Las Cruces, New Mexico: 2017 tape a sad reminder of a life taken too soon

Listen to the tape
Commentary: Aaron Gifford bristled a little bit at the word “youngster.”

Gifford was one of three local players who Laura Smart had arranged for me to meet with in the fall of 2017 for a story about pickleball. I didn’t specifically request that she include at least one younger player, but I hoped she would. A big part of my story was an attempt to dispel the myth that the sport is only for the elderly.

Gifford was 35. I had originally thought he was younger than that when we met, one of many false first impressions.

“I think it’s really fun playing with Aaron and his twin sister, and they have a friend who is also in her 30s. There’s just something about having that vibrancy of the youngsters,” one player said.

“Youngsters?” Gifford asked incredulously.

“Enjoy it,” I suggested. “It goes away fast.”

I still have my tape from the interview. That part is hard to listen to now.

Age 35 may be a babe on the pickleball court, but Aaron Gifford was no youngster. He was, in fact, a veteran of the U.S. Army, 3rd Infantry, where he saw combat during the first invasion of Iraq.

Like so many other combat veterans, Gifford was plagued by post traumatic stress disorder after returning home. And, like so many other combat veterans, he kept that to himself. Lack of sleep was the only obvious sign, but he would explain that away, his mother Cece said.

Pickleball helped, Cece said. It gave him an outlet. It was clear during our interview that he was a serious player. He liked to play outdoors more than indoors because it brought the elements into play, he said. The biggest problem with the sport, he said, was a name that he described as “silly.”

Pickleball helped, but not enough. On  Jan 8, 2018, months after our interview, Aaron Gifford took his own life, joining an estimated 22 veterans a day who have committed suicide after returning home.

After Aaron’s death, pickleball helped Cece. She organized the Aaron Gifford Memorial Pickleball Tournament, with the proceeds going to Mission 22, a national organization devoted to reducing the suicide rate among veterans. The first tournament was held April 7 and 8, 2018 at Apodaca Park.

This year’s tournament will be April 6 and 7 at the NMSU tennis complex.

My story in 2017 talked about the growth of pickleball in Las Cruces, and the unlimited potential with the right kind of facilities and organization.

“If you look at the pickleball tournament schedule, you see a lot around our area. In Arizona there’s a lot; in Colorado there’s a lot,” he said. “A town as big as Las Cruces could handle something like that if we had the facilities. We actually could host a decent-sized tournament.

“Ruidoso has had a sanctioned tournament and Las Cruces hasn’t,” he said.

A lot has changed since then. Last year’s tournament was not sanctioned by the USA Pickleball Association, but this year’s will be. The move to NMSU will be a big upgrade over last year’s tournament at Apodaca Park. And, thanks to passage of a general obligation bond last year, the city is now investing in more pickleball courts to meet a growing demand.

This year’s tournament will have 145 players, a huge increase from last year. That will mean more help for Mission 22, and ultimately for veterans going through the same struggles that Aaron did.

All of the things that Aaron had wished for in 2017 are coming true.

It is tragic that he won’t be able to enjoy this year’s tournament as a player. But through the efforts of his mother and other tournament organizers, Aaron Gifford will be forever linked to a sport he loved and an effort to help the veterans he served with.

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