COLUMBIA — As a small, blue rubber ball bounces off the white walls, 65-year-old Tommy Burnett tracks the ball with his eyes. When it comes off the glass at the back of the court, he smashes it with an open hand low off the front wall. It bounces so low to the ground that neither player on the other team can get to it in time. Burnett’s team has won another point.
Burnett competed in the Show-Me State Games handball tournament on Saturday at Wilson’s Fitness Center. Handball is a game similar to racquetball, but players use their hands to strike the ball. Although there were only eight teams in the tournament, it drew several players from outside of Columbia. Burnett, from Springfield, Mo., has been playing handball since he was 28 years old.
“I was working on my doctorate down at Texas A&M University,” Burnett said. “And a couple of old professors grabbed me and took me over and made me play, and I loved it.”
Burnett has always been a good athlete. He ran track and played football for the University of Arkansas in the mid-60s. He went on to play three seasons in the NFL, two with the New York Jets and one with the San Diego Chargers. He was a member of the Jets when they won Super Bowl III in 1969.
But Burnett struggled in the NFL, only starting one game at wide receiver in three years. When his football career ended, he took up racquetball and won a city championship. But when he first took up handball, his natural athleticism didn’t help. In one of his first handball games, he played a pickup game against a man he didn’t know.
“He had to be 75 years old,” Burnett said, “But this old man went up 19-0 when he gave me a point. I couldn’t believe it. I was slobbering. I was yelling. He ran me all over the court. He beat me 21-1. It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done.”
But Burnett is the type of guy who can’t stand not being good at something. He stuck with handball and eventually got the hang of it. He said it took about 6 to 8 weeks, the typical time frame it takes most players to finally start getting better. The difficulty of the game is what Burnett loves about handball.
“It’s hard to play,” he said. “You’ve got to use your left hand and right hand. It takes great hand-eye coordination. It’s physically demanding. If you play handball, it’ll make you better in any other sport.”
In 1972, Burnett became a school administrator at Missouri State University. In 2000, he became a full-time teacher, a job he still holds. In addition to teaching, Burnett coaches the school’s recreational handball team. The team has won the national collegiate championship 11 of the past 17 years.
“About 98 percent of my players have never heard of handball when they come to college,” Burnett said. “So we just grab them off the sidewalk and say ‘hey, come play with us.’”
Burnett has a close relationship with most of his players at Missouri State.
“All of Tommy’s players think of him as their home-away-from-home dad,” said Burnett’s wife, Tammy.
Burnett plays in handball tournaments across the nation.
“I can get into the top four in my age bracket,” Burnett said. “But I can’t beat the top three or four guys, they’re just too good.”
Burnett loves that handball allows him to play competitively, even at his age.
“The court’s only 800 square feet, so a 66-year-old guy can play with a 22 year-old guy and be competitive,” he said. “If you don’t move that 66-year-old guy around, he’s probably going to beat you, because he’s smarter. He’s played longer.”
Handball truly is a lifetime sport. Burnett is astounded by how well it keeps some people in shape as they get older.
“You watch these guys come in and you say ‘they can’t play.’ They’re walking like old guys," Burnett said. "Then they get on the court and the game starts and they’re running all over the place. They don’t look like the same guy. It’s incredible.”
Burnett has played in the Show-Me State Games six or seven times in the past. He said that the low turnout has to do with the timing of the tournament.
“A lot of handball players in the summer play outdoors,” Burnett said. “Everybody likes to play outdoors. The Show-Me State Games are in the middle of the summer, so it’s very hard to get a big crowd of handball players.”
Burnett’s playing partner on Saturday was Steve Wanless, 58, from Springfield, Ill. Burnett and Wanless had never played together before Saturday, but Wanless didn’t mind.
“It’s easy playing with Tommy, because he does all the work,” Wanless said.
The two lost their first match but won their next two, making them the champions of the loser's bracket.
Burnett was extremely tired after playing three matches in one day, something he doesn’t do often. But his passion for handball outweighed his fatigue.
“I love staying in shape. I love being competitive. I love being an athlete. Most men do,” Burnett said. “This let’s me be an athlete all my life. I don’t care if I die out there.”