From the window of Glenys Lobban’s apartment at Riverside Drive and 110th Street, the field looks like just another blotch of grass among several others in the expanse of the park below. One would have to actually walk down to the lowest tier of Riverside Park, right next to the Henry Hudson Parkway, to see the plaque that names the field for Neville Colman, Lobban’s late husband. Neville Colman Field is not his most substantial legacy, certainly not for a man who reared two children and broke new ground as a medical researcher, but it is perhaps the most appropriate one, a commemoration of all he did for youth sports in New York City.
In the mid-1980s, Colman helped found the West Side Soccer League. Back then it was a loose affiliation of 80 or so children, 4- or 5-year-old kids who could barely kick a ball straight. By the time Colman stepped down as regional commissioner more than a decade later, there were several thousand players-from toddlers to teenagers-playing soccer in the league. The numbers have only grown; these days, the league claims 4,200 participants and around 8,000 volunteers. And most everyone agrees that none of it would have been possible without Colman’s passionate dedication to youth athletics.
“The biggest job was getting it off the ground and functioning, and that was Neville’s doing,” said Mark Freedman, the league’s third commissioner and the driving force behind getting Colman’s name attached to the field.
The roots of youth soccer on the West Side actually lay in baseball. When the Pee Wee League season ended, many families were looking to continue with a new activity. That’s when some immigrant parents proposed soccer, a sport Colman had played throughout his youth in South Africa, but it was one that flew under the radar in America.
“It was a very foreign game,” Lobban said. “It had no kind of presence in the American public domain. But these foreign parents played themselves when they were kids and knew how the game worked. And they were all very passionate about the new league.”
So passionate that the initial impromptu games were not enough to satisfy demand. Within a year, Colman joined five other parents in founding the league. It started with a half-dozen teams, about 80 players and no overarching sense of direction. That changed when Colman visited relatives in California and encountered the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) and its philosophy that “everyone plays.”
“He knew kids wanted to play,” Freedman said. “He knew the kids wanted to get out there and have fun. He really pushed the AYSO philosophy, and I think that’s the reason it became so successful.”
“Some of the other soccer leagues were much more focused on competition,” Lobban said. “With AYSO, everyone has to play at least three-quarters of a game so that some of these young kids aren’t held out because they’re not as good as the other kids. And that became a guiding principle of the league and something Neville tried to impress on all the parents.”
The national organization donated some money and uniforms, and Colman became the league’s regional commissioner. For the most part, the job meant taking care of all the little things: balls, goals, painting the lines, referees, trophies and whistles, not to mention field access. Throughout his tenure, Colman did it all and more. He would often coach in one game and serve as referee in another. He trained other referees and went around after games to make sure equipment was properly stored.
“It was very much a community project,” Lobban said. “It was such a small group of people that everybody pitched in. Everyone got tremendously excited about it, and there was really a sense of being pioneers. There was a real hunger in the city for sports activities for kids. There were people coming from other boroughs to play. The word spread. The league fulfilled a very important function. It gave the kids a game and gave parents something that fostered a community in a very positive way.”
Colman had a history of community involvement. As a young man in Johannesburg, he played rugby, soccer and cricket, among many other sports. But he gave up athletics when he went to college because the teams were segregated. Both he and Lobban were involved with anti-apartheid efforts, but eventually despaired of ever creating change in their home country and decided to emigrate.
By that time, he had already done important research on folic acid and the effects of a diet deficient in folate. His work paved the way for the fortification of many cereals with folic acid first in South Africa and later in the United States. In the 1980s, Colman was also instrumental in establishing standards for the use of forensic DNA in criminal investigations. He eventually became a professor at Columbia and the chairman of the pathology department at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
After running the league since its beginning, he stepped down as commissioner in the mid-90s. Colman died of cancer in 2003, at the age of 57. Not long after, the league teamed up with the Parks Department and the Riverside Park Fund to renovate several fields that were in poor condition. One of them, between 106th and 108th streets, got an all-weather artificial turf with plenty of space, enough for a big soccer game or two simultaneous baseball games. And when it opened in 2005, it also got the name of Neville Colman.
“It’s wonderful that I can see it from my window, and Neville would have been thrilled,” Lobban said. “He would have been really honored to have this little piece of New York and soccer connected to him.”
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