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Better with age
It’s not every day that you skim across a college tennis roster and see a 37 year old who isn’t the coach. It’s not every day that the 37 year old is one of the best players on a contending college tennis team.
University junior Chris Wootton is not your typical college student, let alone college athlete. He is playing Division III tennis at the age of 37, an age many aren’t accustomed to seeing on a college tennis court.
Born in Dallas, Wootton grew up in Highland Park and went to school there until his junior year. He left for Austin and repeated his junior year while he attended St. Stephen’s Tennis Academy, a program started by his coach at Highland Park. Wootton was the very first person to attend the academy and finished his last two years playing tennis and looked forward to playing college tennis.
Wootton originally signed a letter of intent to play at the University of Illinois, but things changed when his girlfriend at the time became pregnant.
Wootton married his girlfriend in 2000, but things did not work out and they separated in 2003. After years of bartending and managing restaurants in Dallas, Mississippi and Alabama, Wootton decided in 2007 that he wanted to start playing tennis again.
After a move to Jackson, Mississippi where he received his certifications in order to become the Head Pro at Parham Bridges Tennis Center, Wootton made the choice to attend Mississippi College.
“It had to do with a lot of different things,” Wootton said. “For the first time in my life I had found God and it had given me an opportunity to find some perspective on life.”
Wootton had formerly coached two players on the Mississippi College tennis team while he was the head instructor at the Parham Bridges Tennis Center. After talking with both the players and coaches at Mississippi College, he decided to join the Choctaws and play collegiate tennis at the age of 35.
“The main reason I went back to school was because I wanted to be a role model to my daughter,” Wootton said. “I wanted to be that guy that my daughter would look at and say ‘one day I want to meet a guy that is just like my father.’”
During the fall of his freshman year, Wootton never imagined he would be playing at the level he was and when the spring season came around, he was number two on the team and competing against the best players in the American Southwest Conference.
“I never really thought that I was going to compete ever on a tennis court, I thought I was going to have fun,” Wootton said. “Then it turned into, wait a second this is what I want to do.”
At 245 pounds and around 50 percent body fat, Wootton was far from being considered a top-tier athlete.
Nearly 16 years without any real physical activity proved to be a difficult step towards playing at a high level again, but Wootton overcame.
“I was that middle-aged guy that was overweight and I really didn’t care,” Wootton said.
Through hard work and intense training, Wootton slimmed down to a current weight of 190 pounds and is around 10-12 percent body fat.
Wootton’s journey has not been easy in the slightest. Aches and pains, back surgeries and multiple injuries have tried to slow down the 37 year old, but Wootton keeps pushing the limits of his body.
“I’m like a science project,” Wootton said. “If you make a mistake and throw a little bit of the wrong chemical in your science project, it’s just going to blow up and that’s kind of the way I am now.”
During the fall semester, the Patriot tennis team practiced for three weeks and competed in two tournaments that provided the team a chance to get better in the offseason before their season begins in February. After transferring to the University this fall, Wooten has already made an impact on the team.
Senior Patriot tennis player Ryan Spencer, a leader by example for the University, had nothing but praise for Wootton.
“Chris stepped in and immediately people were looking up to him,” Spencer said. “He is here to make decisions, he has awesome insight and the way he understands the game is incredible. He is definitely a leader.”
Wootton’s relationship with the coaching staff is unique compared to other players and it was a big reason for him coming to the University in the first place. Wootton played for Mississippi College, who is also in the ASC along with the University, and had been in contact with Patriot head coach Chris Bizot.
The work ethic Wootton exudes is something that brings energy to the team’s practices, Bizot said. Even though Wootton is quite a bit older than his teammates, Bizot still has higher expectations for him.
“The potential that he has to compete at a national level, and to lift our team up to places we have never been is pretty high,” Bizot said. “There are not too many players that have high expectations then their coaches.”
Wootton’s age and leadership sets him apart from his teammates. Before he came to the University though, Wootton wanted to make it clear to Bizot that he was a player and not a coach. He wanted to be coached and was willing to absorb any knowledge the coaching staff had for him to learn.
Regardless of Wootton’s desire to be a player, his age and seasoned professionalism sets him apart from his teammates and his coaches take advantage of his experience.
“Bouncing ideas off of him, it is almost like having a third coach out there,” Bizot said. “It is really beneficial to our team and so far he has done everything we have asked of him.”
Wootton is a business major with plans of pursuing a master’s degree in an undetermined field. Wootton hopes to have his strength and conditioning certification upon his graduation and plans on becoming an assistant coach or graduate assistant at a university.
“I would really like to be a head coach somewhere,” Wootton said. “At 55 I would like to be an intercollegiate athletic director somewhere and be at a school where I could be there for 20 years and then retire.”
Experience mixed with the will to be the best tennis player and the best person he can be, Wootton has defied the ordinary and become extraordinary. Playing college tennis at 37 is a feat in itself but Wootton has endured the good and the bad in life to become a role model for anyone with aspirations of playing collegiately. His accomplishments at the age of 37 are unique and should be considered incredible in their own right, but Wootton has shown that age is just a number and that nothing in life should stop you from accomplishing your goals.