Not your average student-athlete
Sixty-year-old tennis player returns as college player
Posted: Thursday February 28, 2008 1:03PM; Updated: Thursday February 28, 2008 1:03PM
Sheila Johnson just wanted tennis lessons. That's it. It was a simple request for the 60-year-old former high school teacher who retired after 30 years of instructing students on the finer points of algebra.
Unfortunately for her, this was the time Greg Prudhomme, her tennis instructor, went back to school and dedicated himself to being college head coach.
Their brief story was supposed to end here, with Johnson presumably finding another instructor at the Paseo Racquet Center in Glendale, Ariz. and Prudomme beginning to assemble his first team at Grand Canyon University, yet somehow Johnson's insistence on having Prudhomme as her instructor and his need to recruit the best tennis players in the area led them back to each other.
It was a math problem that even Johnson wasn't sure that she could solve.
"There was obviously a huge age difference, I hadn't played competitively in 30 years and was out of college for just as long," says Johnson, who graduated from Arizona State with a master's degree in secondary education. "I wasn't sure if I could go back but I thought it would be fun find out."
If Prudhomme had been hired at any other time by any other school, Johnson would likely be serving volleys with her fellow retirees at the tennis club, but he was hired by Grand Canyon, an NCAA Division II program that had gone winless the previous season, a month before the school year started. If that wasn't bad enough, every player on Grand Canyon left the team at season's end, leaving Prudhomme with no players and the fall semester fast approaching.
"It was like a scene out of The Replacements or something, I was putting together a team of misfits," said Prudomme, who had been the head pro at Paseo Racquet Center for 15 years before joining Grand Canyon. "I spent more time on the phone and e-mailing than anytime in my life put together. I called up every teaching pro that I knew, every academy owner I knew, every college coach I knew. I called player after player but they were all already enrolled in school."
In the end, the best player Prudhomme found had been in front of him the whole time. Johnson would jokingly pester Prudhomme's parents, who worked at the local tennis pro shop, that if her son wasn't going to give her tennis lessons, she would use her last year of college eligibility and play for him at Grand Canyon and get daily tennis lessons from him.
The joke didn't elicit laughter so much as pique the interest of Prudhomme, who was having a difficult time assembling a tennis team on such short notice.
"It was a joke but when my parents passed that message along to me, I was all ears," said Prudhomme. "I called her back and said, "Hey Sheila, this Greg Prudhomme the new coach at Grand Canyon and I'd like to offer you a scholarship."
Johnson, who is third ranked women's player in the USTA 60s division, may have been more than 40 years older than the players Prudhomme was recruiting, but she was also better than most of them. She had won three straight Iowa Prep School singles championships in the early 1960s and played on the women's tennis team at Arizona State from 1963-65 before leaving the team after a disagreement with the coach. She rarely touched a racket over the next 30 years as she got married, had a child and became a high school math teacher, but she always had that one year of eligibility left.