VALPARAISO — The tower for which Tower Park is named has long stood high above the baseball and basketball games of many a Valparaiso athlete, an all-star list of kids who went to star at the high school, college and even professional levels.
"I remember Tim Bishop, Bryce Drew when I was a kid, following them," Giants pitcher and former Vikings great Jeff Samardzija said. "They inspired a lot of guys."
Thursday afternoon, the community, spearheaded by the Leaders Giving Back campaign, took big steps to ensure the site will continue to be a home for future stars. The official ribbon-cutting for the refurbished basketball courts was held, followed by the groundbreaking for the Samardzija Family baseball field.
"I played baseball at Tower Park. I played pickup basketball here," former Valpo and Purdue basketball star Robbie Hummel said. "It wasn't the nicest facility. Sometimes, the lights wouldn't come on. I'm so happy to see Tower Park coming back. There aren't a lot of places for kids to play basketball now. It's great for the community to have a place to go. I'm excited to see the Purdue logo and the Valparaiso High School logo."
One of the courts, featuring the gold Purdue P at center court, bears the name of Boilermakers basketball icon Brian Cardinal, whose Purdue Cardinal Community Hoops program has helped build facilities in West Lafayette, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. The other court has a green Valpo V and includes the names of Vikings hoops royalty, Hummel, Drew, Bishop and Rob Cavanaugh.
"Brian asked me if there was any interest in the Region for this to happen. Being biased, I said, 'Yeah, Valpo,'" Hummel said. "I thought it was a perfect fit."
The conversation tipped off with a FaceTime chat in Nov. 2015, when Hummel was playing in Milan, Italy, and got rolling from there.
"I'm glad to be a part of it," Cardinal said. "This area has produced tremendous athletes, but it's the people that sets the community apart. That's the game changer. I've seen first hand the role a park can play in a kid's life. I'm a big believer in role models. I'm hoping the community comes here to be inspired, not just to be great basketball players but great people."
Purdue coach Matt Painter was also on hand, He talked about the knowledgeable, tough, hard-nosed nature of Region athletes, joking how the court even has a 3-point line.
"I played outside a lot when I grew up. Not everybody has this," Painter said. "I've never been to a park where you have an arc. Guys taking charges in the park? Who does that? For a coach to have someone like Robbie Hummel come through the door, it sets the bar pretty high for you. Probably more than anything, it's his selfless way. Those are the kind of guys you want to have on your team."
In addition to Hummel, Dr. Rob Cavanaugh and Mary Lou Bishop will part of the ceremonies for the Valpo court with Bishop cutting the ribbon. Both courts have already been teeming with games over the past month.
"To swing by here, and see the new life, the new energy in the park, it's exciting," Cavanaugh said.
Bishop was touched by the honor.
"The court are amazing," Bishop said. "It's amazing after 20 years, you remember Tim and are keeping his name alive."
No one from the Drew family could make it, but former VU coach Homer Drew extended his regards via text.
"The Drew family is proud to join the other families in providing a place for the Valparaiso community to enjoy," he said.
Schedules were arranged to enable Samardzija to squeeze in a trip home during the baseball season. The Giants are in Chicago for a series with the White Sox and Thursday was a day off for the "Shark."
"There's no better place to start than here, where I played a lot of games as a kid," Samardzija said. "I probably caused a lot more trouble. That water tower's probably seen some things. It's a fun reason to have to come back. I'm not too worried about the name on it. I'm just excited that a lot of kids get to use it. To have the feeling of playing in a nice stadium, hopefully it'll inspire kids to go on to the next level. Its simply about appreciating what I had when I was a kid and kids having a really care-free childhood that every kid deserves."
Samardzija said he never knew how much it took to make such an endeavor happen, crediting his brother, Sam, his agent, and other folks for their extensive efforts behind the scenes. He hopes the project will be the first of others down the road.
"I had no idea how hard it was," Jeff Samardzija said. "It's not just writing a check."
Valparaiso Parks Superintendent John Seibert emphasized the importance of having the names on the courts and field, which will feature artificial turf. Samardzija initially wanted natural grass until he learned of the value of installing turf.
"It's not just about the quality of the place, but the process, the people who made it happen," Seibert said. "That's important for people to know."
Dr. Rob Behrend, a Leaders Giving Back co-chairman, said the project has raised $520,000 out of a goal of $700,000 to complete the field. The whole undertaking, when including the playground and concessions area, will be $1 million.
"They always say the last $100,000 is the toughest to raise," he said. "The great thing about the park is it's an opportunity for guys like myself… everybody else in the community to give back. I have vivid memories of the field. Valpo people always come back. They've always given back. That's what makes it so special. It's an awesome thing to add to the greatness of Valparaiso. It's basically an opportunity of a lifetime, something people will see for the next 100 years."
Seibert said the timing of the project did not line up with Valparaiso University, but there are discussions for a school-related undertaking at another community park closer to the campus.