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What used to be just an overgrown, wooded area turned into one of the most beautiful high school football stadiums in central Alabama. 

When former Benjamin Russell coaches Willie Carl Martin and Steve Saverese went to explore the area that would become the Charles E. Bailey Sportplex, they had to ride an old school bus down a dirt road. 

Never did they imagine those old woods would become what it has today — the gorgeous home of the Benjamin Russell Wildcats — and never in their wildest dreams did they think it would one day be named in their honor. But that’s in fact exactly what’s going to happen. The Alexander City City Council voted Monday night to name the stadium in honor of two of the Wildcats’ greatest coaches.

At the Wildcats’ first home game of the year against Clay Central, it will officially be named the Martin-Savarese Stadium.

“I’m not speechless very many times in my life but I was truly speechless when I heard this honor,” Savarese said. “To me, it’s the highest honor to be recognized by your community and Alex City was my home for so many years. It was a great, great time in my life and our family loves Alex City and this has just cemented that love. In my opinion, it’s the greatest honor I’ve ever received.”

And that’s saying something, as Savarese has been honored in many ways around the state. Now the executive director of the AHSAA, Savarese has changed the lives of so many young people and he’s made a difference in so many communities. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

But his name will forever be engraved in Alexander City. He was the coach of the Benjamin Russell Wildcats for 12 years, and he ushered in Martin, who will be enshrined right alongside him.

“I’ve never been lost for words but being honored along with coach Martin, that to me makes this recognition even more special,” Savarese said. “To be recognized with one of my dear friends who we shared so much time together and still have continued that friendship, again it just magnifies the scope of this honor.”

Martin now resides in Tuscaloosa but has always considered Alex City home. He still goes to the dentist and has his taxes done right here in Alex City, and he remains the lone coach to bring the Wildcats to a state championship in the playoff era.

“This is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me,” Martin said. “It’s quite an honor. Truly, I feel like everybody has a heart and your heart has a lot of places. This fills up any empty spots in mine. It gives me an opportunity to share with all the kids that played at Benjamin Russell when I was there and with a community that I love so dearly.”

The idea to name the stadium in Martin and Savarese’s honor was brought about by Alex City councilmember Scott Hardy, and he was unanimously backed by the rest of the council.

“This has been a topic of conversation among former players and stakeholders in the community for quite some time,” Hardy said. “Willie Carl and Steve’s friendship spans over 30 years. Speaking to people who knew them best, the one constant that arose was the strong bond and relationship between the two and how fitting it would be for them to receive this honor together.

“I’d like to thank Mayor (Tommy) Spraggins for his leadership and support in getting this done.”

Both Savarese and Martin were part of the coaching staff that graced the field the first time the Wildcats stepped onto their new stadium. After playing at Hamp Lyon Stadium for the first two years of Savarese’s stint at head coach, Benjamin Russell moved to the stadium it still plays in today in 1987.

“I’ll never forget it because we lost,” Savarese said. “We played Sylacauga and we lost that night in a very close game, and I really believed we were all so excited to play in that beautiful stadium, we forgot what we were really there to do that night. It was really a culmination of three years of prep and then we couldn’t bless it with a win but we were able to get one the next week.”

Both Savarese and Martin have spent a lot of time at high school football stadiums across the state. While some communities pour money into their stadiums and the teams have state-of-the-art, million-dollar facilities, the now Martin-Savarese Stadium is still one Alexander City can be extremely proud of.

“The setting inside a park is just so beautiful and it represents the city so well,” Savarese said. “The stadium itself is second to none for the size community that that stadium represents. I don’t think there’s a nicer stadium in the state.”

Martin said, “We never had the vision of anything to be named after us. We just wanted it to be a first-class place 30 or 40 years from now, not just at the time that it was built. We wanted it to be something we could all be proud of.” 

Now, Martin and Saverese have something to be extra proud of.

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.