Northwestern athletic programs engage Evanston

Sarah Freishtat

John Hoffheimer got his first taste of purple pride when he was 5 years old. His stepfather, a former Northwestern English and writing professor, got Hoffheimer hooked 34 years ago-and he’s been a fan ever since.

To get more Evanston residents to share Hoffheimer’s interest in Wildcat games, the NU athletics department uses outreach programs to engage the Evanston community.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said the partnership between the athletics department and the city is strong, but the outreach programs could be more effective.

“It would be terrific if we could get more engagement from the community in going to games,” Wilson said. “It’s a fun, high level of play right in our backyard.”

One such program was last week’s Paint Evanston Purple, in which Evanston businesses gave promotions to NU fans and the city plastered the town with banners and purple paraphernalia.

The event was a good way to achieve that engagement, said Adelita Hernandez, a community information specialist for Evanston. She worked with the NU athletics department to coordinate the event, which included a pep rally and football game in addition to promotions from businesses.

Hernandez said businesses and residents seemed more interested than she expected. Considering that this was the first time the event has been held, she was surprised at the turnout. The football game had a 56 percent higher attendance than the same game last year, she said.

“We wanted to promote this as a community event, and Northwestern and Evanston are part of the same community,” Hernandez said.

Restaurants, libraries, schools and other community institutions were enthusiastic about endorsing NU athletics, Hernandez said. The event was promoted heavily among high school students. City officials hoped to engage kids with NU through athletics in order to bring higher education to their awareness. That is one way to get students to consider attending college, she said.

Another athletic outreach program helped get Hoffheimer to attend NU games regularly. Almost 20 years ago, Hoffheimer participated in Natural Ties, a program that provides Evanston residents who have disabilities with the opportunity to meet with NU students.

Through this program, Hoffheimer, along with other participants, became a batboy for the NU baseball team when he was 20 years old. A longtime Cubs fan, he said the opportunity was a treat for him.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was like I was actually on a baseball field.”

Paint Evanston Purple and other similar outreach events have increased awareness and enthusiasm for NU sports. Chris Lega, who moved to Evanston as an adult, said he likes the visibility of NU sports in the town.

“I notice the activity and people,” Lega said. “It’s nice to see the excitement over a sports game.”

The activity is certainly noticeable, said Jim Mullenix, who lives five houses away from Ryan Field on Ashland Avenue. The public defender said he is sometimes inconvenienced by home games at the stadium.

“The only downside is I can’t park on the street and I don’t have a garage,” he said.

Instead, he has to move his car to a public parking garage a few blocks away on Lincoln Street. However, the impact of the games is minimal since there are so few home games, he said.

“I think it’s kind of fun,” Mullenix said. “It livens up the neighborhood.”

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