In a way, the University of New Mexico tennis program can be traced back to Jack Kennedy.
It was in 1958 that Kennedy, as a freshman, turned in an undefeated season, becoming the Lobos first All-American.
He did not get a chance to match up with the country’s best, however, because at the time freshmen were not permitted to play in the NCAA Tournament.
In the ensuing years, just three other UNM players have been recognized as All-American singles players.
But it was Kennedy who paved the way with that remarkable season.
On Sunday, the Lobos honored him, naming their annual opening spring tournament in his honor, The Jack Kennedy Classic.
“We felt that it was special and he’s special and is a part of the history of this program,” said Lobos coach Chris Russell. “And he’s still around, so we were able to honor him now instead of later. We really wanted him to feel how important a part of the program, the Lobos tennis program, he is.”
The recognition is something special, Kennedy said.
“When you’re 84 years old, to have people even know who you are, man, that’s pretty good,” he said.
Although he used a wheeled walker to walk out on the court of the tennis bubble Sunday in front of a standing-room-only crowd that vigorously applauded him, Kennedy looked fit and trim, his long, gray hair pulled back in a pony tail. He later presented New Mexico with the championship trophy after a 5-2 win over Gonzaga.
“I think it’s long overdue,” said longtime La Cueva tennis coach Dick Johnson, adding Kennedy was the best man at his wedding decades ago. “He was the first All-American and he’s always supported the program. And he’s very much a definite part of the tennis community. It’s well deserved.”
Kennedy’s legacy at New Mexico extends far beyond his All-American status.
He was UNM’s first four-year All-Conference honoree, earning it for the Skyline Conference from 1957-1960. He was Skyline singles champ in 1957 and 1958 and the runner-up in 1959.
Tennis, Kennedy said, was his lifeline to success, something he sees as a constant over the years with the Lobos program.
“It means a whole lot to me,” he said. “What happened, as far as I’m concerned, I didn’t have a life until I took up competitive tennis. I wasn’t doing too well in school or anything. There was a book published in 1988, ‘I Learned Everything I Needed to Learn in Kindergarten.’ Well, I learned everything I had to learn on the tennis court. I keep coming back to it.”
Kennedy has enjoyed getting a chance to interact with the players over the years.
“I’ve been encouraging these young people to have the chance that I had, which is, it gave me the confidence to become something in other areas as well as tennis,” Kennedy said. “I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of the coaches we have here. They’re very, very good guys. Tennis isn’t just about teaching. It isn’t just about backhands and forehands. They’re teaching these young men how to be men.”
That, more than anything, is what Kennedy learned and it helped him become a successful dentist.
“I became a dentist after I played tennis for a bit and I decided as soon as I had some money that I had to give back,” he said. “I have continually done that with my life and my family has. I want other kids to have the chance that I did. These kids are good kids and turn out to be ambassadors for the United States and UNM.”