Recently I was asked to document a speech I gave back on Sunday, Sept. 3, at the Leavenworth Labor Day Tennis Tournament, a competition my high school coach James Mathis has put for nearly four decades.
This story began last year when I could not get off work for the tournament. As a law enforcement officer, that happens and although I was not upset, I was disheartened that it happened to be the year that the tennis courts at David Brewer Park were dedicated to coach Mathis. There is no one who deserves this honor more than coach Mathis.
This event got me thinking, however, of how lucky I was to be one of the many individuals who had coach Mathis as a teacher and coach. I am now 38-years-old and I have met very few individuals who measure up to coach when it comes to being a giving individual who does so many things for so many others.
In the time I have known coach, he has always been involved in the Leavenworth community on many levels; from working the chain gang at football games to checking the energy use at the community schools, he does many things.
What I know most about coach though is the tireless effort he has put forth in making Leavenworth, a small Midwest town without a racquet club, a constant competitor in the tennis world. Coach Mathis started the high school tennis program and built it from the ground up. He began with nothing and by the early to mid 1970s he was winning league titles.
In approximately 1985 a young man armed only with a Wilson T-3000 and a ratty pair of tennis shoes decided to go hit balls that his single mother had bought him to go with her old racquet. He walked to the David Brewer tennis courts, which were located less than one block from his house, to hit against a wooden wall. The kid had no idea how to play tennis, but he did have time and seemed to enjoy the game.
Several times he saw a man at the courts who had a ton of balls and he seemed to be teaching people how to play. The kid knew that his mother could not afford tennis lessons, and the thought never would have crossed his mind to ask. The man, though, after seeing the kid there several times, approached him. He gave him old balls to practice with, showed him how to properly hold his racquet and his kind words of encouragement really peaked the kid's interest in the game.
As time went on the kid improved but still was not good enough to play with anyone, so he continued to hit against that wall. One day, the man asked the kid if he would like to help. At the time, the kid did not understand. The man allowed the kid to pick up balls so that the paying student and the man did not have to pick them up. The kid agreed to do so and he frantically picked up balls while the man taught his lesson.
The man allowed the kid to do this with several students and although he did not really realize it at the time, looking back I remember that coach Mathis not only taught his paying students, but he took the time to explain things to the kid as well. I continued to hit on that wall and before long, coach would hit balls with me after he was done teaching his lessons.
Hitting with a person, it turns out is a lot more fun and challenging than a wall. But Coach Mathis, without ever asking for payment, continued to teach me and groom me as a player.
As I got better he introduced me to the Rabe Tennis Club. This was a local group of players who have been playing for over 50 years transcending multiple generations. I began to play with the group and met many wonderful individuals.
I now understand, after being a professional teacher myself in college and spending a couple decades around the sport, how truly special our club in Leavenworth really is. Although I thank each of you members, it was coach Mathis who got me started and as the award states, I am "eternally grateful."
Coach Mathis spent countless hours teaching and more importantly, playing tennis with me. He continued to mentor me and when he felt I had gone as far as I could with him, he arranged for me to work with tennis professional Ben Ford, stressing the importance of this to my mother who worked hard to keep me in shoes and strings and the lessons I needed to get better. Thank you mom.
But I do remember Coach Mathis driving me to tournaments that my mother could not get me to. Coach would spend all day while I played, and he would buy me food and never take reimbursement even if you tried to pay him. If I heard it once I heard it 100 times... "No, thank you. All I ask is that he plays hard when he gets to the high school level." I indeed continued to work hard and I tried to do my best for coach.
I feel that I am a better than average tennis player thanks to coach Mathis, and my mother, but the tennis was all due to coach. I hold multiple career records at Leavenworth High, but I am only pointing this out because no one would know about those records if Coach Mathis did not keep them. He has kept records on all most all his players for 40 years. He painted a target on Tim Nedwed's back telling me how many records he held that I could try to break.
Coach then helped getting me to Washburn University, getting Peg Marmet in touch with my mother. Coach Marmet took control of getting me to NCAA matches and my game continued to improve. I now hold the record for most career singles wins at No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles for Washburn University, and in 1997 I got the opportunity to play for an NCAA national doubles title in Memphis, Tenn.
Again this is not about me, as I would not have known how to keep score if not for Coach Mathis. I bring this up because while I was playing a tough match that we lost 7-5, 7-6, the first person there to console me was coach Mathis, who drove all the way to Memphis to see me play. By this point in my career I was not surprised, as he had also driven to several other of my tournaments.
I will end my little story by saying this — I have had a lot of success on the tennis court that I am thankful for. To this day the thing I am most upset about is the fact that I was not able to win the elusive state championship my senior year. The reason this bothers me so much is that if anyone deserved to have a state championship, it was coach Mathis.
I am also thankful that Chris Chapman and Scott Hendrics were able to finish second and at least get coach Mathis some recognition at state. Coach has time and time again taken tennis players with less promise and turned those players into players who not only competed, but often won. It is because of nothing less than his time and commitment to his players that he had the success that he did.
I am more grateful than he will ever know and I hope my speech at the tournament was appreciated. Coach Mathis, I am "eternally grateful" and I love you like a father... Jesse.