We never watched sports on television. There were no discussions between the adults about how well their teams were doing. The only times we saw football games were with our grandparents, who occasionally took us to Athens to watch the Bulldogs play. In fact, outside of UGA, I attended one sporting event as a child, a Braves game, a result of playing in a Buckhead Baseball league. My father made us leave in the third inning.
So it was with some trepidation that my wife Lori and I decided to let our 10-year-old, Thornton, play football — real football — this year.
He has wanted to play since he was in the second grade. Not having been raised around the game, with less than a periphery understanding, I didn’t have much to offer in way of instruction. And a 7-year-old playing full-contact football was not something with which neither Lori nor myself were comfortable. We eased him into the game through Peachtree Road United Methodist Church’s recreational flag football program.
He played two seasons, and after each he begged to play at Northside Youth Organization (NYO), which has a long tradition of youth football. While I never played NYO sports, I was aware of its existence. My uncle, George Bird, served as the organization’s president when we were young and his son, also George, played there. Whenever I pass the children playing ball on the immaculate fields I think of Tom Rainey, the gregarious supporter of the Northside Athletes Foundation who was a regular at the Neighbor offices when I worked for the papers. But until Thornton and I descended those stairs did I begin to understand what an asset NYO is for our community.
I discovered a whole new side of Chastain Park in Buckhead, being down on those fields over the course of the last two months. While Thornton learned the game of football, I was constantly in awe of the work children and their parents and coaches were putting in. There were always boys and girls in the batting cages taking swing after swing. There was usually a youth league baseball game with the tiniest people being played beneath a gigantic oak, while girls’ basketball teams came and went from the gymnasium at all hours. It is a living, breathing world-class sports park where friendships are forged and lessons are learned.
The premiere football field behind the concession stand bears the name Blackwell Field. It is Bob Blackwell who served as the impetus for this legacy. Starting back in 1951 at Peachtree Hills Park in Buckhead with 13 boys, Blackwell organized that first “midget” football team. The organization grew in popularity, adding boys and teams and outgrowing every spot, first Peachtree Hills, then Buckhead’s Bagley Park (now Frankie Allen Park). The football league incorporated under the name NYO in 1961. In 1966 it found a home at Chastain Park and the rest is history, a history that includes the addition of baseball, softball, basketball, five Pop Warner football championships and new fields and facilities most under the careful guidance of Jane Wilkins, who since 1975 has served as the heart and soul of the NYO as executive director.
I cannot explain how my two brothers and I missed this growing up, except to say my father placed an emphasis on the arts and humanities and impressed those upon us rather than sports. Frankly, it made the experience that much more interesting for both Thornton and myself. We were both discovering a new world together.
Thornton Kennedy is a fifth-generation Buckhead resident and can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.