KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - On Thursday, April 29 the Austin-East Magnet High School boys soccer program stepped onto the field at the University of Tennessee’s Regal Stadium with one thing in mind: community. As the Austin-East footballers entered the pitch that night, they hoped to bring a sense of peace to their community as the past year has brought unthinkable amounts of grief to its members.
On April 12, 2021, 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. was shot and killed in the Austin-East Magnet High School’s bathroom by Knoxville Police Department Officer Jonathon Clabough. The shooting of Thompson on the high school’s property as well as the additional four Austin-East students who have passed away due to gun violence in 2021, were tragic moments for the Austin-East community and its students and continued to adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a sense of normalcy to its educational and extracurricular offerings.
When Knox Pro Soccer got wind of the recent tragedies and heard that the Austin-East boys soccer program was not able to move forward with games because of concerns around safety, the future League Two team knew they had to step in. With senior night just around the corner for the Austin-East boys, Knox Pro Soccer utilized its connections to secure the best possible venue for this special night, the University of Tennessee’s Regal Stadium.
"We're so grateful to the endless list of folks that made Austin-East senior night possible, especially the University of Tennessee and the Austin-East Magnet High School leadership,” said Drew McKenna, Partner of Knox Pro Soccer. “It was a great celebration for a very deserving group of Austin-East students. Knox Pro Soccer was proud to be a part of a great community event and we look forward to finding more ways to use soccer as a force for good across Knoxville."
On this night, the Austin-East footballers appeared before 1,800 members of the Knoxville community including their friends, their families, their classmates and their teachers to show that unity is stronger in numbers.
Celebrations were abound in Regal Stadium as supporters gathered for events including a halftime scrimmage between the Vine Middle soccer program and a honorary ceremony of the senior players for both Austin-East and its opponent Cumberland Gap. The night was capped off by an incredible showing of skill by the Austin-East boys who defeated their opponent Cumberland Gap in a 9-0 win, which saw senior team captain Esloni Hakizimana net the last goal of the night.
"Our experience at Regal Stadium was unlike any other,” said Jonathan Netherland, Head Coach of Austin-East. “The venue, the setup and the professionalism by everyone involved made our players feel like kings. The school and the Austin-East community are still excited to this day. It was a big boost of confidence heading into the playoffs."
As Knox Pro Soccer gears up for its first USL League Two season in 2022, the club looks forward to finding more ways to use soccer as a unifying force within its community of Knoxville.
“Civic engagement is one of Knox Pro Soccer's three key pillars,” said McKenna. “Sports has an incredible way of uniting communities behind a common goal. To be able to use soccer as a way for the Knoxville community to show support and love for the Austin-East and East Knoxville communities was an incredible opportunity.”