Doctors gave the 62-year-old Rockford resident grim news: He never would be able to play racquetball again.
Share Stephens, who had competed across the country as an amateur player for 20 years, didn’t take the diagnosis well.
“I got a little depressed because that was my passion and my love,” Stephens said. “But I believed the doctors when they told me that I wouldn’t play again.”
Stephens underwent two more hip replacements, two right knee surgeries and shoulder surgery in a three-year span, but his spirit and enthusiasm never wavered.
He wound up taking a nearly 10-year break from the racquetball courts, but made a spirited comeback last year and will take part in this weekend’s Meijer States Games of Michigan.
Stephens’ defiance of the odds was prompted by his former racquetball-playing buddies.
“I saw some of the guys at the club and they told me to come and hit with them,” Stephens said. “I tried it, and began by walking to the shots and working on drills.
“They talked me into playing tournaments again and I won. I can’t run as fast, but I can still get to the ball and put it away.”
Stephens began competing again last year after the layoff and returned to the success he had experienced in the past.
He qualified for nationals by winning state and regional titles. He took home silver (50-55+C) and bronze (60+C) medals at the national event.
Last month, Stephens advanced to the USA Racquetball national singles championships in Houston, and brought home a gold medal in the 60+ C age group.
“I’m really surprised by how well I’ve played since coming back,” said Stephens, who works out six days a week. “I can’t compete at the level I used to, so I dropped down.”
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Before his comeback, Stephens had recurring episodes with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation (A-fib), an abnormal heart rhythm.
But a procedure, synchronized electrical cardioversion, helped convert his A-fib to a normal heart rhythm.
Stephens, who also has competed at the Senior Olympics and World Games, said he is fortunate for the second chance to rekindle his love of the sport.
“I’m happy to be back out there with the players, and I’ve made lifelong friends in this sport,” he said. “It’s tough to get older, so it makes me feel young. I thank God for each day and for being able to enjoy life.”
Stephens graduated from Northview in 1967 and was drafted in 1967. He was wounded in the Vietnam War and was awarded a Purple Heart before returning to the U.S.
He majored in physical education at Grand Valley State, and taught at several schools, including then Cornerstone College. He also was a club pro at the Michigan Athletic Club from 1985-98.
Stephens’ introduction to the sport was unique. He was offered a job to teach racquetball, but never had played the sport. He quickly did his homework.
“I was a tennis player, but I took the job anyway and quickly went to the store and bought a book on racquetball,” Stephens said. “I started reading and doing the drills. I thought it was a great sport.”
Stephens’ fiancée, Nancy Rosenzweig, has been his biggest supporter. The two have been together for seven years, and she knows first hand the disappointment of career-ending injuries.
Rosenzweig was an accomplished gymnast and wanted to compete at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal before a back injury ended her dreams.
“I know what it’s like to live without your passion, and it’s not the same,” Rosenzweig said. “I support him 100 percent and I go to his events as his athletic trainer. I rub him down and give hum fluids. Whatever he needs, I’m right there.”
Stephens said he is looking forward to playing in the State Games, which take place at the MAC.
“I’m excited to play in it and see everybody,” Stephens said. “And the biggest thing for me is the camaraderie with all of the players.”