IF THERE IS ONE person to credit for the pickleball boom in Denver, it’s Ken Marquardt. Affectionately known as Pickleball Ken, and a bona fide celebrity in the area, the 82-year-old took the sport from a single court back in 2010 (when he first started playing) to an essential part of people’s lives: Marquardt helped build courts at numerous locations throughout Denver, so residents could come together over their shared passion and, most recently, a craving for company throughout the pandemic years of isolation.
Growing the game came out of his own passion for sports—he had been a longtime tennis player until injuries impeded his ability to cover a large court—and a natural inclination to care for others. “I didn’t want to make a dime on pickleball,” he says. “I’ve been lucky in my life and made a couple of bucks in my career in sales. I just wanted to give back, and this was the perfect vehicle.”
But besides friendly competition, Marquardt saw that people were getting more out of playing. A lot more. Specifically, Marquardt witnessed how picking up a paddle was helping veterans. “One veteran with TBI [traumatic brain injury] sat in his basement for several years after losing everything—his family, his job. Then he was introduced to pickleball,” says Marquardt. “It changed him. Pickleball changes lives.”
I’VE GOTTEN A LOT OF KUDOS FOR PICKLEBALL, BUT IT’S CHANGED MY LIFE AND MADE IT BETTER. I CAN SEE PEOPLE’S LIVES CHANGE.”
To spread that power of pickleball, Marquardt launched an annual Pickleball for Heroes tournament, which raises money for veterans with traumatic brain injuries. In its first year, 2015, the tournament raised a little over $40,000. By 2019, the total edged closer to $400,000. “My goal is to raise $1 million,” says the USA Pickleball District Ambassador, who is not a veteran himself but suffers from TBI due to a fall following a back operation. “When you suffer from TBI, no one can see it,” he says. “But I understand their pain.”
And yet, Pickleball Ken is still going strong. He launched what he calls Neighborhood Pod Pickleball (NPP), a way to organize pods of players who live near each other. “I thought if people buy equipment, they can set up courts in cul-de-sacs, at block parties, on tennis and basketball courts—and feel safe playing outdoors with their neighbors,” Marquardt explains. “What better way to get to know your neighbors after the lockdown?”
For Marquardt, this sport is not just about playing, it is about philanthropy, something he has ingrained in the Denver community, which Ken refers to aptly as a “pickleball family,” a tight-knit crowd that supports each other in every possible way. In keeping with his priorities, the NPP project also raises money for Operation TBI Freedom, as well as Marquardt’s other charitable cause, Special Olympics Colorado. One hundred percent of the after-tax profits from the sale of paddles, nets, and balls that Marquardt sells at deep discounts on pickleballken.org goes directly to the two charities.
“My goal is to have everybody play this great game,” he says. “I mean that sincerely because I’ve gotten a lot of kudos for pickleball, but it’s changed my life and made it better. I can see people’s lives change. My goal is to keep getting the word out and raising money for our heroes.”