Relish the moment: Pfluegers love social aspects of the sport

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Richard Pflueger amicably tapped paddles with his teammate, Don McNutt, and their two opponents, Pflueger’s wife, Jan, and Linda Orr, following the final game of the day one hot Wednesday in June.

Richard had barely broken a sweat after alternating five or six friendly, yet competitive games with several other players throughout the morning at Gattman Park Gym 3 in Muscle Shoals.

He and Jan frequent the indoor courts at Gattman Park during the summer months to keep up with their fellow pickleball enthusiasts.

“Nobody here played pickleball five years ago,” Richard said, gesturing to the three full pickleball courts in the gym. “Routinely, we’ll have 20 to 25 players here three days a week. Broadway has 15 to 20 players two days a week.”

He and his wife were instrumental in getting the courts opened at Broadway Recreation Center in Florence in 2016. That was a first step in introducing the Shoals to the “fastest growing sport in America.”

When asked how he and Jan came across the sport, his reply is that it was inevitable because the sport has grown so pervasively in every state across the U.S.

“It’s everywhere. Just not here,” Richard said. “I mean, Huntsville has dedicated pickleball courts, and they play in six different community centers. Athens has dedicated pickleball courts.”

Jan said she and her husband started playing several years ago while on vacation in Florida. When the couple approached the Florence Parks and Recreation Department about converting courts seven years ago, the movement in the Shoals started with the pair and a group of Jan’s tennis fellows.

“That’s really who started this — the Broadway tennis players,” Richard said.

He admits he isn’t quite the tennis player his wife is, and he’s grateful they have found an alternative they both enjoy playing together.

“Pickleball is a lot easier, and it’s a lot more fun because it’s more social,” Jan chimed in. “You play for about 12 minutes, and then you rotate. In tennis, you play for an hour and a half with the same four people.”

She and Richard suspect that’s why the sport is taking the place of tennis in some communities.

“You don’t have to be a real skilled player like in tennis where you need a two-handed topspin,” Richard said. “In pickleball, you just get out and play. It’s easier to learn, easier to play. The hardest part of pickleball is keeping score.”

After tennis courts were marked off to accommodate pickleball players at the Broadway Center, Florence also added pickleball parameters to existing tennis courts on Royal Avenue that same year, Richard said.

As the game continued attracting new players in Florence, eventually courts were added at Veterans Park, and Muscle Shoals Parks and Recreation got on board as well.

“We would probably play with like 12 or 15 in the beginning, and now there are hundreds in the Shoals area, I’d say,” Richard said. “Turtle Point has pickleball. The YMCA, they’ve got two or three indoor courts in their gymnasium. They play several days a week.”

Still, Richard adds that there are no fully dedicated courts to be found between Lauderdale and Colbert counties.

“We need dedicated courts,” he said. “I mean, you see here, we have black lines for pickleball, and there’s red for basketball, blue for volleyball. Dedicated pickleball courts. It’s just a different game. The experience of playing pickleball on a dedicated court is so much better.”

Without dedicated courts, Richard argues that the Shoals is missing out on tourism revenue generated by tournament play. Still, the recreational courts continue to attract casual players from all over northwest Alabama each week.

That is precisely how Richard and McNutt met.

McNutt, who said he learned to play at The Villages in Florida about six or seven years ago, spends much of his time between the retirement community in Naples, Florida, and his home in Haleyville.

“When I came back home, I had to drive all the way to Huntsville to get a game. That’s an hour and a half for me,” he said. “Since then, we play at a little rec center in Moulton, and we play in Florence, we play in Decatur.”

McNutt said he travels to Florence or Muscle Shoals about once a week to play with friends he has made through the sport like the Pfluegers.

He agrees with his friends that he’s drawn to the sport, not only because it’s easy to play and easy to learn, but mostly because of the fellow players.

“It’s the people you meet,” McNutt said. “You can walk on a court somewhere in Dothan and say, ‘Is this open play?’ They’ll say, yeah, come on. It’s just a friendly group. Everybody is smiling. Everybody is happy.”

McNutt, like the Pfluegers and several other players enjoying the games in Muscle Shoals that day, said he occasionally enjoys tournament play, but prefers to play “socially.”

“We play in a lot of different places with a lot of different folks,” he said.

For anyone interested in learning a little more about the sport, all they need is to drop by and ask, he and Richard added.

“If you don’t have a paddle, everybody’s got an extra paddle. They’ll teach you to keep score, where to stand and the rules of the game,” said Richard. “You should either come early or come later when it’s not so busy where there’s an extra court. Just ask somebody, and they’ll teach you how to play.”