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For longtime wallbangers, being active is everything

Seated, from left: Don Westerbeck, Joe North, Phil Molz. Standing, from left: Bob South, Al Cohen. Not pictured: Bob Stewart.

They refer to themselves now as the "Old Racquetballers," but in the 1990s they were the "Spit-and-Whittle Gang."

"I'm not sure how we came up with the spit-and-whittle name—probably because we gabbed so much—but Old Racquetballers fits better now," Joe North, the unofficial founder of the group, said with a laugh.

Back in the 1990s, the group had 10 to 12 regulars and took up three courts at the Athletic Club in Over-land Park. But over the years they lost several through death. Some moved away and others dropped out. Now there are just six, five in their 80s.

Besides North, 83, the group consists of Don Westerbeck, 80, Phil Molz, 83, and Bob South, 88, all of Overland Park; and Al Cohen, 85, and Bob Stewart, 70, of Leawood. Three mornings a week they meet at 8:00 a.m. at the Athletic Club to play racquetball for two hours.

Why do six men who could sleep late adhere to this regimen?

"It adds some discipline to our lives, and makes our afternoon naps more pleasant," Westerbeck said with a chuckle.

In North's view, "It gets us out of bed three mornings a week for three good reasons. Exercise and camaraderie are first and second. Winning is third. Losing doesn't bother us like it used to."

For Molz, "It's important to keep active. It helps physically and mentally."

North joined the Athletic Club in 1990 after retiring from American Standard.

"My brother, Clyde, played a lot of handball and was a member of the club. He talked me into signing up to get some exercise," North recalled. "I did the exercising routine for a few weeks, but it soon got boring. I saw guys playing racquetball and it looked like fun. I'd never played, but I took a quick lesson and began playing. I met Don and Denny Reilly and we started playing together."

Denny Reilly and North were co-workers at AT&T. Reilly, already a member of the Athletic Club, got Westerbeck to join.

"I was playing golf summer and winter," Westerbeck said. "Racquetball attracted me because of the regulated temperature; it's a lot better than the hot and cold."

South, a charter member of the Athletic Club, joined the group in 1992. Molz joined in 2000, Stewart in 2001, and Cohen in 2005, when Reilly moved to Florida. The group has remained intact since.

Stewart is the kid of the group.

"Talk about motivation! These guys are my heroes," Stewart said. "Nothing slows them down. They have two knee replacements, a hip replacement, and a pacemaker among them."

Stewart, Molz, and Cohen frequently get together for golf. All were good athletes in their youth. North played basketball and baseball.

"Baseball was my favorite, but I couldn't hit a curve," North said.

South was an all-around athlete, playing basketball and baseball in school and industrial leagues. He also plays tennis, and was in an over-50 softball league. After the racquetball sessions, South participates in an exercise class at the club and shoots some baskets.

Molz grew up playing soccer, handball, racquetball, and tennis. He goes snow-skiing every year in Colorado and Utah. In 2009 he won first place in the 80-plus racquetball division of the National Senior Olympics, held at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

"The nationals are held every other year, and I had planned to compete again in 2011," Molz said. "But I decided not to because I wanted to remain undefeated!"

Molz also placed second in the 80-plus division of racquetball at the Huntsman Senior Games in St. George, Utah, in 2011.
The Old Racquetballers play doubles now, changing partners for each session.

"We play a pretty decent game for our ages," North said. "We don't crash the wall or dive for balls. We just say 'nice shot' and go after the next one. We hit the ball hard and have some good volleys, but winning isn't everything anymore."

Sometimes the men discuss world problems between games, but the conversations don't last as long as they used to.

"We just agree to disagree, and let it go," North said.

"We don't solve anything, but we know how we'd run things if we were in charge," Molz added.

He refers to the Kansas Senior Olympics slogan to describe the group's philosophy:

"You don't stop playing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop playing."