I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of athletes face the media to announce their retirements from a sport. For those professionals, giving up on a pursuit they’ve loved for their lifetimes is often a sad occasion. The tears flow even as the body fails. In their 30s and early 40s, it’s a realization that it’s time to move on to the rest of their lives.
Well, I’ve played racquetball since 1980, and it is with some degree of sadness that I’m retiring from the sport.
I know why there aren’t many professional athletes older than 40. Competing at a high level in most sports takes a physical toll. After a knee operation in May of 2013, I thought, and was backed up by my doctor, that I could make a comeback. But competitive racquetball requires quickness and mobility, and it’s just not there for me anymore. My ankles, a doctor said looking at my X-rays, look like they belong to an 80-year-old man.
And a few months ago, my physician suggested that it was time to find something else to do. I set out to show him, but have discovered he’s right. It’s not fun to see a ball I could easily get to, have my brain tell my body to move, and not get the response needed.
Before things get worse, I’m hanging up my racquet.
I took a class called Beginning Racquetball as a junior at WKU because I needed a one-hour credit and it sounded easy. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, and intent on becoming a champion, or at least winning a tournament. My interest grew when I got a summer job at the Louisville YMCA, where I could show up early for my job picking up towels and hit balls by myself on a court.
When I moved to Knoxville in 1982, there was a great facility and I spent many hours practicing, because I had plenty of time. I started playing tournaments, advancing levels until eventually I was competitive in the prestigious Open Division in tournaments. I played in Lexington, and Charlotte, when I lived there.
You see, I had the philosophy that everyone should be really good at one thing, and my thing was racquetball. I’ve been faithful to the sport, a constant in my life that survived changes in location and employment. And women. And everything else that I’ve done the past three decades.
I’ve played at almost every court in town, starting at the Y. There was a stint at the Jewish Community Center. American Fitness. LAC. Whenever I moved, a prime consideration was always how far it was to the courts. At the last complex I lived in, I chose it because it was among the only ones in town with courts. When I traveled on business, I took my racquet and sought pick-up games wherever I stayed. At my workplaces, I took long lunch hours to get games in, or left early to get to a court.
My sons grew up knowing one thing their Dad always did — play racquetball. I took Nick and Josh, and later Luke, to the nursery at the clubs where I played. I taught Josh to play, and he took to the game, but never like I did. After I entered Josh in a junior tournament when he was 10, and he won, a national magazine ranked him #1 in Kentucky, a fact he pointed out to everyone he met. A few years ago I got to play in a tournament sponsored by the U of L club he was in, and was thrilled to impress all his buddies who were shocked his dad was so good.
Every Father’s Day, Birthday and Christmas since I’ve been a Dad, I’ve gotten racquetballs as gifts. Luke, I think, has already bought some for my birthday. I’m not sure what he’s going to find to buy for me now.
I learned about online shopping by buying racquetball shoes and gloves.
The women in my life, and my bosses at various places of employment, accepted my passion, sometimes reluctantly. But racquetball was my constant companion, the one thing I knew would never fail me. The ball always bounced back off the wall, and I could go get it and hit it back harder. And the people who were closest to me understood that, no matter what, I would find the time and I would keep trying to get better. Saturday mornings. Sundays. Lunchtime. After work. Every month, every week.
The game lifted my spirits, improved my mood, whether I was winning or losing. I really thought I’d be able to keep going into my 60s and 70s, like my friends Dave and Ed, but I just wasn’t blessed with the physical ability to do so.
I had been a high school athlete, and until now, always saw myself as a competitive athlete. Most of my friends knew little about this passion of mine. Few came to see me play in tournaments. But I played for me, for the competition, for the fun of sweating through a shirt and 3 gloves in an hour.
For most of the last 34 years, I played this game three times a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. For years, I didn’t go a week without playing. There was a foot injury in about 2000, and I tore an Achilles in 2004, but those were the only extended times when I didn’t play. I’ll never know the true number, but I would guess that I played 150 times a year through my 20s, 30s and 40s. Probably 15,000 individual games.
So I’ll miss the game. And I’ll miss the fraternity of guys I’ve played with all this time. If this were one of those press conferences, I’d be sure to thank all the guys I’ve played against, guys who also had family and work commitments but placed an importance on fitness and needed to satisfy an urge to compete.
I met Tom Raque at the downtown YMCA when I moved home in 1989, and we’ve been constant competitors ever since. I had a weekly lunch game with Dave Fly for years. Scott, Brett, Chip, Larry, Ed, Steve. We all know each other, and are always surprised when we see each other anywhere that’s not a racquetball court. Fight Club without the bruises.
I’ve recovered from hundreds of bruises on the back of my legs, the unique black circles that rise on the skin when you don’t get out of the way in time. I always suggested to certain someones that we got them on purpose just to prove we were actually playing racquetball.
It’s been a long love affair, but all good things must end.