'Match Made in Heaven': Michael Vick Helps Park Get a Second Chance
Local hero gives youth football program a much-needed boost
Sarah Hoye CNN
September 18, 2012PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- On a warm, late summer evening, Nas Scott readies himself atop patchy grass and waits.
At the sound of his coach's whistle, the 12-year-old charges a tee, kicking a football and dirt into the setting sun.
Despite the less-than-desirable field conditions, Scott and his fellow teammates from the North Philadelphia Aztecs are fired up.
They're excited because the youth football program is getting a much-needed boost from a local hero.
The Aztecs practice on a field at the center of Hunting Park in the heart of North Philadelphia.
Instead of playing on gridiron befitting of national champions, their home field is a dust bowl -- and sometimes a lake, depending on the weather. The field is in such poor condition they haven't hosted a home game in 19 years.
"I feel very upset because we have to go to a high school and we can't just play here," said eighth-grader John Paul, 13.
But this week, the Aztecs -- the first inner-city youth football team to win a Pop Warner championship -- got word they're getting a new field, compliments of Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Michael Vick.
On Tuesday, the newly formed Team Vick Foundation announced that its first major gift totaling $200,000 goes to the Aztecs for a new field.
Vick, who spent about 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to dogfighting charges in 2007, said the donation is a gift to the City of Brotherly Love for embracing him after the Eagles signed him following his release from prison.
"It's important because the kids mean a lot, I think, and the Philadelphia community deserves that. When I first got here they embraced me and it's something that I'll never forget," Vick said.
The former Atlanta Falcons player got his start in football growing up in Virginia. Although watching the Aztecs play brings back memories for the football giant, Vick said he wants them to learn from his mistakes.
"Do everything that you can, you know, to stay on the right path. That's where it all starts. Other than that, football is obsolete; it doesn't matter," he said. "You are what you eat ... and they have to understand that perception is just as big as reality."
The new football field is the capstone project for the $4 million revitalization effort led by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a small but mighty nonprofit working to improve the city's vast park system.
Other sport legends signed on to help the troubled Hunting Park, including the Phillies' Ryan Howard and tennis great Billie Jean King. Since renovations began, the park has seen a new baseball field, tennis courts, playgrounds and a community garden complete with farmer's market.
"It has literally been a coalition of champions, an army of champions if you will, who are helping to lift this project up and make it successful," said Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of Fairmount Park Conservancy. "This park became a real liability. People avoided it at all costs."
Once part of the estate of James Logan, who was state founder William Penn's secretary, the 87-acre Hunting Park went from a destination point in the 1940s and '50s to a place riddled with crime and drugs.
Things got so bad one city official was skeptical of a turnaround.
"My skepticism, not my participation, but my skepticism was blown out of the water early on. I think this is one of the most remarkable comebacks in my 30 years of public service that I've seen anywhere," said Michael DiBerardinis, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. "(Michael Vick's) attraction to the neighborhood really says a lot about who he is, what he cares about and how he views himself in the world."
At Hunting Park, the Aztecs use football as a positive outlet for youth hailing from some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, something head coach Jeremiah Berry said he wants to last.
Berry, who played football growing up and even played on the same field in Hunting Park, said the Aztecs program went from three teams in 1994 to eight teams today, serving close to 400 young people from ages 5 to 15.
"I've seen some good kids come, I have seen some kids that are no longer with us and some kids get caught up in the wrong things," Berry said. "The park gets a second chance, the kids get a second chance and Michael Vick got a second chance. So, it's meant to be, a match made in heaven."