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Chin Up: Packers football hero Mark Tauscher has passion for a new game: pickleball
Former NFL lineman Mark Tauscher now finds a competitive outlet in pickleball. Video by Lori Nickel
Sun Prairie - The man who kept Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers upright, who tossed aside linebackers for Ron Dayne, is now sharpening his competitive edge on a small court with a few good friends, a cute little paddle and a plastic ball with holes in it.
Yes, your Wisconsin football hero Mark Tauscher now destroys the competition with dink shots to the kitchen in the thrilling game of pickleball.
Never heard of it? Then you’re probably too young to know Sean Connery as James Bond, too.
“Yeah ... Pickleball has kind of been pegged as an older person’s game,” said Tauscher. “But there’s getting to be more and more younger people.”
The game is played on a badminton-size court with a hard paddle and a ball that resembles a whiffle ball. Oscar Santiago Torres/ Naples Daily News via Wochit
Tauscher, 40, spent his post-NFL years playing tennis, getting so good he earned a respectable 4.0 ranking as a better-than-average player. But then two years ago, his sister-in-law in Rochester, Minn., invited him to try pickleball — kind of like tennis with a little of ping-pong and badminton — and Tauscher found a new passion.
“First time I played, I was like man, this is fun,” said Tauscher. “And as my knee has gotten a little bit worse, tennis has gotten less.”
Now Tauscher plays doubles with several other good friends at Prairie Athletic Club three times a week at 5:30 a.m., getting in about 6,500 steps — or three miles — in an active 90-minute morning.
Pickleball looks like it was invented for your overcrowded grade school gym class. The entire court fits inside a basketball court at Prairie Athletic Club. The serves and volleys resemble what you see in tennis, with one rule that the first and second shots must bounce.
Another unique area is the 'kitchen' — the area just outside around the net, marked on each side with a boundary line. Good players trickle shots in here.
Forget the ace serves, this is not a game of power, not with a whiffle-like ball.
But at close range, on a compact court, you will have wicked back and forth line drives, where good reflexes, deft hand-eye coordination, skill, technique and teamwork all come in to play.
The trickiest rule for Tauscher at first was waiting for the returns to bounce.
“It’s all about having touch and getting the ball to land in the kitchen,” said Tauscher. “That’s the shot, and then you kind of turn it in to a hand-eye, patience game.
“There’s definitely advantages to having long arms. With the kitchen you can stretch out to get to some balls.”
Besides the movement, the social benefits are good too. He can play couples with wife Sarah.
“It’s another way to be competitive without being crazy,” said Tauscher.
Tauscher is still so competitive that, as the co-host of a successful sports radio talk show Wilde & Tausch on ESPN Radio, he once mentioned that he and doubles partner Aaron Kostichka came back from a 0-3 deficit in a seven-game series to beat Dan Hannan and Brian Vogler.
“We had them down big in game 4. They ended up coming all the way back and beat us 4 games to 3,” Hannan said. “Mark included that in the sportscaster update segment of his show that day. Since then Brian and I have been looking to strike back.”
That moment came last year, when Hannan and Vogler beat Tauscher and Kostichka in the 5:30 a.m. pickleball championship.
“We decided that we should start keeping track of all of the matches,” said Hannan. “Each match that we play consists of a best of 7 series for 1 point. Brian and I ended up winning 31 matches to their 23.”
It's interest like this from young guys that makes Prairie Athletic Club co-owner Andy Thompson believe pickleball is the fastest growing-sport in the country — especially in Florida and out West, but here as well.
In the massive Prairie Athletic Club — which opened 42 years ago as a racquetball club and has expanded 18 times to now feature 250,000 square feet indoors of soccer fields, basketball courts, track and waterpark — pickleball also has a place. It is growing.
On New Years Eve 70 kids turned out to play at the club’s pickleball clinic, and more than 100 members play regularly. Many of them are crossover players from other racket sports.
“You’re using strokes that you’ve used your whole life — it’s definitely going to translate in to pickleball,” said Andy Thompson, one of the owners of the family-run athletic club. “You have the longevity of being able to play this sport — that’s what I’m hearing from a lot of players.
“It’s not as much space to cover, and anybody that has any injuries — you’re not moving quite as much. You’re still using those skills that you’ve loved and have been using your whole life.”
Thompson understands why Tauscher enjoys it so much. Thompson was a national and world racquetball champion and then played professional baseball for nine years, including 60 games with the Toronto Bluejays.
Now he plays pickleball.
“As a former athlete, we’re always looking for something to keep those competitive juices going,” said Thompson.