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CHAMPAIGN — Eric Hansen opened his door Tuesday evening to a group of Central High School football players still wrapped in their practice uniforms.

Clipboard in hand, sophomore Jackson LeFaivre asked: Would you be able to sign a petition for Central varsity to play a game on our home McKinley Field?

After a short talk, Hansen signed the petition and let the players plant a sign indicating his support for the cause on the front lawn.

“It’s a really nice facility — I’m torn, but I want to err on the side of what’s good for the kids,” said Hansen, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. “Though my mind might change if I can’t get out of my driveway.”

Fresh out of Tuesday evening’s practice, Central High School football teams had one last task from Coach Tim Turner: 30 minutes of neighborhood canvassing.

Armed with flyers, petitions and barrows filled with yard signs, five teams of Central footballers and booster club parents dispersed through the surrounding streets, knocked on doors and made their case.

“It was an opportunity for our kids to see democracy at work,” Turner said.

Residents were asked to support one “trial” game at McKinley Field, versus cross-town rival Urbana High, on a Saturday afternoon this September.

If approved by the city, it would be the first varsity football game ever played at Central’s renovated athletics facility, built about a mile south of the school.

“I’ve long thought we should be able to play here, but it gets more traction when you get more community members involved asking for this to happen,” Turner said. “It’s important just because McKinley is home — I don’t know of many football teams that don’t have the feeling of home.”

Back in 2018, before the $7.1 million field was built, neighbors’ concerns over excess noise and lights on Friday nights helped push Champaign’s City Council and Unit 4 to stipulate that no varsity football games would be played there.

Central’s freshman and junior varsity football teams, track and soccer squads, marching band — even the junior and senior girls of the Powder Puff homecoming game — have all played at McKinley.

Varsity football players practice and lift there, but still play “home” games at Tommy Stewart Field next to Centennial High.

Last week, the Unit 4 school board gave a 6-0 blessing to the team to speak with residents and pursue an amendment to the original agreement.

“All we want them to do is play one game at their home. We just want one game to prove themselves,” said booster parent Amy Rouse, who made the yard signs with the help of Champaign printer Dixon Graphics.

The cause is a family affair: Rouse’s husband, Patrick, former Illini football player, led the push for the district’s support earlier this year.

Their son, George, a rising sophomore quarterback for Central, made a strategic call to WDWS’ “A Penny for Your Thoughts” Tuesday morning, inviting Councilman Tom Bruno and his colleagues to visit his team’s practice “to meet us and understand why we love our home field.”

Club parents don’t have the final “yes” and “no” tally yet, but once the data is prepared, they hope to present their findings in front of city officials.

“The biggest part is we want neighborhood feedback — we want people to say ‘I’m concerned about this, what are you going to do?’ We may not have thought of all the questions or things that could pop up,” Amy Rouse said.

Booster club parents are offering some sweeteners in hopes of making the hypothetical afternoon game a little easier to digest for the neighbors.

They’ve vowed to pre-sell parking passes, place “no parking” signs along New and Pine streets adjacent to the field, provide a shuttle service to the game and use club volunteers to direct traffic. Every supporting signee was offered free admission to the game.

Unit 4 would provide security services, just like at Tommy Stewart Field games. And the cherry on top — players and parents would participate in a neighborhood cleanup the following day.

“I understand how the city and the school district sold it to the neighborhood, and they’re kind of going back. But I also understand that things change and evolve,” Hansen said. “Once or twice a week for a few months out of the year? As long as they can keep people aware of not blocking driveways or parking in the middle of the street, I don’t see the problem.”

On Tuesday, teammates LeFaivre and senior Zavier Neill led the charge for their canvassing crew. There was some stuttering — Neill claims he accidentally said “good morning” to one resident — and a few stern “nays” from residents. But the players still came away with several signatures for their effort.

“It is a really nice field, I’m not going to lie. Now that we have the opportunity, I’m really hoping we can play there,” Neill said. “I think it’ll bring more pride to the team if we play at our own field instead of playing at someone else’s.”

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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