One of the first things Mike Nelms said to me when I met him was, “I like tennis. I like the fact that it’s an individual sport. You control your own destiny, unlike in a team sport.”
I found this odd, given that Mike gained fame as a member of a team, and a pretty good one at that: the Washington Redskins of the early 1980s. In any event, here he was tapping fluorescent tennis balls back and forth with a bunch of boys on a handsome tennis court at Camp Moss Hollow.
The court is brand new, built in the spring with funds contributed by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. It’s quickly become a favorite. That probably has something to do with Mike’s enthusiasm, and that of the college student who was helping him teach the kids the game: 19-year-old Alex Curnow from Randolph-Macon College.
Mike and Alex didn’t start with anything too complicated. In fact, they didn’t start with tennis at all, but with some football-style footwork drills and then a couple of jogs around the court.
Finally, they had the kids grab rackets and break into pairs. Alex asked them to tap a ball back and forth with their partner. He didn’t want anything too aggressive, just a simple tea party.
“Soft!” Alex said after many of the balls were catapulted across the court. “Soft, guys!”
When they’d done that for a while, the boys lined up on the far court, then sidestepped along the net as Alex tossed them balls.
“Don’t swing,” he directed. “Just tap it over the net.”
Toss. Mighty whiff.
“I hate tennis!” one boy announced after the ball sproinged off his racket like it had been shot from a mortar.
Mike chuckled. “It’s a lot different from what they think. But isn’t life that way?”
If that was a lesson Mike was hoping the kids would learn — that something that looks easy might not be; that you get better with practice — he was not so obvious as to announce it. Rather, he and Alex made learning tennis fun. The feet are as important as the hands, Alex said. Move to the ball, but don’t get too close to it. Look through the racket to see the ball.
After the campers had run the drill a few times, Alex gave his verdict: “You did pretty well, guys. I think you might be ready for a game.”
But not a game of tennis. A game called “Jailbreak.” The campers lined up single file on the far court. Alex stood on the near side, racket in hand, a raised basket of balls at his hip. As each camper moved forward, Alex fed him a ball. If the return landed in the court, the kid went to the back of the line. If he missed the ball, missed the court or hit the net, he was in “jail” and had to join Alex.
You could free yourself from jail by catching a ball hit by someone who was still in the game and switching places with him. Suddenly, there was a point.
And that’s what the boys wanted: a chance to compete. Those who weren’t too good at hitting might be better at catching.
It soon became a raucous free-for-all, with Alex deftly sending shots over the net and campers of varying abilities returning them, jailed prisoners scrambling for the balls. Mike kept up a constant encouraging patter.
It might not have been allowed at Wimbledon’s Centre Court, but it had introduced the basics of the game to some kids who might otherwise never have played.
Before the bell rang for lunch, Alex had the boys gather balls and lean their rackets against the fence. Then he said, “Let’s see what coach has on the tennis court. We already know what he’s got on the football field.”
The 59-year-old punt returner and the 19-year-old college student volleyed back and forth, friendly but intense.
You know what? Mike Nelms, former Redskin, is pretty good.
I caught up with Mike later at lunch. “It would be stupid of me not to use the platform that I have to help people,” Mike said.
You can help people, too. Our campaign to raise money for Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area, ends Friday. Our goal is $500,000. So far, we’ve raised $239,353.
You can donate at www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.
Clyde’s is providing gift certificates to its fine restaurants. If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)
And why not dine at Clyde’s, the Old Ebbitt Grill or the Hamilton today? Order the special menu items — the blackberry and arugula salad or any peach dessert — and proceeds will benefit Send a Kid to Camp.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.