With midnight not too far off and Kennedy Park’s outfield lights shining brightly, Liam Hopkins stood among hundreds of family, friends, supporters, acquaintances and, in some cases, complete strangers.
He laughed and shook hands. He thanked countless people for coming out to his event. He smiled and talked about his father, Tom, now gone for two-plus years since his death in March of 2014.
The third annual Papa Hops 16-inch Softball Tournament held at Kennedy Park was in the books, and even if only for a minute or two, Hopkins could stop and relax.
“My dad would always sit on that outfield bench with a group of guys. If he could be here, he would do the same thing,” Hopkins said. “He would watch and embrace the moment of what we’re trying to do. To look around and see what we’ve done, it’s a remarkable feeling. It’s wild to see.”
Almost 2,000 people came out for the tournament on July 15 with games played at Kennedy and Mt. Greenwood Parks.
Hopkins said the tournament raised over $35,000 this year, bringing its three-year total to over $65,000.
“The softball is great and such a competitive part of the event, but we’re trying to shine a light,” Hopkins said. “The community gives us the support to raise the money and help the families in our neighborhood. We want to end the fight against cancer.”
Now 23, Liam organized the tournament for the first time just five months after his father died.
The tourney has continued to grow and has quickly become a South Side staple.
Liam’s older brother, Martin, was blown away by the community response. Martin was on the Papa Hops organizing committee as well.
“My dad always said it was such a good thing to get people involved, especially our community and our park,” Martin said. “We started this wanting everyone to come up to the park. After such a good turnout, we wanted to do it again. We’re rolling with it and learning each year.”
The Papa Hops tournament also welcomed a special guest to catch the first pitch with new Chicago Bear tight end Tony Moeaki in attendance. A teammate of Martin’s at the University of Iowa, the Wheaton native was drafted in 2010 by the Kansas City Chiefs and has spent time with the Bills, Seahawks and Falcons.
Moeaki caught the first pitch from Anthony Pappalas of Anthony’s Avengers prior to the championship. Anthony, 6, has been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer and continues a valiant fight with the support of his family, siblings and extended family.
“Martin and some former teammates approached me about doing the event,” Moeaki said. “I was absolutely on board with helping. It’s awesome to see. I’ve never really been in a community on the South Side like this. It’s great.”
As a newbie to the event, Moeaki wasn’t sure of what to expect. He arrived to the applause of the almost 2,000 in attendance.
“No one told me much,” Moeaki said with a laugh. “A teammate just told me I was walking into ‘something’ and to be ready. It definitely surpassed what I was expecting. I’m blown away with all the people.”
In the tournament championship, the same two teams, Yahtzee and Mint Condition, met for the title for the third straight year.
Mint won in walk-off fashion with a 9-8 victory with Brendan Gusich knocking in Tom Moody for the game-winning run.
A former football and baseball standout for Mt. Carmel High School and Indiana University who plays for Mint, Chris Sujka loves being a part of the charity event.
“It’s special for all of us because we’re all friends with Martin and Liam,” Sujka said. “It definitely means a little more with more of an emotional connection than some of the other teams.”
Martin had played on Mint in previous years but was unable to play this year because of the time commitment with the organizing committee.
As for fans of the event looking forward to next year, Liam Hopkins has his date set for the fourth running of the tournament.
“We’re set up for July 14, 2017,” Liam said with a laugh. “We like the Friday event where we can bring everyone together with the park lit up. It’s a great event, and the most important part being what we’re trying to do as a foundation to help other people.”