Highsmith has played competitive tennis at a high level, and succeeded against able-bodied players.
Now he’s making a living teaching tennis.
A Marietta resident, Highsmith has long list of private students and also coaches neighborhood teams.
A women’s adult neighborhood team Highsmith coaches at Lee Crossing is organizing a mixed doubles round robin tournament called BounceNBack on Saturday morning at Marietta High School in honor of its coach and to raise money for Helping Hands Ministries, Inc., a non-profit organization that offers financial support. It will also help Highsmith, who is undergoing treatment for Hepititas C. Last-minute registration begins at 8 a.m. for participants before the tournament begins at 9 a.m.
Highsmith, 47, received loads of media attention during the 1990s when he was hopping around on court as a full-time tournament player. Few had expected him to become the top-ranked player in Georgia in his age group by 1996, the No. 35 singles player, and the No. 9 doubles player in the Southeast.
Fewer still expected him to make a living as a registered tennis professional.
Dr. Charles Hubbard of the Carrollton Orthopedic Center was quoted on Highsmith’s website, bouncenback.com, as saying “I’d almost have to see that to believe it.”
It seemed hard to believe because there were no special privileges for the one-legged Highsmith. Unlike wheelchair tennis, where players get two bounces before having to make a shot, he found a way to win against the top adult players using a special crutch that aided him in maneuvering around the court.
Highsmith’s handicap alone, and the media attention he received, helped attract sponsors — he signed a contract with Dunlop for free rackets and with Adidas for free clothing.
Highsmith was also invited to train at Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
His entry into tennis was just happenstance.
While in school at Emory in the early ’90s, he happened to be by the tennis court where members of the university team were practicing. The players recognized him as being a solid, one-legged intramural basketball player and encouraged him to try to play tennis.
“It was just chance, I think, or a blessing, or, I don’t know, faith, people say all sorts of words,” Highsmith said. “I was hanging around on the tennis court. They’ve seen me play basketball, and some of the college players at Emory said, ‘Hey come on down, try this.’ That’s how I got started.”
His attachment to tennis came quickly — the game runs deep in the Highsmith family with his older brother and sister having played at the high school and college level — and it kept him active at the time while in his late stages of recovery from the car accident in December of 1985 that cost Highsmith his leg and nearly his life.
Highsmith was driving from Atlanta to West Georgia College, where he was going to school in Carrollton, during the early morning hours of Dec. 5, 1985. He fell asleep at the wheel and his truck veered off the road and headed 130 feet down into a ravine before crashing into the woods just before 6 a.m.
Highsmith might not be alive had the cold weather prevented him from bleeding to death. Luckily for him, the first person to arrive on the crash scene happened to be an emergency room doctor on his way to work.
Chances of survival once he got to the hospital weren’t good.
When his parents were informed, doctors told them not to rush from their home in Waycross, because Highsmith would probably be pronounced dead before they arrived.
Highsmith’s wife was informed early that he would lose his left leg, and it was doubtful that his right leg would perform properly. Apparently, she didn’t take the news well. According to Highmsith’s website, she abandoned him shortly after and they would eventually divorce four years after the crash.
Prayer requests for Highsmith’s recovery were submitted publicly and it the extra support he received helped him to beat the odds. In the end, Highsmith needed more than 40 operations to fully recover.
Then it was roughly six to eight years of physical and occupational therapy to help Highsmith get back to performing everyday tasks with his new condition. He also went through social/psychiatric therapy to help restore some of his memory lost due to the collision.
Although he didn’t know the whereabouts of his wife, the rest of his family was highly supportive during his recovery and therapy. Highsmith’s father, Wesley, took two years off work to care for his son.
And Eric was still undergoing therapy when he chose tennis to be his primary sport.
“I was encouraged that he wanted to do something,” Wesley said. “He likes what he does. When you see him, you can’t believe what he has done. Nothing stops him. He picks up his tennis bags and puts it in his teeth. Nothing gets in his way of what he does.”
Doing the impossible
When Eric first experimented with tennis, he tried playing both right-handed and left-handed to decide which one was more comfortable. Being a natural lefty made his choice an easy one.
Players from the Emory team helped Eric with the basics. His past training in kinesthetics while recovering from his accident boded well in his development. He also had stamina and endurance, having been a mid-distance runner for West Georgia’s track team.
Once he was ready to take tennis seriously, Eric began working with Pete Poole, a longtime teaching professional at Jekyll Island Tennis Center.
Right away, Poole taught him to hold his racket grip like it was a hammer.
“He’s a lefty, so I had to turn his grip for serving and for a one-handed backhand,” Poole said. “It would be good for a topspin backhand and for volleys at the net. He took to that like a fish in water.”
Common sense told Eric right away he wasn’t going to win often by trading groundstrokes with opponents so he learned to serve-and-volley. He developed a fierce kick serve that would pull opponents off the court while trying to return it, and he would move to the net for a winning volley.
This is where having speed was an advantage. When he first started playing competitively, he would serve with his crutch lying on the court. After serving, he would quickly pick up the crutch in front of him and bounce his way to net as his opponent was hitting a return.
That tactic worked for a while, but once he started facing stronger competition, the better players would take his serve on the rise and smack the ball toward his foot, not giving him time to pick up his crutch.
“If they (return) the ball over (to the left), I can get to it, and if they (return) the ball over (to the right), I can get to it, but if they return it right at me, I’m a dead duck,” Eric said. “People who were playing me figured that out real fast.”
He talked about this dilemma while visiting his parents in Waycross on the way to Bollettieri Tennis Academy, and Wesley came up with a way to surprise him.
According to Eric, his father woke up in the middle of the night with the idea.
Wesley went to the barn and found a screw driver, which he immediately broke off the plastic handle, some titanium — rat trap springs, carburetor springs, and a Volkswagen valve spring — and built a crutch that could not only stand up, but one that helped him move around the court easier.
“At 10 the next morning, there was a crutch stand that could retract,” Eric said.
Now that he had a retractable stand on his crutch, he’s able to stand it up in front him while serving and could tuck it under his right shoulder on the way to net without having to stop and pick it up.
With an improved crutch, Eric’s serve-and-volley game became a weapon, making him difficult to beat.
“I’m lucky to get (his serve) back before I run into the fence,” said Eric’s 28-year-old son Ion on playing his dad. “When he’s serving and volleying, he’s putting you into the fence and when you try to hit a return back, he’s (at net) for a winner. If I can get a decent return on him while he’s coming to net, I can get him with a lob.”
Once when Eric was playing in a tournament at Jekyll Island that Poole was running, one of Eric’s opponents walked off the court during their match and went into the pro shop to complain, according to Poole.
The player stated to Poole that Eric’s crutch kept making squeaky noises while he hopped and it was becoming a distraction. The tournament director didn’t budge.
Poole told the irritated player, “A distraction is something that you don’t know is going to happen. You knew that (his crutch) was going to happen and you’re going to have to get used to it.”
If opponent can hit an effective topspin lob over Eric that lands two feet from the baseline, he usually will lose that point. But if it’s a flat lob, Eric has enough speed to chase them down.
Good days and bad days on the tennis court for Eric usually depend on how well he can balance. If he’s balancing well, he’ll move well, and his crutch is usually out of the way while he’s hitting a backhand. If he’s not balanced, the crutch will often be in the way of making a full backhand swing.
That crutch is not only Eric’s aid on the court, but his guide in life. He even teaches with it. The last time Eric wore a prosthetic leg was at his wedding when he got remarried in 1994.
“Someone told me that Eric eliminates other player’s excuses,” Poole said. “That was a pretty good comment.”