It’s 10 AM on a bright Sunday morning in Jackson Park, just off the intersection of East 63rd Street and South Stoney Island Avenue. Families and friends fill the bleachers as they await the start of the homecoming game between the Southside Wolfpack and the Olympia Fields Ducks, two park district football teams of 13- and 14-year-olds in the United Youth Football League. Earth, Wind & Fire’s soulfully funky “September” blares from the speakers on the sidelines while the familiar aroma of deeply fried chicken from the food stands fills the air.

The scene is picturesque, except for the hint of uneasiness on Wolfpack head coach Ernest Radcliffe’s face. Last summer, the Obama Foundation announced its decision to build the $500-million Obama Presidential Center, a library and civic center named after former President Barack Obama, in Jackson Park. Proponents say the future landmark will bring a multitude of new shops and restaurants to the area, However, residents worry that the library will drive up property values and kick out longtime dwellers.

The Wolfpack are among the worried. For months, Radcliffe has been waiting for a Community Benefits Agreement, which would ensure the Wolfpack’s relocation to another section of the park.

It’s now December, the end of the Wolfpack’s 2017-18 season, and the Obama Foundation still hasn’t presented a CBA, Radcliffe says. With nothing in writing, Radcliffe has no choice but to start looking for another home for his Wolfpack.

“I’m not gonna let the Wolfpack program fold because we have nowhere to go,” Radcliffe says, grimly.

Radcliffe is a member of the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition. This group of Jackson Park residents is behind the push for a CBA, a binding contract between the Obama Foundation and the community that would guarantee jobs, affordable housing and the replacement of sports fields. 

On the other side of the issue, members of the Jackson Park Advisory Council worry about  rumors spreading on social media and people jumping to conclusions. Louise McCurry, council president, says her phone rings constantly with questions from residents who say they’ve heard the Obama Presidential Center will either destroy the park or prioritize outsiders over locals.

It’s all hearsay, according to McCurry.

“I’m amazed by how the majority of people get their news from Facebook and Twitter,” McCurry says.

Though JPAC is not directly affiliated with the Obama Foundation, McCurry says her role is to serve as a community liaison for concerned residents and the Obama Foundation’s board members.

“There’s nothing in writing at this point because we’re still in the planning process,” McCurry says about a possible Community Benefits Agreement.

The Wolfpack team comes from humble beginnings.

Radcliffe first conceived the idea for the Wolfpack in 1997. Raised on Chicago’s South Side, Radcliffe grew up in a legacy sports family. His uncles, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and Alex Radcliffe, were renowned Negro League baseball players who instilled in him a love of baseball and competition. Radcliffe went on to become an All-American baseball player at Central State University before playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.

Ernest Radcliffe (far right) in his baseball days//Photo courtesy of Ernest Radcliffe

As an employee with the South Side YMCA on Stony Island Avenue, Radcliffe was aware that Jackson Park didn’t offer a viable place for youth sports. So in 1997, through fundraising and donations, he put together a team of 25 boys and played against teams in various leagues before they joined the elementary Chicago Public Schools League in 1999.

After a while, however, Radcliffe realized his team still didn’t have what other teams had – a home. “For many years, we played on dirt and rocks,” Radcliffe adds.

The team spent many weekends practicing in the yard behind the YMCA, or playing in a muddy vacant lot across the street.

“Sometimes we didn’t have chalk to line the field so we used flour, believe it or not,” Radcliffe says through retrospective laughter.

Today, the Wolfpack organization is home to 120 football players and cheerleaders between first and eighth grade. They’ve won multiple division and city championships – even beating out the Detroit Stars in 2015 to place second in the United Youth Football League Championship tournament.

But the Wolfpack program has and always will be bigger than football, according to Radcliffe.

For Black kids in Chicago, the Wolfpack is an escape from violence and gang activity, he says. It’s also an opportunity to learn the importance of discipline, accountability and education by providing structure and positive influences in their lives.

“The Wolfpack, to me, is like family,” says 13-year-old Amani Stevenson, an offensive lineman on the team. He’s been playing for the Wolfpack for the last three years. “It’s taught me to stay on [top of] my grades [and] don’t act a fool… because if I do, it goes on my record.”

Radcliffe and Rynell Morgan, the Wolfpack’s assistant coach, have attended public meetings regarding the Obama Presidential Center. Both coaches want to make sure their voices are heard.

“It’s important as a community member that I give proper input for our children to have a place to continue to be successful and get the mentorship and development of youth sports,” Radcliffe says. “This field and this park is a true safe haven for a lot of these young men and ladies who don’t get the opportunity to go outside in their neighborhoods and play, or just don’t have the opportunity to be in a location where it’s beautiful.”

McCurry understands the community’s concerns, after all, she is a part of them. As a resident of Jackson Park since 1969, McCurry says she’s watched the South Side get left behind as other parts of Chicago, particularly downtown and the North Side, have received economic upgrades over the years

But she believes the library will be a beam of hope for the South Side, creating an improved neighborhood with better housing and school options in the future.

“[The library] brings to the South Side community a hero back home for our children in an impoverished part of the city,” McCurry says. She’s referencing Obama’s return to the South Side, where his community organizing and political career began in the 1980s.

“[The library] shows that if you work hard you can bring about change to your neighborhood,” McCurry continues. “We are a beacon of hope for the world.”

Radcliffe agrees that the library will be a great opportunity for the South Side, but he doesn’t think the opportunity should come at the expense of longtime residents being kicked out of the community.

“A lot of people that I’ve come across are concerned with [whether] there are going to be jobs for the African-American people that live here,” Radcliffe says. “People in the community want to ensure that Black and Brown people have opportunities to work [and] keep their homes.”

He also doesn’t think it’s fair to his program, which has done good for so many youth.  Over the past 20 years, the Wolfpack has bred many sports luminaries, such as Chicago Public Schools Regional Athletic Director Abdullah Asad and Michigan State defensive lineman Demetrius Cooper.

“We just want to make sure we have the same things we’re able to give the young people to keep this place as safe space for them,” Radcliffe says.