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Counterpuncher: Tennis Footnotes

August 12, 2015 08:07 PM

Tennis Footnotes

foot_imageSo what did I do different this summer?  If you must know, I had a toenail removed. 

I’ll be the first to admit that a toenailectomy isn’t open heart surgery. However, the procedure to me was no small deal. It involved the nail on the big toe of my right foot. For nearly 70 years I had grown quite close to that postage-stamp size appendage.

First, some background. As a young tennis player, I saw lots of experienced older guys drag along behind them their back foot, toe turned downward, while serving. So that’s what I did. 

Serve after serve I stuttered my right sneaker on the court as I was about to strike the ball. In time, my big toenail on that foot turned black.

After examining the nail, my mother took me to a podiatrist who called the blackness “tennis toe.” 

It’ll go away, the doctor said, but it might take time. In fact, it took about two decades. But then it returned when I hit 40 and began to hike the mountains of New Mexico in boots that were too small.

Was this a toenail fungus? I asked a podiatrist. I had been hearing about such a thing on late-night television. No, he said, it was “ram toe.” Or maybe “jam toe.”  I forget which. He told me to leave it alone. He said it would heal on its own.  

hqdefaultScenes from a Civil War
Here’s the good news: the dark color did fade.  The bad news?  The nail began to grow. Not outward, as toenails typically do. Nor was it ingrown. This nail was growing upward. All along the surface the nail had developed ridges that had begun to gnaw at the insides of my shoes.  Coupled with that were the nail’s saw-toothed front edge. Over time I realized why so many of my socks appeared moth-eaten, but really weren’t.

The toenail had become much like General Sherman on his march to the sea: Anything in its path, be it cotton, wool, or polyester blend, was slashed on sight.  

Trying to cut the nail with the largest clippers I could find proved to be impossible. This thing had the toughness of industrial plastic.

“I can take that off,” my latest podiatrist, a woman, said. She advised me to have it done in the summertime when I could wear sandals for a while afterward. “You won’t feel a thing.”

Easy for you to say, I thought.

WireCuttersReaching for homemade remedies
I put off going under the knife, or whatever tool she planned on using. I was fairly certain I could take care of this problem myself. I borrowed a large wood file from a neighbor and tried to flatten the ridges of the nail. As I did, I could almost hear General Sherman’s voice: Ya don’t stand a chance, fella. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, I attempted—also unsuccessfully—to lift the front of the nail just a smidge. If I could do that, I planned to use wire cutters on it. The General surely shook his head.

Such crazed measures are of course the sort of actions that can lead to a Darwin Award.

When I went back to the same podiatrist this past June to have some calluses sliced off, she pointed to the voracious nail. “Did you decide what you’re going to do about this?”

“I’d like to offer my surrender,” I said.  “Have at it, Doc.”

The date for removal was set for July 7. I kept my eyes closed tight for the entire procedure.   I didn’t feel a thing because the podiatrist said she had numbed the area around the big toe. Before I knew it, she announced the operation was over.  

I opened my eyes to see a bloody, barnacle-like corpse in the podiatrist’s gloved hand.  “Want it?” she asked.  She was serious. 

A lot of tennis
The saga of my gnarly nail caused me to recall a heartbreaking story my father related to me when I was growing up. My silly nail tale pales by comparison.

A_young_Cal_CoolidgeTen years old at the time, I had arranged an afternoon tennis game with a friend. At breakfast that morning my father said, “You should always wear socks when you play.”

When I asked why, he told me about President Calvin Coolidge’s son, something I’ve never forgotten. Only recently, however, did I browse around online and in the public library to learn all the details.

Calvin Coolidge Jr. (pictured, right) was the youngest son of this country’s 30th President. Calvin Sr., a taciturn Vermonter, served as commander and chief from 1923 to 1929.  On June 30, 1924, Calvin Jr. and his older brother John played several sets of singles and doubles on the White House tennis court.

Two days later, the head housekeeper in the White House noticed that young Calvin, 16, was limping about. The boy told the housekeeper he had played a lot of tennis and as a result had developed a painful blister.  

Looking for a miracle
Upon hearing this news, Joel Boone, a White House physician who had played been playing doubles with the Coolidge boys, found Calvin Jr. upstairs resting. Boone examined young Calvin’s toe and saw a blister the size of a thumbnail on the front of a small toe. In addition, he noticed strange streaks on the boy’s leg.  He took Calvin Jr.’s temperature and the thermometer read 102 degrees.

In his rush to play tennis that day, Calvin Jr. mentioned that he had not put on socks.

Calvin_Coolidge_familyBoone telephoned James Coupal, the senior White House physician, who immediately ordered blood tests. Meanwhile, young Calvin’s temperature continued to rise. Tests showed he had a case of blood poisoning, indicating a staph infection had gotten into his bloodstream.

Calvin Jr. was taken to Walter Reed Hospital. There, everything was tried, including prayer. Nothing worked. 

A staph infection in the bloodstream can result in sepsis, a serious condition that is potentially fatal. In 1924, however, penicillin and other revolutionary infection-fighting drugs had not yet been discovered.

On July 7, 1924, a week after playing tennis, Calvin Coolidge Jr. died.  As if adhering to his nickname of “Silent Cal,” Calvin Coolidge Sr. (pictured above with Cal, Jr. and wife) never spoke publicly about the loss of his son.  

Today, numerous recreational tennis players go without socks on the court.

I am not among them.  



Rhoads, Jared, “The Medical Context of Calvin Jr.’s Death.”  A research paper presented to the Dartmouth Institute for Health and Clinical Practice, July 14, 2014.

Shlaes, Amity.  Coolidge.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We've spared you pictures of tennis toes, including the Counterpuncher's, because, quite frankly, we here at USTA Southwest have seen enough bad tennis toes to last a lifetime. 


TobySmith_FHCOUNTERPUNCHER is an exclusive online series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter, three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner, and past Section Marketing Committee member. He also volunteers for USTA Northern New Mexico.

Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years. To reach Toby or if you have a story idea, feel free to contact him at tobysmith68@gmail.com or 505-681-0667.

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