They started tearing out the Manhattan High tennis courts in the past week or so. Somehow, despite my best intentions, I got wistful.
A backhoe sat on one of the courts Friday morning; the fencing was down, and a hunk of concrete had been torn out on the first court.
The plan is to tear those out and build four new ones at a spot nearby, all behind the high school building, in the general vicinity of the football practice fields. That’s certainly progress, since the existing courts have been in bad shape for years. For years I have advocated in columns like this one for the community to improve its tennis courts — in addition to other sports facilities for kids. A friend of mine who eventually became the head coach at the University of Texas described the MHS facilities as the worst high school courts he had ever seen.
So I’m happy for change.
But the wistful part of me flared up early Friday morning, as two of my boys and I went up there to hit a few balls. We had done the same thing a couple of weeks ago. I was unsure of the exact time frame for the demolition project, although I knew it was coming before long.
I played on those courts during high school. We practiced up there every day after school, ran sprints, even held meets there. The courts weren’t great, and there really was nowhere for spectators, but those were great days. I practiced with guys who graduated from 1983 to 1989 — good players, really good teams. They were coming off a state championship in 1982, and so the program expectations were high.
We had a lot of fun, but we weren’t messing around. We were good. I got good. Went to state as a freshman. Yadda yadda yadda. Glory days, right?
All you’re left with, eventually, is boring stories.
My oldest son made the varsity team as a freshman, and I went up there to practice and felt like time had folded on itself. When I dropped him in the parking lot to get on the team van for their first meet that year, I had the most profound deja vu moment of my life. Why wasn’t I getting on the bus? Who was this kid? Who the hell am I?
Time slips away. Glory days, well, they’ll pass you by, in the wink of a young girl’s eye. Somebody said that once. A singer. Can’t place the name.
Another of my boys joined, and they both got good. I got more involved, went up there to those courts and hit with the guys several times as the team got better and better. They’ve been back in serious state competition for about the past five years. My youngest, for a variety of reasons, ended up going to high school somewhere else, but he also played — better than any of us, actually — and we periodically found ourselves at MHS anyway.
The courts were bad — really bad, sometimes completely unplayable — but I used that as a teaching point: Rocky Balboa trained by slugging beef carcasses and chasing chickens. Doesn’t matter what court you’re on. The Williams sisters played in the public park in Compton. Just work harder than anybody else. That’s it.
I’m glad for progress. It needed to happen. I’m a little dissatisfied that they’re not adding more courts — the community still needs a place that actually could host a real tournament or even just a high school meet — but the new high school courts still will improve the situation.
Somewhere, there’s a guy who, in a few years, will relish his time on those new courts. And then 35 years later, he’ll hit with his own kids up there, and then maybe, when those get torn out and moved somewhere else, he’ll feel these feelings. Generations roll on.
We didn’t get a chance Friday morning, which, in retrospect, is fine. Turns out our last go-round was that time a couple weeks ago. Me and my two sons, playing our game.
Joe Schartz, the high school football coach, was there that day, wearing a mask, leading his players in the offseason conditioning program that’s so well-known. As we swatted balls back and forth, the football team and coaches walked back behind the court, as had happened about a million times before, occasionally giving me — or my boys — some smack-talk about tennis. Sometimes, in my younger days, we gave it back. Usually not. Those guys were a lot bigger.
But this time I had gray hair, and my two boys were both older than everyone at the football workouts. I saw Dayne Aschenbrenner, the starting quarterback, and Marccus Wallace, both of whom are seniors I coached in baseball when they were 8. “You guys back one last time before they tear ‘em out?” Coach Schartz hollered to us.
I paused for a moment, looked around, took it in, and answered: “Just for old time’s sake.”