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At Age 80, Former College Basketball Player Finds a New Challenge in Playing Croquet

After playing on the West Virginia University men's basketball team and pursuing a career in medicine, Dr. Ralph Heinz shows no signs of slowing down in retirement

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Photo by Briana Brough

After decades in medicine that included pioneering the field of neuroradiology, Dr. Ralph Heinz knew he couldn’t just play pingpong in retirement.

A former college and semi-pro basketball player, he needed a sport that exercised both mind and body but wasn’t too strenuous on his spine, which has undergone several operations. So, nine years ago at age 80, he took up croquet.

“Croquet, while it looks superficially silly – everybody remembers their career when they were 14 and played in the backyard – this is a little more sophisticated,” he says. “A lot of people describe this kind of croquet as a combination of golf, billiards and chess.”

Ralph plays Association croquet, which follows the rules set forth by the United States Croquet Association and is more complex than the version of the sport most people play at barbecues.

He meets with other players at the Stoneridge/Sedgefield Swim & Racquet Club each Saturday. He also plays with a group of three friends at Carolina Meadows, the retirement community where he lives, and makes trips to Pinehurst at least once a year for clinics.

His dedication to croquet, as well as bridge, his “inside game,” are the result of a lifelong work ethic. “I worked hard as a physician. I had a lot of this energy I wanted to put in a new place after retirement.”

Growing up in a blue-collar factory town in West Virginia, he says sports were his “entire life until age 18.” Near the end of high school, he started taking academics more seriously and enrolled at West Virginia University, where he played on the men’s basketball team. By the time he enrolled in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, however, school had become the clear winner of these dual aspirations, and he quit playing.

In 1962, while working at Columbia University, he became one of the first four people in the United States to become a neuroradiologist, a practitioner that works as an intermediary between a radiologist and a neurosurgeon. At age 39, he was named the chair of the radiology department at the University of Pittsburgh. Ralph later settled in Chapel Hill, working as a neuroradiologist at Duke University Hospital and a professor at the medical school for 35 years.

Throughout his career, he continued participating in aerobic exercise, swimming and playing squash and racquetball when he could fit it in.

Despite his spinal surgeries, he didn’t want sports to stop being part of his life after retirement. That’s where croquet comes in. “It gets you out in the air,” he says. “In this environment, you can play it year-round.”

He plans to continue croquet for the rest of his life.

“When you’re my age, you don’t know how long that is. You go out with one foot in front of the other and keep playing.”

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Holly West is the associate editor at Chapel Hill Magazine. After graduating from UNC in 2015, she worked as a reporter and editor in eastern North Carolina, but was quickly drawn back to the Southern Part of Heaven.