Cardinals, NFL grant funds renovation of Tanque Verde High School football field

Tanque Verde second-year coach Jay Dobyns and the school’s administration is literally trying to build the football program from the ground up.

The football and soccer field that has long needed a facelift after the school developed from Emily Gray Junior High School in 2005 is undergoing renovations thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Arizona Cardinals and the NFL Grassroots Program.

The project should help Dobyns and his staff, that includes many former Arizona football players, continue to elevate the program. Tanque Verde went 3-0 in Dobyns’ first season last year, shortened because of COVID-19 protocols.

Entering last season, the Hawks, a Class 2A program, were on a 15-game losing streak dating to the 2018 season and were outscored 743-82 in that stretch.

“When I was hired last year, it was apparent right away that our football and soccer facility was not up to par for the programs we had and were creating in the Tanque Verde Valley,” said Tanque Verde principal Amy Cislak, a former standout softball player and coach at CDO who was previously the principal at University High School.

“The stadium field was essentially a park that has been converted into a field from when the high school was Emily Gray Junior High.”

As part of the football field improvement project, the existing football field will be recrowned with a natural grass surface, and a new irrigation system and scoreboard will be added. A new practice field will also be installed, allowing the main field’s condition to be preserved for the school’s home football and soccer games.

The idea for the renovation formulated from Cislak’s experience securing a Cardinals and NFL Grassroots grant to install a new football field at Rincon/University.

Cislak mentioned the idea to Dobyns, who became acquainted with Cardinals chairman and president Michael Bidwill when Dobyns was a undercover federal agent and Bidwill was a prosecuting assistant United States attorney.

Tanque Verde’s football field was part of a park adjacent to what was formerly Emily Gray Junior High School when the program started in 2007. This is a photo of a 2010 game between the Hawks and Valley Union in an eight-man game played on a Saturday morning (Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Dobyns, a former Sahuaro High School and Arizona football standout, used his background with Bidwill to reach out for the grant assistance. Bidwill and Wally Kleindienst (whose father Richard Kliendienst was the U.S. Attorney General under Richard Nixon), prosecuted an undercover case Dobyns brought against a suspect who believed Dobyns was a narcotics enforcer.

The suspect “delivered dynamite to me for use in a drug-debt collection,” Dobyns recalled. “Upon delivery in the desert outside San Manuel, the dynamite was corroded with nitroglycerin whiskers making it extremely volatile, unstable and dangerous to handle.  The suspect pled guilty before trial.”

“Both Michael and Wally carried reputations as no-nonsense federal prosecutors,” Dobyns added. “I was, and am, a big fan of their public service.”

His association with Bidwill continued when he was invited to speak to the Cardinals at their training camp in 2008.  Dobyns said the highlight was his son Jack, now an assistant coach at Tanque Verde, and his late dad sitting with Kurt Warner, Matt Leinart and Larry Fitzgerald during the presentation. 

“He is not your ordinary dynamic speaker,” said Bidwill of Dobyns, who has conducted motivational speaking seminars in addition to writing two books about his experiences as a federal agent. “A rare combination of grizzled lawman, yet compassionate and very human. Not many audiences are tougher than an NFL team, but Jay had the Cardinals hanging on his every word.”

Dobyns’ request for assistance from the Cardinals and the NFL was granted without delay from Bidwill. The Cardinals were also a significant part of a groundbreaking ceremony of the project on May 28 in which former Cardinals, team cheerleaders and Big Red, the team’s mascot, were in attendance.

It all added to the feel-good aura Dobyns has created with the program. On his staff are former Wildcat football standouts David Adams, Jeff Kiewel, Van Brandon, Chris Lopez and Scooter Sprotte.

“Our stadium field was in dire condition and we had no dedicated practice area,” Dobyns said. “I made a pitch explaining Tanque Verde football’s ongoing struggle for relevance and how important practice and game fields are in that process.  Additionally, during last summer’s Bighorn Fire, the Forest Service set up their base of operations on Tanque Verde’s campus.  Hundreds of Hot Shots camped there for weeks causing further distress, which we were happy to sacrifice and do our part.

“From there, Amy and (athletic director) Gary (Lewis) handled the rest, coordinating with the Cardinals’ staff and NFL.”

Jay Dobyns will be a second-year head coach at Tanque Verde this fall (Tanque Verde photo)

The NFL Foundation Grassroots Program is a partnership between the NFL Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a community development support organization that has supported the construction or renovation of almost 400 football fields nationwide since 1998.

During that time, the NFL Foundation has granted more than $60 million to revitalize playing fields in underserved neighborhoods. Fields are newly built or significantly renovated, with improvements such as irrigation systems, lights, bleachers, scoreboards, goal posts and turf. Grassroots grants are issued once established funding thresholds are reached for each project.

“We recognize the important role that football and all sports play in the development of young people and are proud to assist with this field installation,” Bidwill said.

Cislak knows of the importance of athletics with high school students. She earned a softball scholarship to Boston College after her CDO career and later returned to her alma mater and coached the Dorados to state titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009 with Kenzie Fowler her star pitcher.

“We have an incredibly forward-thinking superintendent in Dr. Scott Hagerman who was enthusiastic about me going out for private funding and grants,” Cislak mentioned. “When I approached Coach Dobyns about the grant he was happy to call Michael Bidwill to see how we could make our grant application more attractive and we were in luck as the Cardinals and NFL Foundation had not completed the grant cycle yet.

“When they heard about the commitment from the Tanque Verde Unified School District to help the Bighorn Fire crews and house hundreds of crew members last summer, they realized that this grant was beyond helping football and soccer, rather it was about celebrating an entire community that are incredible advocates for our school as well as the neighbors and wildlife that surround it.

“It was a win-win for everyone.”  


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District

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