Ed Abourjilie was just out of high school when he joined the YMCA looking for an exercise routine that would serve him well in his post-wrestling years. A group of guys there asked him to join in on a game of handball.
Abourjilie grins as he tells the story.
“I’ve been playing ever since,” he said.
He turned 80 in December, and still is a regular at the Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning handball games at the Downtown YMCA.
Occasionally, he has to sit out a few sessions, like when his back (which he’s broken twice, the first time in a handball game) acts up. But generally, he’s there, and he’s just as fierce of a competitor as anyone on the court.
Of course, in his prime, he was quite the handball player. He won the city championship in the 1950s, then moved on to the state competition level.
“I won 15 Virginia doubles titles, with four different partners during that time,” Abourjilie said.
After breaking his back playing handball in 1967, he came back to play in a quarterfinal game of the national championship tournament in Cincinnati in 1973.
Those high-level competition days are long gone for Abourjilie. After he broke his back the second time, in a work-related accident in the early ’90s, he was never able to bend and run well enough for tournament play.
Nowadays, it’s tough to even find a handball tournament, particularly in the United States. The sport is more popular in Europe.
I have to admit that I had never seen a handball game before I visited Abourjilie and his buddies at the Y on a recent morning. They play doubles games, with four players in the wall-lined court at a time.
Jim Carruthers, one of the players, said, “It’s an older sport. Young people don’t do it anymore.”
But it’s still a good game, and good exercise, they all said.
George Holzbach, who’s 78, said, “The reason we like handball is because you use both hands,” unlike many other court and racquet sports, where one hand is dominant.
Ed Spede has been playing handball with Abourjilie for decades.
“Eddie, in his younger years, was the best in the state,” he said.
When they play now, the competition is lighthearted, and the goal is exercise.
“You’ve got to do something,” Spede said.
Abourjilie agreed, saying they have as much fun joking with one another as they do playing handball.
“We just play for the exercise, and for the camaraderie,” he said. “Nobody really gets upset.”
The downtown Richmond YMCA has as many as 15 handball players these days, but usually only a handful show up for the 8 a.m. games on weekdays.
“We sure don’t have many left,” Abourjilie said.
“It’s still a good sport. I’d love to get more people involved in it.”
Certainly, handball has kept him active. He’s been playing for more than 60 years.
While Abourjilie points out that he doesn’t drink or smoke, he thinks his commitment to handball has helped him stay in shape.
“My weight hasn’t changed a bit in 30 years,” he said.
He’s glad he can still find a few folks who enjoy the sport. Some of them he’s known for years; others he met when they inquired about handball games at the Y.
“We all just met right here,” he said, motioning to a nearby court.
His group was encouraged recently to hear that another handball player moved into town.
“He’s in his 20s, and supposedly he’s a pretty good player,” Abourjilie said.
Maybe handball isn’t fading out after all.