For nearly 30 years the Shabbona Saints played football in a park on Chicago’s far northwest side, earning eight national championships. The cheerleaders won 11 national titles.
But earlier this year the Chicago Park District ordered the Saints, ages 6 to 14, to leave their home, Shabbona Park, on the 6900 block of West Addison Street.
"We’re like Gypsies," said the Saints' Tony Arena just a few days before 2013 practice was to begin.
Recently about 40 players, parents and coaches came to Shabbona Park to talk about the action of the Chicago Park District. Among them was Fabian Mojica, who played here as a kid and took four buses to be there.
"The way they are hurting the team right now, the way they took away the field and everything I’ve heard, is just horrible," Mojica said.
Mike Flores, one of the stars of last year’s team, was there. This year he will play for Gordon Tech. But he spoke of what playing for the Saints has meant to him.
"This park has taught me how to love and respect my coaches," he said, adding, "And also protect my teammates."
Teammates like Giovanni Rameriz, who when asked what the bottom line is between the Saints and the Chicago Park District said succinctly: "Basically that a park kicked us out."
The dispute with the Park District has simmered for five years after a new park supervisor arrived.
In a January 2013 letter, the Park District told the Saints they could no longer use Shabbona, citing rule violations such as "breaking and entering the field house after hours," and violations of Code of Conduct rules such as: "Willful or careless destruction of property;” and “Verbal assault of (sic) a park district patrons and staff.”
The Saints say none of that is true.
Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), in whose ward the park sits, has met jointly with the Saints and the Park District.
"They are making all kinds of accusations about the program. None of that could be substantiated," said Sposato.
Shabbona is a small but pristine park in a neighborhood that for many years was largely Italian-American. But the neighborhood has changed.
In a March 2013 letter to the Park District, Arena, the Saints Commissioner of Football, wrote that he and Ron Orlando, another team official, were told by a Shabbona Park supervisor they were bringing in the wrong ZIP codes into the park
"Right now we are about 80 percent Hispanic," said Arena.
About 15 percent of the players are African-American.
"If they are doing something wrong, throw them out," said Sposato. "If they are not, let them play."
Now in a reversal, the Park District has opened the door to letting the Saints play at Shabbona.
After more than a month of attempting to get a response from the Park District and an interview on camera, a terse written statement was released late Wednesday which read in part, "We will continue to work with the team, the community, and the alderman to resolve any issues and ensure the kids can play football."
The statement, signed by a Park District supervisor, said the Saints have a "history of failing to obtain proper insurance, and failing to maintain 501(c)3 status."
Yet that same official in 2012 said he had verified the Saints 501(c)3 status, as well as their insurance.
The Saints say they have been trying to get the attention of city hall with hundreds of phone calls to the mayor’s office.
"All those phone calls, and the mayor doesn’t come down and say, 'Wait a minute. What’s going on down there?" exclaimed Arena.
It is confusing to know exactly what’s going on.
In a May 8, 2012 letter, Park District Area manger Derrick Martin called the Saints "dishonest" and "self-serving," never acting "in the best interest of children."
But two months later he wrote: "We believe the Saints to be a vital part of the youth recreation community at Shabbona…”
Joe Senorski played here as a kid, as did his brothers. He now coaches for the Saints.
"We were welcomed here for 30 years,” he said. "Now we are not welcomed here anymore."
Senorski said up to 200 people could easily have turned out to talk to NBC Chicago.
"We didn’t want it to come this far," he said plaintively. "There is no reason we had to involve you but we have no advocate. This program has no advocate."
When informed Mayor Rahm Emanuel believes he is an advocate for kids in the city, Senorski replied: "I truly hope that the mayor is an advocate for children in this city and I hope that he will step in here and be our advocate. I hope that he will rectify this."
The mayor’s office, NBC Chicago has learned, will hold a meeting with all parties in his office on Friday.