For years, Hunting Park has been viewed as a dump, with a dark past of drugs, crime and filth.
Still, for nearly 20 years, young men and women have seen the 87 acre landscape as the foundation of their childhood as members of the North Philadelphia Aztecs.
What began as a small football and cheerleading organization for children of North Philadelphia, the Aztecs were crowned the 2004 Pop Warner championship-winning team and were the recipients of a newly renovated home field.
In a dedication ceremony held on Monday morning, Philadelphia Eagle, Michael Vick, cut the ribbon to the Team Vick Field - the Aztec’s new home. The event was presented with fanfare, remarks made by elected officials and city representatives.
“This is our future right here,” Vick told the crowd at the ceremony. “Embrace this. The coaches who will be coaching these young kids, embrace this. This belongs to you.”
Vick, no stranger to the Aztecs, shot a Humane Society commercial in 2011 in Hunting Park and autographed two jerseys that were used for a silent auction fundraiser for the Aztecs.
Launched in September 2012, Team Vick Foundation’s first major gift was a pledge of $200,000 to the restoring of the Aztec’s field. To complete Phase II of the Hunting Park Revitalization Project, with a price tag of four million dollars, the foundation worked collectively with the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and other organizations to
“This park is night and day from where is was five years ago,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of Fairmount Park Conservancy. “What impact can a park have in catalyzing positive change in the community? I think we’re proving that here in Hunting Park.”
The Hunting Park Revitalization Project planning process began in January 2009. To date, the improvements that have been made to the grounds include an on-going farmer’s market, two playgrounds, baseball field (supported by Philadelphia Phillie Ryan Howard), tennis courts, community garden and lighting.
Other improvements still pending are landscape improvements, a multi-use recreational field and reopening of the concession building.
According to Lovell, approximately $300,000 is still needed to be raised for the interior and exterior of the Hunting Park recreation building along with the concession building that will provide a health food options.
After planning, petitioning and prayer, the Aztecs will play this fall season on a new turf field. The first game of the season is scheduled for September 7.
President and co-founder of the Aztecs, Wayne Allen, known as Coach Wiz, said he was in a daze on the day of the ceremony dedication. The day was perfect for him.
“We didn’t care what the [field’s] name was,” Allen said. “As long as we got the field, we’re happy.”
Allen, Steve Irving, Mitchell Brown, Quentin Baldwin, Leroy Fisher and Aaron Cottman started this program in 1993. The men, who were in their 20s at the time, were just trying something new for children.
“At 21, we barely knew what we were going to do with our own personal lives,” Allen said. “So we were not expecting all of this.”
Back then, the field conditions did not bother the coaches. Players and coaches didn’t complain. Instead, of dwelling of the plight, the team built character. Much of the Aztec success is accredited to the founding coaches who took their passion to bring a healthy, alternative lifestyle change to young men and women. This is the focus now and has been since the organizations inception.
For two decades, Allen has coached approximately 5,000 children between the ages of five and 15. As members of the Aztec organization, children have found an extra-curricular activity, but the coaches also help them secure spots on top high school football teams, too.
Notable Aztec alumni include Penn State University defensive end, Deion Barnes and Kutztown University cornerback, English Peay.
Other alumni and current Aztec players took to the field running, threw passes, kicked the ball through the white field goals and shared laughs with Allen and the other coaches after the ceremony.
As a mother of four children who went through the Aztec program and now the head cheerleading coach, Danielle Dumas said she is thankful for the people getting involved.
Dumas’ sons DeShawn and Rodney played football, daughter Latoya aged out of the program and now daughter Alyssa cheers. Dumas also said she is looking forward to another winning season.
With accolades and the reputation that the Aztecs have received, the team has attracted players not only in North Philadelphia communities, but neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia.
This season, enrollment has increased. Two decades ago, the organization began with a total of 100 athletes. Now, the roster yields over 400 young men and women for football and cheerleading this season.
“Being here as long as I’ve been, and working towards getting our own field, it’s like giving birth to a baby,” Dumas said. “It’s a proud moment.”