Handball has been rising in popularity across Petaluma, but for some locals, it’s been a routine part of their lives for the last 50 years.
The earliest detection of legitimate handball courts in the United States was in San Francisco in 1873, when two courts popped up in the city. Handball itself has been around longer than you might guess, as similar games can be found dating all the way back to 2000 BC in Egypt.
So, while the sport has gained trendy momentum locally, it’s far from a new phenomenon to the Bay Area. For David Cousino and his group of players, it’s been a part of their lives for more than 50 years.
Cousino started playing when he was just 17 years old, and now, at the age of 79, he plays two or three times a week with his buddies.
Out of the 62 years of his handball career, 35 of them have been with the same guys. In its entirety, the group is about 40 players. Most of them are in their 70s and have played for more than 35 years.
For a few of the players who began later in life, one of the biggest draws to the game was that age wasn’t a restriction. But for most of them, like any other sport, handball is a great outlet.
“Whatever else is going on in your life disappears while you’re playing,” said Steve Cerami, a 72-year-old member of the crew.
The core group is about 10-12 players – they’re the ones playing the most consistently, and because of all the time they spend together, they have incredible chemistry. When they’re gathered off the court, their conversation constantly leads into laughter and lighthearted jabs.
When it comes to what makes the game itself so special, every player has their own opinion. According to Cerami, it’s the group itself that keeps the game exciting. Cousino sees it as a “lifetime thing” for most of the guys.
“It’s keeping us alive,” said Tony Blass, a 73-year-old player who’s been with the group for 35 years.
They toss out digs to one another about being old, and they’re constantly erupting into a genuine, laughter when they take infectious breaks from playing. During the games, they’ll yell out a “nice shot” to another player, no matter if they’re on their team or not.
The game is played to 21, and the first team to get there wins. All of the players wear gloves and use their hands to hit a small rubber ball against a wall with the aim that the other team won’t be able to do the same without the ball bouncing more than once or going out of bounds.
It can be played by two players, three players or four players, but singles and doubles are the most common and the only setups in tournament settings.
When they meet up to play, it typically goes on for two hours and multiple games are played. There are no set teams and they prefer to switch them up to keep things dynamic – though keeping things interesting during practice isn’t exactly a problem for these men.
For Neil Osmer, it’s one of the hardest things he’s ever had to give up. After a few injuries, it was time for him to walk off the court, but he’s never strayed far from the group.
“He’s got some physical setbacks, but he’s loved by all,” said Larry Steiner, a 74-year-old player.
Eventually they’ll all have to take off the gloves for the last time. But, until then, they’ll keep showing up for the game, and for each other.
It’s rare to hear about a sport people play for their entire lives. But, as a few of the guys said, “Once it’s in your blood, there’s no going back. “