At age 85, Lee competes in close to a dozen sports and games from basketball to dominoes
By Deborah Storey | Living 50 Plus
Earnest Lee of Morgan County enjoys participating in a few — well, really most — of the activities in the Masters Games of Alabama, a sports competition for seniors.
“I play dominoes. I play checkers. I play three-on-three basketball when they have it. Sometimes I can’t find a team to play on,” said Lee.
“I play cornhole,” he continued. “I play shuffleboard. I play softball throw. I play basketball free throws. I play Nerf ball, where you throw a Nerf ball through a Hula-Hoop. I play table tennis.
“I play everything that I can play in that the time allows,” said Lee, 85. “Sometimes these sports are at the same time and you can only play one of them.”
Each year, hundreds of 50-plus seniors from across the state compete for three or four days at the state level of the Masters Games. Alabama’s next competition will be in Valley, near Auburn, in October.
The games promote healthy lifestyles for seniors through physical, social and mental activities. They are set in an Olympics-type atmosphere to stimulate competition, but the real goal is fellowship.
“Masters Games of Alabama is an organization that has been in place for a pretty good while,” said Justin Graves.
Graves, 43, is director of the Area Agency on Aging division of the North Central Alabama Regional Council of Governments, or NARCOG, which helps administer the games.
“Mr. Lee has been participating in the Masters Games for a long time,” Graves said. “He has the nickname Superman because he wins almost every event he competes in.
“It’s not just physical things either. He qualified for the state games in both singles and doubles dominoes. He’s just a winner.”
The state is divided into districts for the games. District 2 includes Morgan, Cullman, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, Jackson, Marshall and DeKalb counties. Their competition was in Athens and Huntsville in June. The top two from each event qualify for the state games.
“They have free-throw shooting, pickleball, football throw, softball throw, card games like Rook and dominoes, cornhole, shuffleboard, bowling and pool, and there’s golf as well,” Graves explained.
“It’s just a platform for older adults in our state to compete, but it’s also about socialization and camaraderie, just keeping them active.”
The games resumed this year after a two-year break for COVID.
“We had really good turnout for it to be the first year back,” Graves said.
“I know Mr. Lee competed in most of them. Basketball is kind of his thing. He’s very good at that free-throw shooting.”
Morgan County native
Lee was born in Morgan County — his grandmother delivered him — and graduated from school in Priceville in 1956. He worked nearly 50 years as a draftsman, then shop foreman, first at Decatur Iron and Steel then Prestolite.
Lee has lived in the same house since 1993, on top of Priceville Mountain adjacent to the property where the Racking Horse Breeders Association World Celebration was previously held.
He played basketball and baseball in school and independent basketball until he was 38.
“I played with a team that we scored over 200 points a couple of times,” he said.
Lee retired in 2002 at age 62. He began planning six months ahead.
“I made sure I had plenty of money to live on. I planned to go to Las Vegas when I retired and I did,” Lee recalled.
“When I retired I started looking for things to do. That’s why I joined the senior center in Somerville and found that Hartselle Hospital at that time was going to have line dancing lessons for exercise.”
He plays a lot of golf and now even teaches line dancing. The people at the Somerville Senior Center — at 16 Senior Lane — know him well.
Lee said most of the people who participate in the Masters Games are members of various senior centers. He met two men who were playing in state-level competitions of national senior games. He thought the idea sounded interesting.
“I’ve actually played in five state Senior Olympics,” he said. “The State Senior Olympics is like the Masters Games, except the Masters Games has Rook, dominoes and checkers.”
Lee’s first Senior Olympics competition was in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
“Then I got involved in basketball with a team from Kentucky,” he said. “I went up there and played in the Kentucky Senior Olympics.”
He has also competed at the state level in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. Earlier this summer, Lee played three-on-three half-court basketball at the National Senior Olympics in Pittsburgh.
“We came in third. I pulled a hamstring after the second game and couldn’t play anymore,” he said. “I’ve got a real confidence that if I hadn’t gotten hurt we would have come in second.”
Even at 85, Lee enjoys the travel associated with the games.
“Most of the ones I go to are like a three-night, four-day thing,” he said. “It’s like a mini vacation.”
His two children support the idea and “want me to keep it up,” Lee said.
“I’m busy, staying active. I have to keep the house clean, cook most of my meals and this kind of stuff so I don’t have a lot of time to sit around feeling sorry for myself. With me being active, I have a lot of friends.”
Some of those friends “don’t like to see me coming” to competitions, he said.
“I’m not bragging on myself, but I’m pretty good,” he said with a laugh. “They know that most of the time I’m going to get the gold medal or the blue ribbon — one or the other.”
Despite Lee’s activity level, serious injuries are rare.
“Joint pains and this kind of stuff,” he said. “You have a twitch here and a twitch there. I’m pretty lucky. I have very few pains.”
The only thing his doctor told him was “that I was wasting his time.”
He never stopped playing golf, even during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For my age I’m a pretty good golfer also,” he said.
Many of the games’ competitors know each other, said Graves.
Lee, for example, has “a nice little rivalry” with a man who lives in Cullman, Graves said.
“They talk trash. They’re very serious about this,” Graves said. “Everyone knows him because he’s very confident.”
In addition to his NARCOG position, Graves is a board member for the Masters Games of Alabama. NARCOG and its sister agency in Huntsville administered this year’s district competition, which had about 120 participants.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s fun for us as well. It’s one of the more enjoyable events we’re part of every year,” said Graves. “It’s important for everyone to stay active. It’s not important just for your physical health. It’s important for your mental health as well.”
The games promote socialization as much as activity.
“It’s good for older adults to get out and do things. A lot of the participants right now come through the senior centers in the region. We’re kind of hoping to expand on that,” Graves said. “We saw a little of that with the addition of pickleball in the games this year.”
Pickleball is especially popular for those between 50 and 59, Graves said.
“These are people who don’t go to the senior centers,” he said. “It helped created awareness about the programs that are also available to them. Twenty-three people showed up to compete this year just because of pickleball.”
Lee’s advice to fellow seniors is “stay active and have a lot of friends and you’ll live forever.”
“I’m going to live to be 100,” he said.
Anyone interested in getting involved in the Masters Games can contact NARCOG at 256-355-4515.
In conjunction with Decatur Parks and Recreation, NARCOG just started an aquatics class at the Aquadome Recreation Center on Wednesdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m., Graves said.