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Play It Forward

Play It Forward

  • After a chance encounter at a community center, J “Gizmo” Hall combined his new favorite sport with two great passions: farming and mentoring kids.
InPickleball Issue 2 | Feature Story | True Dink | J Gizmo Hall | Pickleball

J “GIZMO” HALL will tell you pickleball saved his life. The 35-year-old pro stumbled across the sport just three years ago when he was at an emotional low point, struggling with PTSD after years of working as a firefighter and paramedic in the Manassas Park, Virginia, fire department. “I was more or less suicidal,” he says. The sport “helped put everything on pause. I almost looked at pickleball as a form of therapy.”

Hall discovered pickleball when he happened on a game at the Manassas Park Community Center. He was working out when he heard what sounded like Ping-Pong and saw a group of senior citizens playing a tennis-like game he’d never seen before. He declined their invitation to join, but when he returned to the gym a few days later, the players were there again. 

STARRY-EYED Hall’s introduction to pickleball was “love at first sight”

One of the 70-something women “‘grabbed me by my hand, gave me a paddle, and said, ‘This is pickleball; let me show you how it works,’” Hall recalls. “It was love at first sight.” His wife, Laine, was skeptical. “I told him he was going to break someone’s hip,” she says. Despite never having been great at sports growing up and never having played tennis, he was able to pick up pickleball quickly. And while he loved the game itself, Hall says, he was drawn to the sport’s “inclusiveness,” and as he began traveling to tournaments and building a social media following, he had an epiphany: “I could use it for greater overall impact.” 

Just six months after first encountering pickleball at the community center, Hall left his job at the fire department to play professionally. “To be honest, it was a very scary transition,” he says. “I was teetering between leaving a secure job or chasing my dreams and goals. My colleagues thought I was completely crazy.” He soon attracted attention on the court for his signature look—mismatched shoes and socks, cheeseburger-printed jersey and shorts, big glasses, and dreadlocks—and for his skill at the sport, achieving top finishes at tournaments including Nationals in his first few years of playing. “It’s a welcoming sport, but it wasn’t all open arms,” Hall says of his reception on the pro tour. He recalls messaging with a fellow player the night before he played in his first pro division, at the Texas Open. “Her response was ‘You aren’t a pro. Who do you think you are?’ That crushed my soul, but it was a moment that reminded me, not everyone is going to fully support me, but I don’t need everyone’s support.” 

But Hall wanted to spread his love of the game even further. Now, after two-and-a-half years of development, he and Laine have opened up their 10-acre property in Goldvein, Virginia, as the Pickleball Farm, a nonprofit organization where Hall hopes to share the power of pickleball with the next generation.

Four-legged friend

Sixty-five miles south of Washington, D.C., and three miles from the closest main road, the Pickleball Farm is home to the Halls, their two children, and a menagerie of 65 animals, including turkeys, chickens, ducks, goats, pigs, and a miniature donkey also named Gizmo. 

There’s a pond, a pickleball court (with tentative plans to add eight more), and a garden where the couple grow produce (tomatoes, okra, bok choy, sweet potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, and more), much of which is donated to a local nonprofit that distributes the food in schools. 

HARVEST TIME Much of what is grown in the garden is donated to a local nonprofit

This past March the farm launched its first programming, offering spring-break camps: three-hour afternoon sessions including pickleball instruction, animal meet-and-greets, and a garden tour complete with a vegetable or seeds to take home and cultivate. Hall is “the man behind the mission,” his wife says, while she helps out where she can, including caring for the animals when her husband is on the road. Hall’s professional tournament schedule kept him on the road two weeks every month this summer, but now they’re focused on expanding their mushroom crop so they can add mycology and foraging lessons to their repertoire. Whether it’s by feeding the animals or by taking home seeds, soil, and a pot to grow vegetables in at home, Hall says, he wants to teach the campers “basic life skills and get their hands in the dirt…basically, keep them out of trouble.” 

PLAY TIME with family and a (four-legged) friend

And, of course, introduce them to pickleball. The Halls view the sport as the perfect way to get kids engaged, because of its accessibility and the lessons it can provide players. “There’s not a lot of equipment, you can play anywhere, like tennis courts or even a parking lot…and there aren’t a lot of rules to learn,” Laine says. “It’s a fun way for kids to be kids that doesn’t require a lot of money.” 

Hall also views the game as a way to expose young people to lessons that will serve them later in life. “If you hit a bad shot, I equate that to making a bad decision in life,” he says. “It’s like ‘Life’s not over, but if you want to get out of the situation, you really have to make some better decisions.’” These are lessons Hall knows all too well and wishes he’d had the chance to learn some two decades earlier.

FREE AS A BIRD The Pickleball Farm is home to the Halls, their two children, and a menagerie of 65 animals

Growing up in Dale City, Virginia, about 35 miles northeast of the farm, as the son of a single mother, Hall was selling drugs by the time he graduated from high school. As a young man, he was shot four times after an argument that got out of hand. “For kids growing up in environments where it’s hard for them to thrive, the ways to get out of that environment are typically playing basketball, playing football, or selling drugs,” he says. “I sucked at two of those things. If I had been introduced to pickleball when I was 14 or 15, I think about how much trouble I could have saved myself.” 

Hall sees the farm as an opportunity to continue the mentorship and guidance he began sharing with students at schools where he grew up, in Virginia’s Prince William County. Before the pandemic, he had even met with the associate superintendent of schools, who wanted him to speak at all 16 middle schools in the district. Whether he’s sharing his story with kids in his hometown or with youth at a juvenile detention center down in Richmond, Hall is always aware of pickleball’s status as a predominantly white sport—and of the significance of someone who looks like him representing it. “When I go into the schools, I don’t wear a blazer, I don’t wear dress shoes,” he says. He remembers seeing motivational speakers as a kid and thinking “If he don’t look like me, talk like me, I’m going to shut him out.” 

Laine Hall marvels at the way the game has transformed her husband. “I look back at his time in the fire service, and the lack of sleep, the mental stress and anguish of it all, and he really is a whole different person,” she says. “Pickleball has allowed him to reach so many people, and I know he feels he truly has a purpose.” 

With all that pickleball has brought into his life, Hall is still amazed at the journey that a chance community-center encounter has taken him on. “I’d never heard of this sport three years ago,” he says, laughing. “Our life purpose now evolves and revolves around pickleball.”

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