a year, there’s a two-week display of elite athleticism on the
courts of Flushing Meadows, with quick reflexes and explosive footwork of -- no,
not the players -- but the U.S. Open ball persons.
This summer, thanks to an initiative by the U.S. Tennis Association Foundation, three friends and wounded military veterans are joining the ranks, including retired U.S. Air Force captain and Purple Heart recipient Mitchell Kieffer.
“What is the most difficult thing about being a ball person?” CBS News contributor Jamie Wax asked him.
“It’s a very mentally and psychically demanding job,” Kieffer said. “Tennis
balls flying at you over a hundred miles an hour, but also what the score is, if
there is an advantage, if they are going to be switching sides… and at the same
time, my spine is putting off quite a bit of nerve pain.”
The pain is from a broken back and traumatic brain injury he suffered when his unit was hit by an IED and ambushed in Iraq.
“How do you push yourself through that pain?” Wax asked.
“So that’s one of the things
that empowers me. … I am the one who is causing, you know, my muscles to burn.
I’m the one that’s making my muscles sore. So that gives me a lot of power for
my own psyche, understanding that I have control over this,” Kieffer said.
Former Air Force Staff Sgt. Steve Otero did two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, surviving IED explosions and a suicide bombing attack.
“I still have nightmares. I have chronic pain. I will have pain every day for the rest of my life,” Otero said.
Otero says it was athletic activity that brought him back from suicidal thoughts.
“Sport has absolutely saved my life. Sport itself,” he said.
The new mental and physical challenges the men face at the Open are part of their recovery.
“In the military, it was move, shoot, communicate. Out here it’s move, communicate, throw, really. And to learn, I’m being mentored by 16- and 17-year-olds. Those are my mentors on the court,” Otero said.
Also serving up support is Rio Olympic gold medalist Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
“I’m glad that they can be a part of it, and I’m sure they’re showing up some of the other ball kids. Just upping the standard here,” Mattek-Sands said.
“Once you go through a traumatic experience, you do realize in the end that you have a new normal, you’re not going to be able to do everything exactly the way you used to do it. But I just figured, ‘Hey, why not try?’” Kieffer said.