At 6 p.m. on a cool, cloudy evening in August, the US Open was halted for a rain delay. Just 70 miles away, with music blasting from his courtside BlackBerry, John Masso had no idea.
He was too busy playing.
“I play as much as I can,” Masso said. “On weeknights, weekends – whenever I get a chance – I play. Tennis has really become my thing.”
It would be your thing too, if it helped you lose 285 pounds.
For years, Masso says he was sidelined by his size. Weighing in at more than 525 pounds at one point, his friends wouldn’t invite him on hikes. They didn’t call him when they played sports or did anything active.
“Instead, I was the guy people came to eat with,” he said.
That’s since changed.
Masso, 6-foot-3 and now 240 pounds, began his weight-loss journey in January 2008. He gained and lost weight over the next few years, but grew tired of the up-and-down. By the final days of 2011, he had enough. So on December 31, 2011, knowing that it was all behind him, he drove to the local Weight Watchers and started the journey to finally take his life back.
Right away, Masso improved his diet by eating smarter and replacing daily activities with exercise: walks, weights, or anything else he could do to stay active. Needing a cardio-based exercise to keep him going, have fun and stay motivated, Masso looked outside his Lawrenceville, N.J. apartment window to the building’s tennis court.
He hit a few balls, found inspiration in a former coach, and was hooked.
“One of the main reasons I started was my high school track coach, Joseph O’Donnell,” Masso said. “He encouraged me to try the sport, and would come visit me once a month to play and keep me focused on my weight loss. He was one of the biggest contributors to me losing weight, and he’s remained my mentor and a close friend.”
Using tennis as a nightly activity, Masso was losing anywhere from two to 10 pounds per week, and as he settled into his diet and exercise routine, the pounds continued to drop. Month by month, he kept it up, and used tennis as a way to measure his fitness progress. He played it with his son, and played it with friends.
“It was what I did to exercise every night,” he said. “I got into a rhythm and started to think, ‘I can do this.’ I wanted to get better and better. I went for walks in the morning so that I’d be a little bit faster on the court. I would be in the gym thinking about how that workout would help my tennis game. It helped me in a lot of ways. Tennis was like a test, to see how far I had come. I would notice that two weeks before, I wouldn’t have gotten to a certain spot on the court. But my running and weight training helped me get there, and that keeps you going.”
Neighbors in his New Jersey apartment complex took notice, and many picked up racquets and began joining Masso on the court. Some nights, three or four people would play. Other nights, up to 15 would surround the court to hit balls, chat, and catch up. They kept the trend going.
For the most part, the group was – and still is – loaded with beginners. Some serve underhand and others bounce the ball first, but none of that matters. They play tennis the right way: moving around, having fun, and getting better every day.
“When I first started, I could barely hit the ball over the net, but that changed pretty fast,” said Masso, who played football and threw the shot put in high school. “We all got better together, and we always found ways to have fun and get a workout in. We would even play three on three. In tennis, you don’t even need to know how to keep score. It’s not complicated to just play around.”
Instead of being the guy people ate with, Masso evolved into the guy people played tennis with. Beyond that, he started gathering the group from his community for walks or jogs in the morning, and shared healthy recipes.
Now roughly two years after his lifestyle change, Masso has lost an additional 185 lbs and 285 total. He credits a number of people and a variety of activities for helping him along the way, and one of the biggest is tennis. He said tennis, being a low-impact sport, allowed him to find fun in working out and staying active.
Masso, who recently completed a Tough Mudder race, now jogs up to 15 miles per week, and uses his weekends to play tennis and spend time with Jake, who is getting better by the day. He says tennis has brought them closer together.
“He’s getting pretty good,” Masso said. “He’s still young,, but I think he’ll be beating me soon.”
By getting behind Masso, others in the community even found inspiration to eat healthier and get in shape.
Neighbor Joanne Ratliff, who has lived in the apartment community for 20 years, is one of those people.
“Watching John, and learning tennis with the community, has been a total life change for me,” Ratliff said. “I saw what he was doing and what a positive it was in his life, and it made me better. It got me talking about nutrition and exercise. I always wanted to exercise, but never had the motivation to do it. Tennis with this group made exercise fun, and it’s helped me lose a lot of weight myself.”
John Yuen, a friend of Masso’s for years, agreed. He even found other ways that tennis helped him.
“Not only did the tennis help some people with weight loss, but it helped me with staying positive when I was out of work,” he said. “I would spend the day in interviews and being turned down, but a couple hours of tennis at night would refresh me and get me ready for my next day. The tennis kept me positive during some tough times.”
Masso said he only wants to lose 15 more pounds, and then will focus on toning. Day by day, shot after shot, he is inspiring a community to eat healthier, exercise, and live more active lives. He is spreading the word about tennis, and uses his experience to connect with others.
“Without tennis, a lot of our group would be sitting on couches, watching TV,” he added. “What I’m hoping will happen now is that people will get the tennis bug and go play.”
“We only have one court, but it’s a place where everyone comes together,” Radliff said. “I’ve lived in this building for 20 years, and I never thought I’d see anything like this.”