This stadium is more about the community than Whitehaven (High School). We have to have pride in our community, to rally around each other, to value each other’s property. I got a call Friday morning, so it had to happen sometime Thursday night. It couldn’t have happened Friday morning because people had to be at work.”
Saulsberry informed his team of the incident moments before Friday’s game. A majority of his players, he said, were upset after learning about an occurrence that was the center of conversation throughout the contest.
Consequently, the reigning Tennessee Class 6A champion Tigers took out their frustration on the team they sensed was responsible for the disturbance surrounding their annual Week 2 rivalry game.
Whitehaven, the area’s No. 1-ranked team, generated 478 yards of total offense and pulverized Fairley, 63-8, in a game that was was effectively out of reach after the first quarter. By halftime, the Tigers had amassed 370 yards of offense and built a 47-8 lead to invoke the running clock rule throughout the second half.
For Whitehaven (2-0), which extended its undefeated streak to 17 games, Friday’s win over Fairley was its tenth in as many seasons since Saulsberry took over as head coach. While he wouldn’t say specifically whether he advised his team to run up the score against the Bulldogs, Saulsberry urged his players that a message had to be sent regarding the school’s “Respect Da Haven” catchphrase he thought of weeks before the start of his second year on Whitehaven’s sideline.
“They were upset,” Saulsberry said. “I just made a point to tell them to take pride in their home. I said, ‘You can show
them how to respect your home by the way you perform on the field.’ I told them, ‘You’re going to be doing this all night, showing them why they should respect your house.’ You can take it how you want it.”
Though much of the spray paint damage has been removed, school administrators on Friday contacted district officials about devising a plan to restore the field back to its original condition. Whitehaven unveiled its newly-installed astroturf during a public ceremony last September, becoming the third Memphis-area public school to get an artificial surface after then-Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash announced a plan to raise $6.6 million to convert 12 area fields.
Still, while the artificial field was a significant upgrade to a stadium that was in need of numerous renovations, Saulsberry said Friday’s incident nevertheless has affected those with ties to the Whitehaven community.
“Some people don’t see no other way of showing pride in their school,” Saulsberry said. “You want to have school pride, but you don’t want to have school pride by vandalizing other people’s property. That’s a criminal act. As a greater community, it’s better when everyone cares about one’s success, and that’s what we’re trying to teach these kids through football.”
The Tigers, winners of 31 of their last 32 outings, won their first state championship in school history last year, a 36-35 overtime win over perennial power Maryville.