Pickleball is life for Roger Bunting

CLEARWATER – The phrase “such-and-such saved my life” is so overused to the point of being a cliché today that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to life-altering occurrences.

In the case of Clearwater resident Roger Bunting, there’s little doubt that while the sport of pickleball didn’t technically save his life, it helped him recover from a life-threatening illness and gave him a new sense of purpose.

Bunting, a 57-year-old New York native and lifelong tennis player, came down with a serious case of bacterial meningitis in April 2015, and the infection of the membrane surrounding his brain kept Bunting in the hospital for 25 days, many of them spent in the ICU.

After he was finally released from the hospital and beginning his road to recovery, Bunting found he didn’t have the strength or stamina to play tennis, a sport for which he received a scholarship to attend Florida Southern University and one he had been playing competitively on and off for much of his adult life. So he turned to a sport he had previously written off.
“When I got out of the hospital, I was still a tennis player. I wasn’t sold on pickleball,” Bunting said. “I had tried it with a friend of mine in 2013, and I wasn’t a believer.”

Bunting didn’t think about pickleball, which is played by people of all ages using balls and a paddle on a half-tennis court, for more than a year. But when he needed an outlet for regaining his strength, that’s when he decided to give the (1) fast-growing sport a second chance.

“The court is much smaller, it’s half the size of a regular tennis court, and I had easy access to play it when I got off work, either at Ross Norton or in Safety Harbor, plus I could play at the Long Center on the weekends,” Bunting explained. “I physically had lost so much weight and muscle mass during that month in the hospital, I had to get myself back in shape, and the more I played it, pickleball drew me in. I got the fever.”

Indeed, trading a bacterial infection for a pickleball passion isn’t such a bad deal, although Bunting now plays so much it’s to the point where he’s either at work or on the pickleball court more than he’s at home.

“My wife says I play seven nights a week,” Bunting, who lives at Top of The World, said. “I told her not on Sunday nights. She said that’s because you play at the Long Center in the afternoon!”

By calling on his background as a tennis player, Bunting rapidly assimilated himself into the world of competitive pickleball. After becoming a member of the (2) USAPA, a national pickleball organization, Bunting competed in the 2015 U.S. Open Championships, where he finished fifth in his age group. “It gave me a chance to see the best players in the world close-up,” he said. “I got to watch all the top players and take a lot from it.”

Apparently, Bunting is a quick learner; he won a gold medal in the men’s 55-59 singles at the Florida Senior Games in Clearwater in December, and he, along with his playing partner, Clayton Taylor, also took home the gold in the men’s doubles. Oh, and Bunting finished fifth in the 50-54 mixed doubles tournament, too.

“It was very gratifying and satisfying,” he said. “We beat the defending U.S. Open champions, and they’re only one level from the pros. So it was pretty special.”

But Bunting said his love of pickleball isn’t about the trophies or the physical elements of the sport, which differ from tennis in the length of the swing as well as how a player hits the ball, with a quick pop rather than a long stroke. No, it’s the camaraderie with other players and the simplicity of the game that fuels Roger Bunting’s passion for pickleball.

“The beauty of pickleball is, when you get four players on the court of equal ability, you can just enjoy the competition of the game, no matter what level you’re playing at,” he said. “It’s the camaraderie of the players that really makes it so enjoyable.”

In fact, Bunting loves pickleball so much, he wants to pass his knowledge and passion on to others.

“I’m going for my teaching certificate now,” he said. “I want to help develop other players’ games. I know I have the ability to teach, and I enjoy the game so much, that I’d love to pass that on to other pickleball enthusiasts, too.”

Asked whether his pickleball passion had surpassed his love for tennis, Bunting was resolute.

“My goal coming out of the hospital was to come back and play competitive tennis. But my love of pickleball has surpassed my love of tennis,” he said. “I look forward to the day I can retire and become a full time pickleball player. I have the best job, but I see the opportunities pickleball offers, and they could easily lead me astray!”

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