The Aztecs have played and practiced everywhere in the neighborhood, all over the park, everywhere except the actual regulation football field. Not one game in their glorious 20-year history.
They couldn't. The field, blocks from what was once the drug bazaar of the Badlands, was "ragged and condemned," said Aztecs vice president Jeremiah Berry. It was a plot of misery and debris, mud, water, potholes, rocks, cans, vials, syringes, panties, condoms.
The $1.4 million Team Vick Field, a splendid, verdant expanse bordered in Aztec red, will be dedicated Aug. 19. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who contributed $200,000, will be there, along with donor Ron Jaworski. The first exhibition games will be played the following Saturday.
"Doing this makes me feel great," Vick told me, "to be a part of a monumental moment for the city of Philadelphia." The Eagles quarterback took exactly one day to decide to make the gift, his largest to the city. "At a young age, football gave me a sense of structure," he said, "to go about my life to go where I wanted to go."
Team Vick Field is the final jewel of the initial three-year phase to transform the historic 87-acre park at Ninth and Hunting Park into something astounding: baseball field (with help from Ryan Howard), tennis courts (Billie Jean King visited twice), two playgrounds, community garden, farmers' market, improved lighting, pruned trees, increased security.
Hunting Park, founded in 1858, is being restored to its original purpose as a haven for the neighborhood, a repository of hope. Leroy Fisher, an Aztecs founder and the park's unofficial mayor, said, "Every hour the children are on these fields, in this park, it's time they're being healthy and safe, and not doing anything detrimental to themselves."
Vick, who began playing football at age 8, said, "I learned the level of commitment you have to have to get the most out of yourself." The presence of so many men dedicated to the boys' health and success is also vital. Vick said, "Those coaches can be mentors to these kids for a long, long time."
Over the years, multiple promises of Hunting Park's revitalization were made and ruptured. "This is a long time coming," said Robert Hampton, a park stalwart, "Mr. Rob" emblazoned on his jersey's back. Lacking proper drainage, the field was a stew of refuse. Hampton said, "We called the field 'the mud bowl.' These kids can't wait to play on this."
The residents will not allow Hunting Park to fail again. The afternoon I visited, there wasn't a piece of paper on the baseball field, as pristine as a course on the PGA tour.
Hunting Park's revitalization is being done under the auspices of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Parks and Recreation's nonprofit partner, with donations from the city, state, foundations, corporations, and individuals, a model coalition the city could use more of - say, for the schools.
"It's exactly this sort of collaboration that makes it all work," said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis. "Any one party could not have lifted this project so high, so fast."
Fisher has lived in the neighborhood most of his life: "I'm here at the park more than I'm home." Now he's president of Hunting Park United, the neighborhood group charged with being stewards of its rebirth.
"This park is now inundated with people, changed completely. It is one of the most beautiful things," Fisher said. Children practice here all seasons. "It's a teaching moment. We're all working together. We're providing strong role models."
Hunting Park's next phase involves restoring the concession shop, shuttered for more than a decade, and selling healthy snacks. The field lacks seating for families and fans. The rec center's exterior resembles a failure of public housing. The interior lights are equally dismal. The historic band shell, where peewee players now run drills up and down crumbling steps, needs love, and lots of it.
But first, the Aztecs have some football to play.
Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or email@example.com, Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists blog, Blinq, at www.inquirer.com/blinq.