A Final Dialogue with TJ Ferro
December 14, 2009; 2:00 p.m.
by Cheryl Kirk
TJ was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in April 2009. He passed away on December 20, 2009. His final year was one involving chemotherapy treatments; doctor appointments; attendance at Junior Nationals in June; playing competitively (for the last time) at the NMRA event in July with partner Jim Elliott; a Night of Appreciation at Glass Court the following week; trips to visit family in Florida and the Northeast U.S. in August and September; a hospital stay over Thanksgiving; and the joy of showing his grandkids Will and Ellie how to hit the ball on December 13th. Just two days before TJ took a decided turn for the worse, Tom Curran (friend, USAR Board member and NMRA President) and I had the joy of spending a pleasant and upbeat afternoon with him to hear his thoughts on racquetball and what the sport has meant in his life. TJ’s partner Marty went on some errands with Shadow the dog, and we sat together to reflect…
How did you get interested in racquetball?
I was working for a health club, the Coliseum in Coral Gables, and it had 24 courts. I got to see Hogan, Yellen and all those guys play. I would go to hit once in awhile, maybe every 2-3 weeks. That was around, maybe 1984.
I began playing competitively in 1994 or so. I went to a tournament. I attended a camp featuring Ruben Gonzalez, Jack Newman, Lynn Adams, Andy Roberts, actually I went to three of their camps. Jack Newman asked me to help out at one of his camps – America’s Most Wanted.
What was your most memorable match?
The first time I ever beat Greg Hasty in the 45+ State Singles in Evergreen Park. He had beaten me 6, 7 times in a row and then I beat him the next 5 times. Haven’t really played him since the 90’s. He’s older than me, so he jumps age groups. That’s where my game shot up, he was the only guy I couldn’t beat.
What was your memorable moment during a match or tournament? Having my granddaughter see her first racquetball match and I won. She was about three. We made an Ektelon t-shirt for her.
Was there one event that you played in that you still remember as the ‘best ever’? What made it so special to you? The first NMRA tournament I played in. It was in Canton, OH. The most amazing tournament I’ve ever been to. (I loved the) sportsmanship, from then on, I was sold on the NMRA. People would ask, “Are you going to Nationals?” I’d say, “No, I’m doing the senior tour!” I wanted to get to Huntsman Games in St. George, UT and the World Seniors in Albuquerque, but I never could because of work.
What do you think makes our sport great and what makes it a challenge?
For me, getting more and more involved in the sport and teaching players the right way to play the game. Great, to me, is the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve kept over the years. It’s the competitiveness of it all. And personally having 3 or 4 people I trained ending up, or will end up, on the pro tour.
Were there any life lessons that you feel you gained directly from playing racquetball?
There’s a lot to do with the sport. It’s really an individual sport, but in many ways it’s not. I go on the court to be competitive, but win or lose is not the big thing. If you’re doing the right things, you’re gonna win. (The most important thing is) to be a good sportsman on the court. Those are the things that made me a better player. You watch people who are competitive but who are not good sportsmen. You see it or you hear about it. It doesn’t work…you know who they are. Each one of us, Tom, you help me, I help Cheryl because then we’re all being good sportsmen like it’s supposed to be. Ninety percent of our tournaments are based in sportsmanship, like the NMRA events. It’s people who call a carry (on themselves), who play rallies over. You get a bad call, you get a bad call.
One time I heard that Gary Mazaroff would announce at the player’s meeting at the World Seniors event: “If you have a problem, play it over. If you still have a problem, play it over. If you still can’t accept it, go on home because you don’t belong here.” If all tournaments were like the NMRA and other non-reffed events, we’d be better off. I told Jim Elliott that it was interesting to watch a couple of NMRA players with a ref (at a non-NMRA event awhile back). They did not play with the same sportsmanship as they would at an NMRA event. Having refs doesn’t necessarily mean a fairer game.
What would you change about our sport to make it better? Well, we’ve already talked about referees. Also, (people being) a lot more aware of the rules and how to interpret them.
We’ve talked about women’s racquetball, but never have done anything (significant) to promote girls in racquetball. That could be an easy target. Juniors in general, 80% are male. What if the NMRA would pay entry fees and help with the expenses for any first-time female Junior Nationals attendees, to get girls to play tournaments? Especially junior championships. The other thing is, we might say the first ten new annual junior girl members of USAR will be paid for by the NMRA. Up to maybe $500 per year for first-year memberships. Get women pros and leaders to work with young girls.
Getting the pros more involved in being what they’re supposed to be, not just about money. Pros should at least get out there and teach their expertise and do demos. Instead of using them, we tend to use the amateurs. Separate companies (manufacturers) need to come in there and get their pros to do clinics and demos.
At this point, Marty returned and Shadow the black lab took a few laps around the living room…
What was your proudest moment in racquetball?
The Summerfest Night of Appreciation. I can’t even put into words, it was the most amazing thing that’s happened in my life. My legs were shaking that night. Just to have my family and friends who care for me come there to support me. Totally phenomenal.
Marty added, “His family got to know how truly successful and loved TJ is in the racquetball world. The racquetball family perhaps never realized TJ had a family, sons, grandchildren.”
Cheryl said, “It’s not easy to lose you, TJ. It’s not easy for any of us. But having that time with you in July meant so much, not just to you, but to all of us. It created memories we’ll have with us forever.”
Tom added, “What I took away from that night is how wonderful that TJ has lived a life worthy of such celebration. The way you live forever is in the memories of others -- you never go away. It made me proud of the sport. I was so proud to be a part of that group on that July evening.
What advice would you like to give to the next generation of racquetball players?
Keep it up – I hope that maybe all the racquetball players will try to get out there and get more people involved in the sport. I would like to see our sport grow. If I were still going to be here, I would definitely try to make that happen. Promote the game on any level.
Krystal is like my daughter. We’ve been through a lot together. She’s done great, I’m so proud of her. I couldn’t be more proud of her and Trevor for what they have accomplished in education and racquetball.
Incredible kids. Just having 34 kids with JTI, that in itself. Every one of them was dedicated 2-3 times a week. They pushed me, I didn’t push them.
For many, life took over, something had to give. Now a lot of them are coming back. What was cool about that night in July, they said they were beginning to play again. They realized that racquetball was not just a game, they could take more from it. Put in to get out. It helped in their education. None of them could be in JTI unless they had at least a C+ average. Most were B+ and better. Education first, racquetball second.
What do you want to say to all of the people you have come to know and love through racquetball?
If it wasn’t for all of them, I wouldn’t still be in the game. Teaching racquetball to kids has helped my own game because it reinforces the basics I was trying to give them. It made me go over and over the basics. At this point in my life, I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers throughout this last year with what I’m going through. I’d like to name you all by name, the Leon Berrymans and so many others, you’ve been with me since the early days. Geoff Peters, the Milazzos…
Anything else would you like to say to your friends and family?
My grandkids are my pride and joy. Anything in my life I could have had, they are my pride and joy.
Ellie, 7, has natural court sense. Her hand/eye coordination is there, she had that to start. She moved to the place where the ball was going.
Maybe we don’t fully understand and appreciate what we have in our racquetball family. We all have our separate lives but it’s so funny, we come together at a tournament and we’re all together. It’s like Thanksgiving dinner all over again.
“Racquetball people are the best,” said Marty.
TJ’s eyes grew heavy and it was time for a nap. One last question:
TJ, how would you want to be remembered by our sport? As a competitor, a good sportsman, a dedicated teacher and a good friend.
Our good friend, you achieved that and so much more. We love you and wish you Godspeed.
Post script: To demonstrate his love for Ektelon, TJ had proudly sported for years an Ektelon flame tattoo on the outside of each calf. When he was diagnosed with cancer last spring, he expressed his desire to be buried in his Ektelon clothing and cap (worn backwards, of course). That did indeed take place. As TJ told Ektelon VP Scott Winters on a phone call just a few days before he passed, “I can’t wait to get to heaven and start a junior program up there!”
This story was granted by the ISRA giving the WPRO permission to use this article from their Winter 2010 Newsletter. Courtesy of the Illinois State Racquetball Association. Photo: Cheryl Kirk