Starting as an eminent football league in the 1940s, the Northside Youth Organization has grown to become one of the biggest youth sports programs in the country. Now NYO is celebrating its 70th anniversary by looking ahead to a major expansion of its hub in Chastain Park.

“As part of the 70th birthday, we’re launching a new capital campaign to build an additional gym at the park, and a parking deck as well,” said Larry Bennett, vice president of the NYO board.

A drawing of the new gym and parking deck that the Northside Youth Organization is proposing at Chastain Park. (Special)

An Oct. 6 “Homecoming” celebration was planned to “honor the volunteers of the past and look to the future” by kicking off a capital campaign for the estimated $10 million to $12 million needed for the facility, Bennett said.

The gym is intended to help meet the massive demand for basketball programs at NYO, which already uses dozens of facilities across the north Perimeter suburbs to serve around 5,500 children each year.

That’s a little bit bigger than the football games Bob Blackwell started coaching in Chastain in 1949.

“At the time, he was probably the most popular Pop Warner coach in America,” said Bennett, who is also the NYO historian. Blackwell won six national championships in the 1960s and was voted coach of the year in the U.S. several times, Bennett said.

NYO’s Blackwell Field was dedicated to him by City Council resolution in 1969. The following year, NYO opened its first gym and started a basketball program.

Youth basketball teams play in 1975 in a collage from an NYO yearbook. (Special)

NYO grew in scale along with the north metro Atlanta population. “In the ’80s, enrollment doubled. In the ’90s, it doubled again. In the early 2000s, it doubled again,” says Bennett.

Now the organization offers baseball, cheer and softball as well. It directly controls 11 different sites, including the 18 acres at Chastain Park. And it uses many more facilities at area churches and schools. Today it uses 28 baseball and softball fields, three football fields and a dozen gyms. Operating the program and coaching the teams takes a thousand volunteers.

Despite the size, volunteers say, NYO retains a family feel. It’s common for former players to return and coach – a particularly impressive trend in a program where parents do not coach their own children.

NYO Bigs Leagues football players Ethan Holmes, left, and Robert Hunter wait with flowers to give the cheerleaders for their team, the Vikings, after the girls’ performance as part of this year’s kickoff event. (Phil Mosier)

Ross Conway is one of those former players who has returned. The 29-year-old Buckhead resident got his start in baseball at age 6, and played football and basketball, too. Now he coaches football and baseball, and he also serves as the treasurer of NYO’s board.

“I grew up in the little stone house [on Lake Forrest Drive] right across from the Field of Dreams,” said Conway. “I pretty much spent any non-school, non-sleeping hours over there until I was a teenager.”

“Number one, it was always very fun,” Conway says of the influence NYO had on him as a youth. “But it definitely taught me a lot of life lessons and turned me, probably, into a very competitive person. That probably translates well into work and life – competitive, and the ability to work hard and prepare.”

A drawing of the interior of the proposed gym addition. (Special)

NYO has been about family for Bennett, too, since he and Debbie, his wife, got involved with coaching 30 years ago. Their late son Chris is memorialized in the organization’s flag monument, and daughter Lauren plays softball.

“My daughter loves it,” said Larry Bennett. “She will come back and coach one day as well.”

While Chastain is a public park, the city’s only role in NYO is leasing the land. The organization has raised large sums for previous renovations, but the gym and parking deck are a bigger project. The plan calls for an addition to the west side of the existing gym on what is now a gravel parking lot along Chastain Park Avenue.

Bennett says that NYO believes potential donors will see what the organization has already accomplished and the need for more space. Big as NYO is,

“We still turn away a lot of families, especially in basketball,” he said. This year, basketball was oversubscribed by 300 youths while the registration period was still open.

A drawing of the proposed gym as seen from above. (Special)

“You never want it to be too big, but we have so much demand,” says Conway about NYO. “The gym will be a great opportunity for kids to experience what I experienced.”

The Oct. 6 “Homecoming” event at NYO’s Chastain Park location will be an adults-only celebration, with former Executive Director “Miss Jane” Wilkins as “Homecoming Queen.” Admission is $40 per person and $70 per couple, with tickets available at NYO70th.splashthat.com. For more information about NYO, see nyosports.com.

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