Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.14
Bennett C. Russell Stadium High School Blvd Navarre, FL 32566
Year Opened: 1971
Football on the Beach
In terms of entertainment options on the Emerald Coast of Florida, high school football often takes a back seat. Nicknamed Redneck Riviera, the Emerald Coast is a popular summer vacation destination for millions of people around the country, but particularly has become a top tourist destination for people in the southeast United States. From the spring break crowds of Panama City to the family crowds vacationing for the week, to the military crowds from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola and Elgin AFB in Fort Walton Beach, the Emerald Coast has it all.
Though mostly known for its tourists and spring break crowds, there are some less tourist-oriented places along the Coast, where one can go to escape the crowds and the nightlife. Situated about halfway between Pensacola and Destin is the town of Navarre Beach; nicknamed Florida’s Best Keep Secret and Florida’s Most Relaxing Place, the town is mostly void of the many high-rise condos that line Destin and Pensacola Beach, and the town is mostly void of commercial and corporate restaurants. Instead, the city is a bedroom community for mostly retirees and military personnel, but the population has skyrocketed of late, and risen from a tiny 1,500 in the 1970s to over 40,000 people in 2014.
With an enrollment of over 2,300, Navarre High School is one of the largest, yet youngest high schools in the panhandle area of Florida. The Raiders play their games at Bennett C. Russell Stadium – the stadium opened when the school opened in the 1970s and is named after longtime Santa Rosa County superintendent Bennett C. Russell, a former principal at the high school. The Raiders have been to the playoffs 12 times, but are one of two Pensacola area high schools never to win a playoff game. Notable alumni include Nationals first round pitching prospect Matt Cronin and former Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett. Leggett, a member of the Buccaneers practice squad, was a crucial part of the 2016 Clemson Tigers national championship team, and played a critical role in their win over Alabama in the 2017 National Championship Game.
Food & Beverage 3
As soon as you purchase your ticket you walk into the south end zone and toward the expansive display of concessions stands and various food trucks. There are two concessions stands set up, one on each side, and the usual fare can be found such as cheeseburgers and chicken tenders ($4); hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, boiled peanuts, and funnel cake ($3); fries ($2.50); and popcorn ($2). There are also several unique items sold such as fried Oreos and several types of ice cream, as well as a Kona Ice stand, a Dippin’ Dots stand, a pork and BBQ food truck, and a food truck that sells tacos. Also, if you purchase any meat product from the stand you get a ticket, and can walk over to a grill set up behind the stand to watch it get cooked fresh. Needless to say this is one high school football stadium where I recommend getting something to eat at the stadium.
The atmosphere was intense on this particular night and playoff stakes were in the air. One of the more intense rivalries in the panhandle area took place as the Raiders took on one of the top ranked teams in the state, the Niceville Tigers from just up the road. About 20 miles separate these two schools, so it’s pretty fierce with both teams’ fans showing up in full support.
The stadium is located on the east part of the school right next to the school’s baseball and softball fields. The main entrance is in the south end zone, which, with its many palm trees outside the entrance embodies Florida quite nicely. There is no concourse here, so you enter onto the grass behind the end zone, which is separated by the track and a fence. The expansive collection of food trucks and concession stands is located here as well so it can get quite packed, especially before the game or at halftime; there are also two smaller concessions stands located on the north side of the stadium. You cannot walk under the stadium on either side, so you have to walk in front of the grandstands and then go up, which can be quite frustrating. There is also a tent set up with several tables selling various t-shirts and Navarre Raiders gear, which is a nice touch not found at a lot of high school football games.
The field faces north and south with the home side and press box on the west side, and visitors on the other. The home stands are regular metal bleacher seats that extend about 15 rows up, while the home side is set up in 5 sections alternating between the school’s colors of red and light blue. The section on the 50-yard line is the chair back section reserved for season ticket holders, though I was able go up and find a spot right under the press box; under the press box is a banner showing all the Raiders playoff appearances.
The main attraction in Navarre is definitely the beach; the school is located about 3 miles from the beach and the surrounding restaurants that line it. From Highway 98 take the Navarre Beach Causeway out onto Santa Rosa Island, where there are many public beach access points and several high-rise condos, though not as many as in neighboring Destin and Pensacola Beach.
Navarre Beach is known as kind of a secret getaway, and as soon as you get off the bridge is Juana Pagodas, a popular spring break destination known for its club type atmosphere. The bridge empties onto Gulf Blvd which travels east and west parallel to the beach; go east and you encounter miles of sand dunes and sea turtle nesting grounds that are off limits. Also the buffer zone of Elgin AFB is located nearby, so you cannot travel too far east on Gulf Blvd.
Going west towards Pensacola Beach would be your best option as there are several seafood restaurants and bars lining this stretch. Navarre Beach Marine Park is located here as well, which is a sea turtle education and nesting center. I recommend paying the $5 admission and strolling through the mini aquarium; there’s a sea turtle tank and various other native aquatic wildlife and fish.
Notable restaurants along this stretch include Broussards and Windjammers, which is a bar located at the foot of Navarre Beach Pier – stretching almost a quarter mile into the gulf and rising 30 feet high, the pier is currently the longest pier in the state of Florida. I recommend taking a walk to the end of it; the pier is a popular fishing spot as well and hundreds of people fish off the pier daily. As you walk to the end of the pier just take a glance at all the different types of fish, sharks, sting rays, etc. that people pull out of the water.
The town of Navarre Beach is also notable as a filming location for the 1978 movie Jaws 2. Though not as successful as the first one, Jaws 2 was filmed almost entirely in Navarre Beach, and though the majority of the filming locations have been destroyed by hurricanes over the years, the Navarre Beach water tower remains standing and was featured prominently in the film. Keep heading west and you’ll encounter miles of small beach cottages and town houses – celebrities who own town homes on this stretch of the beach include Jerry Jones, goth author Anne Rice, who wrote several of her novels while sitting on Navarre Beach, and professional wrestler Mick Foley, who owned a gym in the area for a number of years.
If you head west on Gulf Blvd, the area is protected as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, so there is no development for about 20 miles until you reach Pensacola Beach, though there are multiple areas for beach access and camping. There are also several more attractions and hotels in Pensacola Beach, so if coming into town for the night I recommend staying in Pensacola as there are not a lot of hotels in Navarre.
It can be quite frustrating for fans of the Navarre High Raiders; on one hand the school has made seven straight playoff appearances, but on the other hand they were handed seven straight playoff losses. The Raiders are one of two Pensacola area high schools not to have played in a State Championship, and the Raiders haven’t even advanced to the second round, as they have been defeated in the first round of the playoffs every year.
Fans still turn out though, and they seem knowledgeable about the players. The student section is rather large, and there is also a large student population on the home side, which shows that students support the school. There’s not much going on in Navarre Beach on a Friday night besides the football game, and many of the schools the Raiders play are local, so many of the visiting teams have a good turnout as well.
The town of Navarre can be quite easy to access depending on where you are coming from; if coming from the Destin area or Pensacola you can take scenic Highway 98. This stretch of highway takes you right past beach towns with excellent views of the beach. If coming from out of the area, Navarre is located about 30 or 40 minutes south of the interstate, depending on traffic. The traffic on Highway 98 can be a nightmare because of tourists trying to get to Destin and Pensacola, so plan for delays in traffic.
The high school is located about 2 miles north of Highway 98, which is the main highway into town. The scenic Navarre Beach is located south of Highway 98 along scenic Gulf Blvd so you can take this route as well. The school is located in a neighborhood and there is limited parking at the school, so many people parallel park in front of people’s houses, which creates a bottleneck in traffic when the game ends.
Once inside the actual stadium it can be quite difficult to move around; the stadium is quite small, even for high school standards, and you cannot go under the concourses either, which causes a lot of people to just stand in and around the aisles. The area in the south end zone near the concessions stands and food carts has a lot of congestion with people gathering, and several kids running around almost knocking people over.
Return on Investment 4
Tickets are priced as follows:
$7 general admission, which allows you to walk all around the stadium on both sides
$10 chair back seats on the 50-yard line, though once the game started I was able to go sit in one of the chair backs and didn’t have anybody ask for my ticket.
The general admission price is about average compared to most of the area high schools, and the concessions prices are about average as well, so I considered this a good return on investment. The Raiders also constantly play other high school powerhouses in the area, so you could be watching the next great Pensacola area football player.
One extra for the outside and architecture of the stadium – the Navarre High School maintenance department does an excellent job of maintaining the area right outside the stadium, giving it a real Florida beachy feel, though there is nothing special about the actual stadium and I think it is quite small. The area around the stadium, however, is lined with various palm trees that embody the State of Florida quite well. Also, there’s no denying that you are near the beach when walking up to the ticket office.
Another extra for the location of the high school itself; the school is located a convenient 3 miles from Navarre beach. The town is a really underrated place, and you can’t beat being able to go down and enjoy the water without the constant crowds that plague most Florida beaches.
Another extra for the tents set up selling various Navarre Raiders gear. There isn’t just one table set up selling a few t-shirts, but two tents with multiple tables selling basically every sort of gear imaginable. They have one table set up selling all kinds of various t-shirts and pants ranging from sweatpants to pajama pants, and these aren’t just basic cotton shirts either, but Nike dri-fit shirts and polo shirts, many of them ranging from $5 to $20. There are also several tables set up with mostly shirts, but there is also one selling various stickers, programs, foam fingers, etc. Needless to say, the expansive display rivals the kind of thing you would see at a small college, not a high school football game; I was very impressed.