Savage pickleball marathon benefits teacher with broken neck

Pickleball is mushrooming in popularity, but the paddle game may never have been as meaningful as it is this weekend in Savage.

A 24-hour pickleball marathon is raising money to help a middle school teacher recovering from a broken neck.

The pounding of a pickleball paddle is music to Mark Hunter’s ears.

"I can play six, seven, eight hours a day during the summertime," he said.

But since a snorkeling excursion in Hawaii last October, the Twin Oaks Middle School teacher for autistic children hasn’t really been able to take the court.

"Just a freak accident," Hunter said. "I jumped in and the next person landed right on me. I broke my neck in two places. A couple months of surgeries and several months laying in bed."

He suffered significant nerve damage, had surgery in Hawaii and more in Chicago, where he started rehab with a familiar exercise — a little pickleball with medical staff.

But his brain and muscles still don’t communicate perfectly.

"Those nerves are just not quite connected yet," said Hunter. "And I get quite a lot of nerve-burning pain."

To help him afford all this care, pickleball players in Prior Lake and Savage decided to team up and play out Hunter’s dream of 24 hours straight on the courts — rain or shine — from 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday.

Temperatures were in the forties and there was rain coming down, but it was far from the worst conditions that they’ve played in.

"We play all winter," said fundraiser organizer Tom Leveille. "I snowblow the court whenever it snows. We keep them clear and we play down to -10."

Leveille says they’ve raised about $6,000 to help with medical bills.

Doctors tell Hunter he should eventually function about as well as before the accident, but it could take months or even years.

He’s hoping to get back in the game by the end of this summer and is grateful for all the help along the way.

"I’m not a super hug person but in the last like month I’ve given more hugs and it’s great," Hunter said.

"I’m not a hugger either and he hugged me today, so obviously he’s very thankful," Leveille added.

Anyone who wants to help Hunter can contribute to his Caring Bridge site.