Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin said violence and gunfire were daily occurrences while he and childhood friends played at Willie Stargell Field in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood during the drug-plagued 1980s and 1990s.
His grandmother was fatally stabbed several blocks from the field, and he had friends who were murdered in the neighborhood.
On Tuesday, Martin outlined plans to rehabilitate and expand the field for football, baseball and other sports and events. The $14 million project is being funded by the city, state, local foundations, Baltimore-based Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and Group One Thousand One, an Indianapolis insurance firm.
“When I was 9 years old, literally maybe five blocks from this field, my grandmother who was like my mother, we found her murdered with a knife in her chest,” Martin said. “I’ve had several friends who have had similar results in their lives. We all who come from this community, we know how important something like this is. For me what I wanted to do was just make sure that the kids have a safe environment to play in.”
Plans for the project, which has been vetted by Homewood leaders led by Mubarik Ismaeli, president of Homewood Community Sports, are still being finalized with no set dates for construction. Formerly known as Homewood Field, the park between North Lang Avenue and Clawson Street was renamed in 1980 after Pirate Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.
Ismaeli said he’s been planning the project for three years with Derrick Tillman, president and CEO of Bridging the GAP realty, and residents.
“This has been a long, long, long process to get us to this point,” he said.
One Thousand One donated $5 million to the Ripken Foundation, which provides baseball and softball fields for inner-city youth, for the construction of 10 athletic fields in cities across the country. Each project receives $500,000.
“What we do is we build what we call youth development parks,” said Steve Salem, president and CEO of the Ripkin Foundation. “This is not about developing athletes. This is not about competitive sports. That’s just the hook. This is about building these kids, giving them opportunities to be successful and productive in life.”
Mayor Bill Peduto said thanked the organizations helping to fund the park, Homewood residents and State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, and city Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze.
“Their commitment in seeing this project come through began several years ago with a vision that was created by the people of Homewood, a community based plan that put the emphasis on the ability to create a campus within a neighborhood, a campus that would be centered by fields that had been long overdue for maintenance and quite honestly had been neglected,” Peduto said.
Martin, 45, who splits time between homes in Long Island and Florida, never played football until his senior year at Taylor Alderdice High School. He said he never much liked football, but he had a talent for it and he played at the University of Pittsburgh and in the NFL with bigger ambitions in mind.
Martin was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2012 after an 11-year career with the New England Patriots and New York Jets. The five-time Pro Bowler ranks fifth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 14,101 yards.
He said he is not a big football fan and no longer keeps track of the games, but pays attention to highlights.
He said he congratulated Frank Gore Sunday after the Miami Dolphins player surpassed his record with 14,102 total yards rushing. He said he knew little about Pittsburgh’s Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown’s Twitter outbursts, but described him as “one of the best receivers that I’ve seen in the NFL.”
“I’m barely on Twitter,” Martin said. “I’m still learning how to tweet.”
He also said he appreciates how Steelers’ running back and Pitt standout James Conner has rebounded from a bout with cancer.
“He’s fought a struggle that is much harder than being out there on that field,” Martin said.
Describing himself as a “people person,” he said his goal is to live off of 20 percent of annual earnings and donate the remaining 80 percent for charitable projects such as Willie Stargell Field.
“My hope is that not only the kids, but the parents and the community, would kind of take ownership and not see it as just a field where people go and play football or baseball or whatever they may do there,” he said. “I want them to almost take ownership and protect it. I hope that it could one day be considered like a safe zone so that there are no bullets flying or there is no violence going on up there while those kids are playing at the field.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.