A second generation of adolescent neighborhood athletes known as “The Hannah Boys” can be seen running up and down fields and grinding it out under garage basketball nets on Hannah Avenue.
As kids growing up on the same street, brothers Nic and Dan Novak, Ryan Russ, the Entler brothers (Eric, Kyle, Jason and Kris), and a handful of other sports-crazed children would play imaginary Super Bowls or Game 7s of The NBA Finals at any garage court, schoolyard, or on any field they could find.
Two decades later, their kids have become “The Hannah Boys 2.0,” and they now revel on a customized football field created by the Novak brothers. Along the side of their home, at 516 Hannah Ave., in a long lot of grass, Nic and Dan have designed a 30-yard football field complete with painted yard lines, hash marks, and end-zone logos – one reads, in bold letters, “CHICAGO BEARS,” the other “NOVAK.”
“Hannah Horizon,” as it is known, also features a scoreboard; concessions, including a popcorn machine and assorted drinks; and, most importantly, a consistent stream of Cutler, Peppers, and Forte jerseys worn by neighborhood kids, running up and down the field.
“My brother and I live in the same house with his family on the second floor,” Nic Novak said. “There are 10 of us so we kind of already have our own built-in team. When we bought the house, we thought about making a football field for our kids and their friends. It started a few years ago and each season we add a few new things.”
The “Hannah Horizon” games begin in accordance with the NFL schedule and are typically planned around Bears games.
“We’ll play some games before the Bears kick off and then at halftime,” Dan Novak said. “The field reminds me of when we were kids, just playing pickup games. It’s all about our kids. We cut the grass, paint the field, and it’s just a lot of Saturday morning fun for my brother and me. Our motto is ‘we work hard, but we play harder’. One of these days, I think we’ll grow up.”
The field is approximately 30 yards long and games often consist of four or five kids, per side, playing two-hand touch football. The original “Hannah Boys” have even been known to get on the field and play with their kids from time to time. Even a few old high school pals occasionally drop by to have a few beers and then reenact their gridiron glory days in a good-natured scrum they refer to as “Goal Line.”
“It’s mainly a kid’s field but we can definitely turn into an adult field,” said Nic Novak, with a laugh. “The best games are when kids play with an all-time adult quarterback. The adult kind of settles the game down, can show the kids how to run a route, and teach them about football.
Ryan Russ, now 35, recently served as the all-time quarterback during a kids’ pickup game that also featured his son, Max.
“Seeing our kids play together like we did growing up is pretty tripped out,” Russ said. “It’s awesome. Ironically, this is the yard we weren’t able to play in as kids. When Nic and Dan bought the house, then we finally could play on this field.”
The current crop of hometown kids loves the experience of playing in their virtual NFL mini-camp.
“It’s really fun playing on this field,” said Matt “Bulldog” Novak, Nic’s seven-year-old son. “Matt Forte is my favorite [Chicago Bears] player because he has my name. I try to play like him in our games.”
Nine-year-old Sam Marino, who attends Field-Stevenson Elementary School, also enjoys the accessible local gridiron. With friends and family clad in Bears blue-and-orange often along the sidelines of “Hannah Horizon,” Marino is the lone Packers fan.
“Of course, I love playing on this field against my rivals,” Marino said. “I can always play against these two knuckleheads [Nic and Matt Novak].”
When the weather warms up, in the spring and summer, the Novak brothers will transform the field into a baseball diamond complete with chalk lines and bases.
“We don’t model it after Wrigley Field or U.S. Cellular because our fan loyalties are divided,” said. “We all bleed Bears orange-and-blue, though, year-round.”
Aside from the spirited on-field action, parents, family and friends often gather at Hannah Horizon to chat, enjoy some food and watch their kids. It is, essentially, the Novak’s own version of tailgating.
“I live across the street,” said Dave Novak, former executive director of the Park District of Forest Park for 23 years. “Some people think that’s too close to live near my sons [Nic and Dan] and their families. I guess I’m like Ray Barone in ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’; but, honestly, I love watching all the kids grow up together.”
So do the original “Hannah Boys.”
Photos by J. GEIL/Staff photographer