Devin Bester knew the drill.
Each Friday, he and his teammates would arrive at their temporary space in Hillsboro’s wrestling room, quickly change into their football clothes and pile into the bus. There wasn’t time for much else.
“We never really had a place that was ours,” he said.
That’s how it went for three years.
Players like Bester, the starting center, carried an unfortunate distinction into their senior season: They had never played a true home game.
Barring the unforeseen, that will change Friday when Hillsboro hosts Smyrna. The Burros’ newly minted football stadium, part of a multi-million dollar renovation project on campus, is finally done — complete with emerald grass and a gentle crown, clean bleachers, a locker room and a press box.
“I’m just excited not to be traveling an hour and 30 minutes to games, to finally have a home-field advantage and play in front of people,” Bester said. “We want to show out for them.”
Hillsboro’s four-phase makeover has been worth the wait. It includes a multi-purpose turf field on the roof of a new parking garage, among other athletic upgrades.
The mental grind of loading into that bus each week still took a toll.
“When you’re playing away, everything is a little bit shortened. Everything is a little bit more fast-paced. There’s no relaxation time,” said Hillsboro coach Anthony Brown. “To be real with you, we’ve kind of been homeless the past three years.”
While the Burros were allowed to be the designated home team at stadiums hosting them — Hillwood, Overton, Father Ryan, Tennessee State and Vanderbilt all welcomed them in at some point or another — senior receiver/cornerback Mikeece Jones thought they still felt like road games.
He pointed out Hillsboro didn’t get many favorable calls.
“You’d have to deal with the refs,” he said.
The school worked around other challenges too. It negotiated a few away-and-away series with opponents and “bought back” home games during two-year contracts, to help make up for some of the lost gate money.
Hillsboro’s non-football renovation projects are scheduled for completion by the start of those sports’ seasons, executive principal Dr. Shuler Pelham said. Those upgrades include a full-sized track now capable of hosting meets, and new softball and tennis facilities.
All told, including major changes to Hillsboro’s instructional building, the project total ran between $84-85 million, Pelham said. He added that Hillsboro was tabbed for the upgrades because of the scoring system Metro Nashville Public Schools uses to assign renovations at its various schools.
The system ultimately ranks schools most in need of repairs, based on assessments of square footage; age and usage of buildings; the number of classrooms; size of the enrollment; quality of HVAC systems; and plumbing.
Pelham, who came to Hillsboro in the summer of 2015, points out that the school was built in 1939, burned to the ground in 1952 and was rebuilt in 1953 — but few changes had taken place in the modern era until now.
Former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry earmarked $40 million for Phases 1 and 2 of the school’s new construction in the $475 million capital-spending plan she unveiled during her first year in office in 2016. The remaining dollars were allocated when the Metro Council approved another Barry spending plan in 2017.
Watching it come to completion has been exciting for those on campus.
“We are thrilled. It’s been three full years of construction here,” Pelham said. “Being able to have the band playing, and a sense of us being in our own home, that’s a tough thing to be without.”
Hillsboro (0-2) could use an additional boost on the football field, too, after a winless start.
Brown is hoping the stadium can be a spark this season.
“Just getting back to a sense of familiarity has been good,” Brown said. “That home atmosphere is a beautiful thing, and hopefully we can use it to our advantage.”