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Recreational Sports

If it has a ball, 90-year-old will play

90-year-old Howard Stapf returns a volley during his regular Thursday morning tennis match with friends at River Run condominiums. Stapf is a former handball champion who still stays active playing tennis several times a week.

RON THOMPSON | Times

90-year-old Howard Stapf returns a volley during his regular Thursday morning tennis match with friends at River Run condominiums. Stapf is a former handball champion who still stays active playing tennis several times a week.

WEEKI WACHEE

When you live for nine decades, you are going to have a lot of stories to tell. When you've maintained a deep love of sports in that time, those stories ring with the passion of athletic competition.

This is the case for Howard Stapf. The still-active senior celebrated his 90th birthday last month and the next week was back out at the tennis courts at Delta Woods Park playing doubles with his friends. That's the kind dedication he's had to any number of sports throughout his life.

"My father just loves sports," his daughter, Claire Ganz, said. "We were a jock family because of him. My sister, my brothers and myself all played (sports) because of him."

Growing up in Flushing, N.Y., a borough just outside of Queens, Stapf and a group of friends would get together and form baseball and football teams. From there, he played running back on the gridiron and catcher on the diamond until he enlisted in the Coast Guard during World War II in 1942.

He had played semipro baseball before the war, so once he got to his assigned Coast Guard station, he started a station baseball club, which he also managed. The team would travel around the east coast to play other armed forces teams, most led by Army officers. At the time, Stapf's rank was seaman first class.

The next sport he tackled was handball. Stapf's uncle, Jacob Hufner, was a member of the 1926 U.S. Olympic Team as a gymnast. Hufner belonged to the elite New York Athletic Club and invited his nephew to join in 1938 and take up four-wall handball.

After leaving the military in 1945, Stapf got serious about four-wall handball and traveled around the country to major tournaments and competitions. He would become nationally-ranked by the U.S. Handball Association.

The year before, he married his wife of 62 years, Marguerite. The two met at a Halloween dance in 1941 and wed in 1944. They both retired and moved to Weeki Wachee in 1983. However, Marguerite died Dec. 18, 2006.

While most would find the idea of moving on after losing the love of their life impossible, Stapf showed great strength and still lives alone.

"My wife was a beauty queen," Stapf said, recalling their time together. "It took some time, but now I am on my own and I try to have as much fun as I can."

In 1980, Stapf traveled to Maumee, Ohio, to enter the National Three-Wall Handball Championships in the Senior Doubles Division. His partner was injured in the opening round of the tournament, but Stapf, almost on his own, was able to guide his team to the semi-finals before losing. The following year, along with partner Marty Grossman, he won the 1981 National Championship.

He took up tennis in 1958 while his four children, all competitive swimmers growing up, were practicing. He saw a flier posted advertising tennis lessons. The local instructor offered a group of six lessons for a fee. After two lessons with Stapf, who had never before picked up a racket, the instructor gave the student his money back, saying he was a natural and couldn't teach him anymore.

Two to three times a week, you can find the 90-year-old Stapf on the court playing doubles with multiple partners. Whether it's at Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill or at River Run in Weeki Wachee, he'll be there, despite that he's having the battery in his pacemaker, installed in 1998, changed for the third time in December. He may be a little worried about bouncing back from that procedure now that he's 90, but doctors encourage him, saying he's in better shape than some 60-year-olds.

"I just wanted something to do while my kids were swimming," Stapf said. "I had no intention of becoming a top-level tennis player."

Submit feedback, story ideas to communitysports@tampabay.com.

Fast facts

Howard Stapf

Age: 90

Born: Oct. 10, 1918, Astoria, N.Y.

Resides: Weeki Wachee

Sports: Baseball, football, paddleball, handball (three-wall and four-wall), tennis and golf.

Accomplishments: National Three-Wall Handball Championships, 60+ Doubles (with Marty Grossman), Nationally ranked by U.S. Handball Association

If it has a ball, 90-year-old will play 11/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 2:22pm]
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