“It was a great improvement to come in, as a player, and play for the first time in my life on a real field.”
High school football players warm up at a newly refurbished field in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of the NFL Foundation/
Before the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots take to the field for the Super Bowl this weekend, local youth football teams are celebrating the arrival of their new football fields. A trio of organizations including the NFL Foundation Grassroots Program, a national nonprofit organization called the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and the Minnesota Vikings have worked together to refurbish 10 fields in Minnesota.
It’s part of a 20-year effort by the NFL to bring athletic fields to kids in under-resourced communities in areas where the League has a team. To date, the NFL Foundation and LISC have spent over 40 million together to refurbish or create more than 350 fields in 100 cities, with LISC helping to serve rural communities in 44 states. Fields are newly built or significantly renovated, with improvements including irrigation systems, lights, bleachers, scoreboards, goal posts, and turf.
Former Vikings E.J. Henderson and Everson Griffen with Vikings cheerleaders, members of Vikings staff, and members of LISC staff at Washburn High School field. Photo courtesy of the NFL Foundation.
Safe spaces to play are not only good for kids, they’re good for communities. A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that activity-focused spaces in neighborhoods have a significant impact on mental health, and violence prevention, lowering the risk factors for chronic disease, higher graduation rates, more cooperation among neighbors, and other benefits.
The Vikings have contributed $1.6 million toward the most recent local efforts in Minnesota in advance of this year’s Super Bowl, helping to refurbish athletic fields and recreational areas such as the Jimmy Lee field where St. Paul’s new mayor, Mayor Melvin Carter, used to play as a child. The much-used field, built in the 1960s, had fallen into disrepair, but was renovated in 2012 with astroturf, lighting, landscaping, additional fields, and even a play area for smaller children. Today, Mayor Carter has had the opportunity to see his own children play on the very same field.
Performing a cheer at Jimmy Lee Field. Photo courtesy of NFL Foundation.
In another local neighborhood, students at Como Park Senior High had never been able to host a varsity football game. Now they have a field where they can host home games for the first time ever. The positive change in not just the facilities — but in the players and community — could be felt almost immediately.
“Playing before was tough,” former Central High School student, Opi Aghenu, said of his school’s football and baseball fields before the renovations by the NFL and LISC. “It was a great improvement to come in, as a player, and play for the first time in my life on a real field. And more people showed up for the games! It was packed. The field wasn't an eyesore anymore; it was something to be proud of."
Aghenu also spoke about the confidence it gave him as he went on to play football at nearby Concordia College in St. Paul this year, something Maurice Jones, LISC chief executive, knows about on a personal level. The former high school state champion quarterback is passionately invested in the ways football and other sports can help youth develop leadership skills and build relationships that can last a lifetime. He calls it the “highlight of his upbringing” in rural Virginia.
Former Minnesota Vikings E.J. Henderson and Everett Griffen at dedication of Washburn High School field. Photo courtesy of NFL Foundation.
“I know the power of sports,” he said, “And the relationships with coaches, and relationships with teammates, and learning fair play, and the discipline you need to play at your highest level, competing with honor — those were all lessons I learned on the football field, and lessons I’ve taken with me throughout life.”