Posted on June 23rd, 2016 by

For almost 40 years we have been putting smiley faces on steveemail2rackets.  Let me correct myself.  Steve has been putting smiley faces on rackets.  When he took control of the ink stencil pen, no one could wrest the thing out of his hands.  When he had to miss a day due to illness or another commitment, he would hand the ink stencil to me as if he were handing over Excalibur or the Olympic torch.  He would say, “Do you know how to do this?”  And, though I had done this many times before, every, single time he would give me “The Lesson”.  “The eyes go in the center of the racket because in a human head the eyes are in the exact center.  The smile must go from eye to eye.  The eyebrows – that final TLC touch – must express whimsy.”  I would say, “I’ve got it, Steve.”  But if I didn’t say it with enough conviction, he would hold back until he was convinced.  Then he would reluctantly pass the torch and make me practice in front of him on a blank racket.  When he was satisfied, he would walk away, looking over his shoulder as if he were still not sure I was up to it.

Because of this, I took my duties seriously.  Seriously.

smileyracketsWhen he first started putting smiley faces on rackets my honest thought was, “Are you kidding me?  I’m not putting that on my racket for the world to see.  It’s goofy.  People might make fun of me.”  It took me years to go from, “No, thanks” to “Huh, I think I like this” to “Well, let me show you my smiley faced racket!”  Now I play with it wherever I go:  USTA matches, Sunday doubles workouts, hitting with friends.  And people sometimes give me strange looks.  Which just makes me smile.  Because I don’t care what they think.  Not in a bad way, in a good way.  Like dying my hair purple because I want to.  (Alright, I’ve never dyed my hair purple – I don’t have enough left on top to dye now, anyway).  I do it because I believe in our philosophy that tennis should always be fun and that it is always my choice to implement the Three Crowns of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship.  Not that I always succeed at this, but that it is a conscious choice to work at it.  Looking at the smiley face reminds me of both.

I realize it’s not for everyone.

barbsmileyBut three encounters last camp said a lot about letting people decide.  The first night, Barb (who has taken over the esteemed role magnificently since Steve passed) was putting smiley faces on the rackets.  One camper came over to me and held the smiley up.  He said, “I refused last year, but got one right away this time.”  (He is also the person who said to me at the end of camp, “Sometimes you seeing the good in things really ticks me off”, so there’s that.  One thing at a time…).

Then, a camper who had decided not to go with a smiley on her racket all camp, approached me and said, “I’m ready.  Give me the smiley!”  (She was about 10 years quicker on this than I was).  I walked to another court and she tracked me down, held out another racket, and said, “Hey, you didn’t do my spare!”

And, speaking of smiley faces, “Jennifer”, who has a wonderful, skeptical, dry sense of humor pulled me aside and said “I don’t smile.”  I said, “I noticed.”  And gave her a wry look back.  Then I said, “But I see the humor in you, you just show it differently.”  She then allowed me to refresh her smiley face on the racket, and at the final program, as the staff was singing their goodbye song to the campers, I looked over at “Jennifer” and she was smiling from ear to ear.  Or is that eye to eye?  And she had her arm around her buddy.  Oh, my.

It is in our unguarded moments that smiles sneak up on us (or smiley faced rackets), capture us, and then leave us in a burst of light to share with the world.  That burst of light has an energy unlike any other.  A forced smile has a pain and resistance.  And rightfully so.  No one wants to be coerced.  So how do we get to genuine smiles?  One word.  Trust.  If I am with people I instinctively trust, I show myself.  If I am in a place of safety, I show myself.  If I know that no one will make fun of my teeth or my crooked grin or my dimple, I show myself.  And my smile.

At TLC, for better or for worse, we try to show ourselves.  I hope it is out of trust – and fun – that others join in the party.  Here’s hoping your day has at least one smile (or one smiley faced racket).


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  1. Anne Noonan says:

    Thanks, Neal. I don’t attend camp (did once, with you there, in the early ’80s!) and don’t even play much tennis these days, but I get the TLC emails and click in to read your thoughtful, inspiring posts. Thank you for the time you put into them—it’s appreciated. 🙂
    Anne Noonan

  2. Mark Rekow says:

    A wonderful message about positive attitude Neal. You have been a devoted student and are carrying Steve’s message with dignity, humility and humor. I’m so sorry that we are missing TLC this summer……….but are blog posts are the next best thing to being there!

  3. Bruce McKinnon (Hamline University 1964 / tennis team) says:

    This could be the best motivational story I have read in years — regardless of the topic. Yes, vintage Steve Wilkinson (granted I only knew him mostly from afar for 5 years). But the words of delivery here are yours Neal. Beautifully done and so darn important. A full blown life lesson. Think positively! Sure, hardly a new message, but a fantastic way of conveying an infectious path to sucess in sport and life — let alone an underlying way to gain self confidence. Smile, and you make other people happy (including one self). Pretty profound. Great article (A+). Steve’s (your) recruit (Barb) is the perfect deliverer of this message (great insight).

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Bruce. That is kind of you. And Steve’s smiley face recruit (Barb) was an amazing spouse and partner in business and life for 48 years, too. None of this would have happened without her tireless efforts over the years.

  4. Karen Mann says:

    I noticed a change in “Jennifer”, too! What a transformation! It’s all in “The Smile”…always!

    • Neal says:

      So good to see you, Karen! I find that every camp, I am changed a little bit myself to be open, inspired by the others I see doing so at camp. Lucky us.

  5. GLR says:

    I was a bit skeptical when Steve wanted to “smile up” my racket, but he was so sweet and sincere I gave in. I enjoyed that symbol for over a year and miss it now that my racket is restrung.

    PS when an instructor at my club wanted the team to apply a black widow spider stencil to our rackets, I politely declined. Giive me a happy grin any time!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      We can always come to your club and put a smiley on “special delivery” 🙂

  6. Gregg Glader says:

    Before TLC, I was always somewhat cynical about all of that smiley face stuff. Silly! Fluff! Uncool??
    Only because Steve was an icon that I had idolized did I consent to only HIM putting the first year smiley face.

    After a few years of understanding, this year I bought a new racket. After a few off center hits, I went running to
    Barb to correct the problem with this new racket. It actually works better with the smiley face!

    Hitting and noticing the smiley face on my strings, brings Steve right beside me again,
    with his big smile, encouraging words, and red stencil!

    Thank You Steve, Barb, Karen, Neal, Tommy, Liz and endless more!!
    You’ve built a special place and filled it with all the right things!!
    How lucky to have found TLC for so many inspirational moments!!

  7. Jennifer Kirby says:

    Love this entry! My nickname in middle school was Smiley, so I especially like this TLC tradition! Can’t wait to get a smiley face on my racquet next year. 🙂

    • Neal says:

      I can see why they called you Smiley. The stencil ink is waiting for you, Jennifer. Your friends who came without you were wonderful! Must be something in the Sioux Falls water!

  8. Linda LeClaire says:

    You do make me smile, Neal! Natalie has been asking for a new tennis racket for Tennis and Life Camp. She has been using Brianna’s old tennis racket with the smiley face Steve put on it her first year at camp. Last week she told me that she wanted a new racket for camp so that she could get her own smiley face on it! I had no idea!

    One more story – we were chalk drawing in the driveway. Natalie was doing a drawing by herself. We looked over at her drawing and were touched to see she had written Let Love Serve with tennis rackets and sunshine surrounding the words!

    Do you think she is excited about attending her first Tennis and Life Camp!!!

    • Neal says:

      That is so wonderful! Tell Natalie we’re excited to see her again. And the rest of the clan! 🙂