By Peter Fischetti
Like fire departments around the country, Station 31 of Panama City Beach, Florida, has a kitchen where firefighters, who are known for their culinary skills, prepare meals during their 24-hour shifts.
But Station 31, unlike most, has a second “kitchen”—this one is part of a makeshift pickleball court outlined with gray tape. It’s located in the garage under parked fire trucks, and is the site of hard-fought matches among the 13 firefighters in the battalion.
One of them is Joey Middlebrooks, 48, who has been with the department since 2007. Tall and rangy, he plays volleyball so well he’s been inducted into the Emerald Coast Volleyball Hall of Fame. But pickleball?
“A couple of shifts were playing pickleball, so we decided to check it out,” says Middlebrooks. “After one night of playing, we were addicted.” While he and his buddies stay in good shape and exercise regularly at a nearby gym, pickleball proved a surprise. “In the beginning, we couldn’t walk the next day. It’s a great workout, and works your body differently than other exercises.”
Firefighters tend to be competitive, and Station 31 is no exception. Pickleball has become so popular there that the tape designating the kitchen and out-of-bounds areas on the court replaced chalk to give it a sense of permanence.
And then there are the tournaments. They started as double elimination but during a recent one, firefighter Bobby Demeester, who had already lost twice, insisted it should be triple elimination. His buddies relented, and Bobby ended up winning the tournament. Knowing I was arriving for this article, Bobby proudly walked around the station house wearing the winning belt with a big ”W,” which looked a bit like the one Mike Tyson and other champs would wear. There, the similarity ended!
Station 31’s court is roughly the size of a regulation court, but the firefighters were not aware of some of the rules. Fortunately, beach resident Bill Caravello created floridapanhandlepickleball.org, which includes the rules Bill has been working with city officials to build more courts in Panama City Beach, which boasts “the world’s most beautiful beaches.”