Nearly four weeks after the death of the Indy Steelers founder Richard Donnell "Coach Nell" Hamilton, his youth football team was back on the practice field at Tarkington Park, this time led by Hamilton's youngest son, Dontaye.
"I felt like I had to be out there," Dontaye said that cold February day. "I know it was important for those kids to see me. Maybe it benefitted me more than it benefitted them."
Dozens of children, some still young enough they needed help from coaches to tie their cleats, battled through drills in the mud, their eyes glued to Dontaye, a role model who will soon be on his way to play football at West Virginia Wesleyan.
Dontaye and the other Steelers coaches were there because they were determined and dedicated to continuing Hamilton's legacy — and their efforts got a huge boost this week. The Indy Parks and Recreation Board voted to put Coach Nell's name on the field where he worked for almost two decades to inspire and change young lives.
Rebuilding amid unthinkable pain
That first practice after Hamilton's death was difficult. It was Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, and the day was cold with gusty winds making their way through tall, still-leafless trees under thin clouds filtering the sun.
Standing amongst the team's blocking and tackling pads was Tia Graham, an IMPD chaplain. She wanted to be present in case anyone needed her support.
"This is still fresh. This is still surreal to the parents, to some of the kiddos, and to the coaches," Graham said. "This is still fresh to his wife, Tiff, too. This was her husband. Having been part of the foundation of the Steelers, here I am and I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Throughout the two-hour practice and through many tears, Graham spoke with the parents present. She knows how important the late coach was to the success of her child, Keshawn Bartlett, who just turned 21. He was a member of the inaugural Steelers team.
At the time, Graham was a single mother in the first year of her residency to become a chaplain. During her 12-hour shifts, Coach Nell and Tiff were her eyes and ears. They often fed her son and made sure he completed his homework.
"It's refreshing to see these kids out here, it's cathartic to me," Graham said with tears rolling down her cheeks. "It's still surreal that Coach Nell's not here but to see these little ones and remember when our babies were here. It brings back great memories and you know what good things can come out of this right here. This is the house that the Hamilton's built."
The home of the Indy Steelers
When Allison Luthe stepped into her role as executive director of the Martin Luther King Community Center in June 2015, the place was on full life support. She had two part-time employees, one to take out the trash and the other to turn on and off the lights. The center rented most of its building to United Way.
From her office window, Luthe had views of the 11-acre Tarkington Park, which sits just north of 39th Street, nestled between Meridian and Illinois streets. Soon, the park was to be revamped at the price tag of $5.8 million, and on Labor Day weekend in 2015, the metal fencing went up.
To some, the fencing represented progress.
To others, like Coach Nell, it was met with shock. By that point, the Indy Steelers had practiced on the field three times a week for 10 years. Suddenly, they didn't have a field.
"I remember thinking, 'What's happening over there?'" said Luthe, who was focused on reviving the community center. "And I could tell they had the poster boards and there was a box truck and there were posters taped to the box truck."
Along the sidewalk, Luthe saw a small group of Steelers coaches and players gathered to protest the fencing. She said some of them walked away when they saw her approaching. That's when she first met Coach Nell — and the trust between the two started to build.
Though the protest brought eyes to their cause, the city at the time said it was unaware of the team's practices. The Steelers would have to make arrangements to practice at a different park for a year.
In the months following, Luthe would run into Coach Nell at community and school meetings. Once they met on the street outside a home where a Steelers player was shot to death. Their conversations continued about the needs of the team and those in the community.
"He wanted a community center in the middle of the park and I said there's one right across the street," Luthe said. "I was like, right now it sucks, the school sucks, the field is getting this done to it so how can we come together and rebuild all of this?"
Over time Coach Nell and Luthe decided that the MLK Center, not Hamilton's garage, should be the home of the Indy Steelers youth football team. Luthe said the team would hold meetings, and watch game film at the center. She'd often find cleats and mud in the entryways but didn't mind.
Fast forward nearly eight years and the MLK Center is thriving with dozens of employees working inside a newly renovated building. Now, loads of people using its resources. The new atmosphere is a testament to the hard work and dedication that Luthe and those she's surrounded herself with, like Coach Nell, who have poured so much love into the neighborhood.
Coach Nell praised the community's effort to secure a Lilly Endowment for $3 million, which adds circular walkways, additional shelters, a farmers market pavilion, and field improvements to better serve youth football leagues.
"We've worked so hard for this," he would write in his final Facebook post.
Hamilton was fatally shot and killed Jan. 11, 2023, a day after his Facebook post, during an apparent road rage incident on Interstate 65 in Greenwood.
Luthe said days before Coach Nell's funeral, Dontaye reached out to her. His ask was simple: Could the new field at the park be named in his father's honor?
The vote to name the future field
With his head down and hands inside his coat pockets, Dontaye Hamilton wiped a tear from his eye Tuesday, March 21, as he stood inside Garfield Park Arts Center. Then he slowly made his way to a microphone perched on a stand in front of four members of the Indy Parks and Recreation Board. He took a second to gather himself before speaking softly into the mic.
"I'm Coach Nell's youngest son," Dontaye said, as a small circular photo of his father dangled from a metal chain around his neck. "A lot of these kids didn't have strong homes. They didn't have father figures in their life. They didn't have anybody to really show they cared for them. My dad knew every single kid, can name every single one, can tell you their story, their background."
The four board members, most with tears in their eyes, listened as Dontaye lent his support to a proposal to name the future multipurpose field at Tarkington Park after his father. The board had received a petition for the naming containing more than 1,100 signatures. There also were letters of support from other organizations like the MLK Center, Midtown Indy, and the Indianapolis Colts.
Also raising their voices in support that day — one day before Coach Nell would have turned 44 — were his mother, Donna Hamilton; cousin, Aaron Hamilton; sister-in-law, Clarinda Hampton; and other community members, including Luthe.
"It hurts but I'm so happy," said Gloria Anthony, Coach Nell's mother-in-law. "He was so awesome with these children. He deserves this, somewhere we can go by and see his legacy."
Last to give comment was Michael McKillip, executive director of Midtown Indy, who said he met Coach Nell during the protests at the park in 2015. He said the late coach opened his eyes and gave him a new perspective no one else could have.
"Donnell Hamilton didn't just change the lives of those children," McKillip said. "He changed the lives and the impact and perception of an entire community. We don't ask for this because he's gone, but so that everyone in our community remembers the contributions he made."
Following applause and before a final vote in favor, board member Joseph Wynns shared his final thoughts.
"Even though he's gone his name will live forever," Wynns said. "Children remember the people who made an impact in their lives. His name may be on that board at Tarkington Park, but all those kids in high school, all those kids will always talk about Coach Nell."
Coach Nell's family gathered in the back of the meeting room after the vote. Hugs and tears all around. As the crowd clapped, emotions were bittersweet to the family tending to this open wound. Though, they couldn't help but think about the future, watching his name go up on the field that will be muddy no more.
"It's going to be a very emotional time but it will be tears of joy," Dontaye said. "He's been fighting for this field for a long time. Now that it's coming to fruition, it's a sigh of relief. This is a great birthday present. A great birthday present."
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy park's new sports field will be named in honor of 'Coach Nell'