By Alex Orlando
This is where kindergarteners meet the friends they’ll graduate high school with. This is where soccer moms and softball dads spend every Saturday in spring. This is where NFL superstars made their first tackles.
This is Alachua’s Recreation and Community Center.
Headquartered in an aluminum-sided building, shaded by oak trees on the southwest side of the rural community, that’s all been happening since 1986.
The center of the town’s recreation is also centered in the middle of three softball fields, three soccer fields, two baseball fields, four basketball courts, a playground, a football field and a skatepark.
Inside the center’s gym, herds of preschoolers toddle back and forth over the pine floor of a basketball court.
A weeks worth of practice has led them here. They have to hoist the basketball over their heads for a shot at the 6-foot-tall baskets. At halftime, they sip juice boxes. The team’s tallest player measures in at about 4 feet tall.
Still, their fans show up in droves.
The fans, known to many of the players as “mommy” or “daddy,” jeer at their players and during breaks, stop to fix the athletes’ uniforms. In the stands, the fans talk about the players’ grades at nearby Irby Elementary School or set play dates for them.
After the games, the conversation switches to fund raisers and practice times.
Also in the stands is Porter Peterson, Jr., here to cheer on his nephew.
Compared with the other parents, Peterson is a veteran. He’s been spending Saturdays here since the center opened. His put his sons, Mike and Adrian Peterson, through almost every program starting when they were 5.
If those names look familiar, it’s because they frequently appear in sports headlines. Mike is a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons. Adrian is a Seattle Seahawks running back.
What grew them from pint-sized players to pro-athletes?
Peterson says it was their hometown community.
“I don’t think they would have got in trouble if they were in a big city,” he said. “But it’s just being here that everybody helped raise everybody’s kids.”
Bill Lang is one of those team parents.
He has one son , Bronson, in basketball, but on the way to practice, he usually picks up five or six pre-game meals.
It’s been that way since his son was 7. On Friday nights before game day, the whole team would spend the night at the Lang’s house. Up to 20 boys at a time.
He calls them his sons.
That’s the norm, Lang says. Here, parents share the responsibility.
Behind the concessions counter inside, Diane Lang, Bill’s wife, serves up hot dogs at $1 and hamburgers at $1.50. She spends game weekends here so her son’s team will have basketball jerseys and other rec team perks.
Bronson goes to Gainesville High School, about 15 miles southeast of Alachua, but the Langs bring him here for the “friendships” and “sportsmanship” he’s picked up in his six-year sports career.
“Your kids have friends all over the place,” she says. “You find later on as they’re growing up they have friends everywhere.”
Out on the softball field, 10-year-old Tori Richardson is here for the same reason. He father drove her down from MacClenny, Fla., so she could fine tune her pitching arm.
She would be out playing or bike riding or doing what 10-year-old girls do. Instead, she’s here, slinging 45-mile-an-hour fastballs into her coach, Kyle Reed’s, glove.
Reed, an archirecture student at the University of Florida said he comes out here for the family atmosphere.
He attributes that to the center’s softball team, The Santa Fe Infernos, winning at last year’s Babe Ruth Softball World Series in Alachua.
Another dad coments on Tori’s form from his spot next to the foul line.
“She’s really something for a 10-year-old.”
Those parents are also why Reed is out here.
“It’s dads that come out and spend time with their daughters,” he says. “Parents want to help their daughters as much as they can in this area.”