Football great Curtis Martin returns home to give kids a safe place to play and grow in Homewood

Photo: Pro Football Hall of Fame Curtis Martin and Dan Towriss, CEO of Group1001 at Willie Stargell Field in Homewood.

When Mubarik Ismaeli approached him three-and-a-half years ago for help securing a new scoreboard for Willie Stargell Field in Homewood, Derrick Tillman thought he was thinking too small.

“We began to talk about the project and I thought that just wasn’t enough,” said Tillman, president and CEO of Bridging the Gap Development. “I knew Homewood needed the best of the best.”

So the two Westinghouse High alumni (Tillman ’99, Ismaeli ’99) dreamed up an ambitious plan to build a new multisport field and community gathering space.

Ismaeli is president of Homewood Community Sports, which uses the city-owned field for youth sports programs. His pursuit of the project was inspired by one of HCS’s youth football teams. The youngsters had won only one of its first seven games in a 10-game season. The kids were in last place, but battled to sneak into the playoffs and, ultimately, won the championship.

“Even when something seems out of reach, don’t ever stop reaching for it,” Ismaeli said. “ Be insistent, consistent, and don’t ever give up.”

His persistence was rewarded recently when city leaders and Pittsburgh native, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin announced a $14-million public-private partnership to rehabilitate the field. The money will come from various sources, including HCS, the city and state, the Cal Ripken, Sr., Foundation and Indianapolis-based insurance company Group1001.

Martin, who grew up in Homewood and attended Taylor Allderdice High School, will have his name added to Stargell’s sports field.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Curtis Martin and Dan Towriss, CEO of Group1001

“We all, who come from this community, we know how important this is,” Martin said at the news conference in Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s office. “We didn’t have this when we were growing up … and I don’t think we had the vision that Mubarik has for these kids.”

Ismaeli, who grew up playing sports at HCS and now coaches there, says the project is more than just a football field. The artificial turf field will also host soccer and baseball and softball. The plan calls for the demolition of the former Homewood Montessori school, creating a community park from the MLK Jr. East Busway to the Carnegie Library on Hamilton Avenue. Other features include an outdoor amphitheater, a space for community events that planners hope will get Homewood invited to the city’s Cinema in the Park program.

Drawing on their high school’s Wall of Fame honoring accomplished graduates, Tillman and Ismaeli devised “history steps” to memorialize Homewood residents who helped make the neighborhood a better place.

Beyond having a nicer field for kids to play on, the organizers are confident the revamped park will be a safe space for all involved.

“We use sports as the hook to deal with all the other parts of childhood development,” Ismaeli said. “Sometimes a coach has more influence than a teacher or a parent. It’s sad, but we have to leverage that.”

The city’s role in protecting kids is part of the reason to support the project.

“The schools have kids eight hours a day — I have the other 16,” Peduto said. “Working with neighborhood groups, we’ll jump at any such project that can give kids opportunities to stay off the streets, especially in communities like Homewood.”

Tillman pointed out that Ismaeli’s commitment to the neighborhood and HCS were critical to pulling the project together.

“He’s passionate about it because he lived it. His kids are involved now,” Tillman said. “He’s a coach and a mentor at heart.”

Although Martin is the celebrity face of the project, he made sure to give credit to those who have done the real work.

“If I did anything, maybe I just sparked it a little bit, but I’ve done nothing in comparison to what these guys have done,” Martin said.

Others instrumental in fulfilling Ismaeli’s dream include The Heinz Endowments, veterans group The Mission Continues, and community development organization Neighborhood Allies.