Along the journey from boys to men, playing sports is a constant for many that shapes character, and adds value to life. As time brings inevitable changes, the relationship that some men have with sports adjusts, but may never wane. For the Boomers interviewed for this article, few things in life inspire such a lasting passion, and not many experiences have been as influential to their health, happiness and wellbeing as their encounters with athletics.
The reasons they give for continuing to participate in sports decade after decade include enjoying the benefits of social interaction, comradery, community involvement, improved health and increased self-confidence.
Sports as an entity offers a seemingly endless variety of opportunity. From team to single, amateur to professional, competition to spectator, sporting has the bases covered and nowhere is the effect of sports any more evident than Athens. Economically, environmentally and socially, we are molded by the prevalence of athletics.
Pick a passion: pickleball or ping pong
Relatively new, pickleball happens to be the fastest growing sport in Athens. While it is exciting and competitive to players of all ages and skill levels, Boomers often say they love the sport because it is played on a smaller court, which allows for a rigorous workout with less running than tennis. The game, played with paddles and wiffle balls, is a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton.
Larry King, 71, a lifelong sports enthusiast is an avid pickleball player. Like many of his contemporaries, King played a myriad of sports as a young boy.
“I grew up in a neighborhood with guys the same age and we played sports whenever we could get together.” Like many others, King played the sports trifecta of football, basketball and baseball. “When the season changed we changed the ball.”
Although King says that his sports career ended after high school, he continued to play for exercise and socializing throughout his life, playing flag football, church league softball and as a referee.
Four years ago, though, he started playing pickleball and now is one of the more than 300 members of the Athens Area Pickleball Association. The sport, says King, is so widely played that you can find a tournament somewhere every weekend.
The ready-made society and comradery built into organized competition is compelling for many men. For Al McLeod, 66, various sports have been the catalyst for socializing most of his life. Spending his early years in the solitary pursuit of horseback riding in the Pennsylvania countryside, at age eight, McLeod moved to a city where sports reigned.
“It was very sports-minded, so I had to learn. We played everything in the neighborhood from softball to basketball.” Eventually McLeod played high school tennis and his love of sports has lasted throughout his life. A retired special education teacher, living in Jefferson, McLeod has traded the court for the table and is now an avid ping pong player.
Among its accolades, McLeod says that ping pong is the U.N. of sports. In terms of nationalities and age range, he says it’s remarkable. On one day he says, “The first person I played was a 9-year-old kid who beat me badly. The second person I played was a 70-year-old who beat me badly.” McLeod plays in clubs in Athens and Atlanta, where there are people from all over the world and all walks of life.
Although McLeod plays music and enjoys photography, he says much of his social life is built around sports. When he travels he always looks for a ping pong club in the cities he visits. From Thailand to Nashville he says, ping pong is an entry into different cultures.
A fellow member of the Athens Table Tennis club, 54-year-old Antonio Arazo says that ping pong was a major activity that helped him acclimate to a new culture when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1995.
“In the Philippines I got started playing table tennis when one of our neighbors bought an old sheet of plywood and made a table. We didn’t have paddles and nets, so we put wood in the middle as a net and made our paddles out of plywood. As kids, we didn’t care as long as we had fun – we’d play from morning to night. When I was in high school, we bought real paddles.”
When he and his wife immigrated to Texas, ping pong was the basis of his social life. When he moved to Athens he was happy to find a table tennis association.
The social aspect of sports is not limited to meeting people and networking. For men who have invested a life’s worth of energy into a sport, there is a depth of comradery that few other arenas generate. Retired UGA professor Lewis Allen, 70, has been playing tennis with the same guys for 30 years and says the court is a haven for communication. “We are much more open to talking about things. Sport gives us a common foundation that makes us freer to talk about health and other issues.”
“We are much more open to talking about things. Sport gives us a common foundation that makes us freer to talk about health and other issues,” says Allen.
Fellow player Dick Hudson, 73, echoes that sentiment and compares team loyalty to the military. “There is a certain closeness that comes from being on a team. The military has that. Athletics has it.”
For Hudson, the comradery of sports goes beyond partners and teammates. As Coordinator of Olympic Activities for Athens during the 1996 Olympic Games, Hudson understands the impact of sports on a community. The moment Atlanta was named the host of the Centennial Games, he says the streets in Athens erupted with horns blaring and strangers became handshaking friends.
The Classic City was the largest venue for the games outside of Atlanta and it turned out to be not only an economic boon, but also an exercise in international team building. Hudson recalls that people who had never set foot outside of Athens could see the world up close, and people who had never played sports in their lives could share the universal experience and excitement.
Hudson’s other tennis teammates, UGA swim coach Jack Bauerle, 66, and retired Oconee County tennis coach Dan Gruetter,72, have both experienced the value of sports and how it changed their own lives. They both try to pay it forward.
“Socially,” says Gruetter, “it’s an automatic place where people share interests. But it is also a way to build confidence and overcome issues.”
“It opened doors for a lot of us with scholarships. I have other interests, but sports sure make me happy. It brings you in contact with people you’d have never met,” says Bauerle.
A mystical experience
For some men, sports can also be extremely personal and build bridges to strengthen relationships. For Scotsman Brian Kelly, 72, sports has sometimes been a transcendental experience.
Now retired in Hoschton, he came to the States at age 19 but brought his love of soccer with him. Growing up in Scotland, he says everyone played the game and at one time he played for three leagues. He continued to play in Atlanta into his 40s.
Despite a diagnosis of diabetes at age 13, he started swimming also and made the Olympic trials for Scotland. The mystical quality that appeals to Kelly is part of what creates a bridge between sports and wellbeing for him. “When you’ve given everything, and you’re totally spent, there is a joy you have. At that moment when there is nothing left, it makes my list of mystical experiences.”
When you’ve given everything, and you’re totally spent, there is a joy you have. At that moment when there is nothing left, it makes my list of mystical experiences.
Even though he no longer plays soccer he continues to follow the sport enthusiastically as does his brother in Scotland. The love of the game is a common bond, and Kelly values the role that sports has played in his sibling relationship. “My brother is a year younger and when we get together, eventually we’ll end up talking soccer. When he calls long distance, we’ll talk soccer.”
In the same way, Bauerle says sports is more than a scoreboard. It is an opportunity to deepen connections. He recalls mentor and friend UGA coach Dan Magill. “Time with him on the court was more important than anything else I could do.”
The mind game
An undisputed benefit of participating in sports is improved physical and mental health. Across the board, the men in this article said sports at any age has given them a clarity and sense of satisfaction that nothing else can.
Likewise, Bauerle says that as you age, “Sports remain an integral part of our persona. It keeps you healthy and happy. It keeps you young. Even as an eight or 10-year-old boy I knew it made me feel better.”
McLeod says that ping pong is one of the best sports to play for both physical and mental health. Considering it a mind and body game, he describes it as “three-dimensional chess…For me, on a good day it is meditative. I feel calm and centered.”
And along with health, there’s the self-esteem that comes with success in sports, these men say. “My self-image has always been very tied up in sports, I always identified myself as someone who enjoyed sports,” says Allen. “If I had to stop, it would be difficult because it’s a big part of who I am. When people talk about what you used to do or what you do now, I pretty quickly get to sports as a part of understanding who I am and what’s important to me.”
Kelly says that sports was instrumental in shaping his self-image. “There was an age when I was shy. I was unsure of all kinds of things and sports helped me to be part of a group that was engaged in something that took my mind off that. I learned to define success for myself in a way that I wasn’t aware of at the time. Success can be trying hard and giving it your best and acting in an honorable way when things don’t go your way. I learned that through sports.”
“I learned I was good enough,” says Hudson. “For me, every shot is new, and there is a great feeling when you do something well.”
It’s no secret that things change as you age and success later in life is often determined by how well you adapt to altered circumstances.
“We want to feel like we did when we were kids. A dream day would be to be able to play all day,” says Bauerle. However, he admits he and all his contemporaries are now dealing with injuries and ailments, some related to playing sports.
Gruetter is feeling the effects of his years on the court and considering how to deal with the wear and tear on his knees. “If tires can go 60,000 miles, my knees probably have gone 300,000!” he says.
“We are all dealing with shoulders, knees and hips. Injury is part of the game,” says Allen. But the greater truth is, “We all encourage one another. We want you back even if you’re rusty. An important part of getting better is to get back in the game.”
For some, getting back in the game is a long journey. Brian Kelly was sidelined by a stroke several years ago.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to live and I wasn’t sure in what condition I was going to live. For a time, I couldn’t walk or talk or see.” Today, Kelly can’t yet play the golf course as he once did, but last year, he determined he still wanted to try and play. He signed up for five lessons and began walking to the driving range in his neighborhood to hit balls. He thinks he’s almost ready to join a group and get back on the course.
Playing through the tough stretches is what has the greatest payoff. Not giving in to the battering of time keeps sportsmen going strong.
“I’ve tried to be as involved as I could, depending on the circumstances of life,” says King. “I feel better when I’m involved. I have a better outlook on life, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment. It’s always been that way.”
Although McLeod says his knees aren’t good, ping pong gives him the workout he needs without stress. “It’s the last sport I’ll have the opportunity to be good at, and I can play for hours.”
“It’s the staying active that’s important to me,” says Allen. “I could give up tennis, but I’d need to be active. I need the good feeling when your heart and lungs are in good shape. Without sports I’d probably be a cranky old man no one would want to be around.”
Without sports I’d probably be a cranky old man no one would want to be around.
“I think we accept defeat more readily,” says Bauerle of changing attitudes. “But we still want to win! When you win, food tastes better, things look better, but losing doesn’t change your day as much as it used to.”
“When I was young I had a temper,” says Arazo. “As you age you tend to mellow especially when you play younger people. You become a mentor.”
Gruetter says he sees his relationship with sports as a bell curve. “You start out playing for fun and friendship, then you get competitive for a while. Later the fun and friendship become more important again.”
Here are two websites for the newest sports in Athens:
https://ttathensga.com – Organized officially in 2017, the Athens GA Table Tennis Club has open-play sessions at the East Athens Community Center, 400 McKinley Dr., on Mondays from 6 – 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 – 4 p.m. It’s one of six USATT-affiliated clubs in the state; it organizes and participates in tournaments throughout the year.
http://www.athensareapickleball.com – Organized four years ago,the Athens Area Pickleball Association has now become so popular that the Clarke County Leisure Services department provides six indoor courts, ten courts shared with tennis, and a beautiful six-court pickleball-only facility at Southeast Clarke Park.