A dream five years in the making came into fruition on September 21st, when the Chicago Lions played their first matches on their brand new purpose-built home venue, the J. Tyke Nollman Field at the Lions for Hope Sports Complex.
Founded in 1964, the Lions have been a staple in the Chicago rugby scene and major players in the Midwest Rugby Union. For this fall season, the Lions are contenders in two men’s divisions (DI and DII) and in women’s Division I. For the last ten years, the club played its home games in the North Lawndale neighborhood, on the west side of Chicago, and the team always wanted to have a rugby facility to call a permanent home.
“The initial vision was to build a single grass field with a clubhouse,” head coach Dave Clancy said. “With the size of the parcel and the needs of the community for safe, usable facilities, the vision changed to two artificial turf fields, a more expansive building that will have multiple uses, and a dome to allow for year-round use in Chicago weather.
In 2014, in conjunction with our 50th anniversary, we started a capital campaign to raise money to buy the field in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago we were then playing on,” Clancy added. “Fortunately, in 2015, another, bigger piece of land in the same area became available and we formalized a partnership with Chicago Hope Academy to buy the eight-acre parcel that we now call home.”
In conjunction with the Chicago Hope Academy, a private, inner-city high school, the Chicago Lions raised nearly €3.64 million to buy the land and build the field. No corporate or other sponsors were sought during this initial phase of development, but the upcoming capital campaign for the remaining phases of the project will focus on corporate and institutional sponsors.
The field is full regulation size (100 meters by 70 meters) with ten-meter deep endzones. The committee and design team went with artificial turf made by Limonta with Ecotherm as the infill as opposed to the usual rubber seen in most fields. The posts are 32 feet high and temporary containers adjacent to the pitch serve as bathrooms, locker rooms, and storage. The stands on the east side of the field hold approximately 150 fans for game day.
The Lions are not done though. “There are three more phases which depend on funding,” Clancy stated. “We are about to start the capital campaign for €7.55 million. Our plan is to build a second artificial turf field and put a seasonal dome for year-round use, and a multipurpose building that will have locker rooms, concessions, meeting rooms, offices, stands, and a viewing area. The phasing of the project will be dependent on the capital campaign and the objectives of the contributors.”
The field is not just a permanent home for the Lions, but an effort to improve the community. According to the Lions for Hope website, “The Chicago Lions believe that athletics and sports are a proactive solution to the problems youth face in the Near West Side of Chicago. In order to make this solution a reality, a safe place must be provided to learn and play, as well as providing after- school programs in which to participate on a daily basis. The Chicago Lions will use sport to engage community youth and serve as an outlet to provide social and emotional learning experiences while breaking down barriers to encourage positive participation and engagement. Using physical activity, communities can creatively challenge the minds and the bodies of young people.”
J. Tyke Nollman Field at the Lions for Hope Sports Complex
With Phase 2 complete, Saturday, September 21, 2019 was the inaugural opening day of the J. Tyke Nollman Field at the Lions for Hope Sports Complex and a historic event for rugby in Chicago. With over 500 people in attendance throughout the day, the festivities began at 9:00 am with games for Rookie Rugby and middle school kids. The high schoolers were next followed by each of the club teams taking the pitch.
The women’s DI side was first to play on the new field against the Minnesota Valkyries. The teams exchanged blows throughout the game and the Lions found themselves in a 12-5 hole late in the match. As the clock ticked closer to 80 minutes, Aurora Macek dotted the ball down between the posts and Kelley Hirt tied it up soon after. Minnesota attempted a last-minute offensive but the ball was kicked into touch ending the match in a 12-12 draw.
Next on the pitch was the men’s DII side in a test versus the division-leading Wisconsin Rugby Club. The Lions matched Wisconsin run for run and kick for kick and they left it all on the field. After being down for a considerable part of the match, the Lions tied it up at 22 all with less than 20 minutes to go. The teams fought passionately until the end when Wisconsin kicked a penalty for the 25-22 win at the horn.
In the finale, the men’s DI club hosted their cross-town rival, the Chicago Griffins. The Lions were clicking on all cylinders and racked up a 17-0 lead in the first 20 minutes. Penalty trouble allowed the Griffins back into the game but once back to full strength, the Lions powered forward for the 39-13 victory. A fitting end to a great day of Chicago rugby. Praise for the facility and play on the field was abundant and an official ribbon-cutting ceremony with the founder of Hope, Bob Muzikowski, the alderman, and hopefully, the mayor, will be held in October.
“Players, fans, and alumni were all impressed with the field,” Clancy added. “The alumni that had been waiting for this for years were very emotional and positive. Opposing teams all noted that the field itself was of the highest quality. Many fans commented on the fact that facility allowed for concessions, apparel sales, space to host a post-match with opposing teams, and just in general, allowed for our community to gather together, watch rugby, and spend time together.”
With the planned improvements, the Lions hope to host future local, regional and national championships or tournaments starting in the spring of 2020. Chicago has already considered bidding on the opportunity to bring events such as a Midwest 7s qualifier, Midwest championship events, and Big 10 rugby games and championships to the J. Tyke Nollman Field.
Lastly, the Chicago Lions take enormous pride in the namesake of the pitch. “The field is named after J. Tyke Nollman. Tyke played in the 1970s, was president for six years, and was recently inducted into the USA Rugby Hall of Fame. Tyke was the driving force behind the initial capital campaign to buy the land and also created a matching program up to €364036.80. While Tyke did not ask for anything to be named after him, his fellow Lions proposed to the board to have the field named after him. Unfortunately, Tyke passed away in 2015. His wife, Jane, attended the opening of the field yesterday and said Tyke would have been very impressed with what we have accomplished so far.”
For more information about the Lions for Hope Sports Complex and how to contribute, please visit https://www.lionsforhopesc.org/.