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Yes It Is, It’s True: Kathy Worfel was a genuine sports pioneer

Kathy Worfel (second from left) and the Wildcat boys’ tennis team.

Wayland has a long and distinguished history of great female athletic achievements, but it’s possible many aren’t aware of the true pioneer in the field — Kathy Worfel.

A classic tomboy in bygone days, Worfel was blessed to become the first girl in these parts ever to play on a boys’ high school varsity team. But she also was cursed by having to play old-style girls’ basketball before it became the game it is today.

Because of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Title IX ruling in 1973, essentially insisting girls be given the same athletic opportunities as boys, Kathy Worfel was a member of the 1972, 1973 and 1974 Wildcat boys’ tennis teams. She said her coach was Tom Tarnutzer, later to become Wayland superintendent, but providing the early impetus was former coach Donald Spriggs TeRoller, who saw her talent and wanted to prove a girl could play tennis just as well, if not better, than boys.

Don’t forget that in 1973, Billie Jean King struck an important blow for women in tennis by beating Bobby Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes,” now promoted in the hit movie.

Kathy Worfel (far right, front row) and the 1973 girls’ basketball team.

“I was a notorious tomboy,” she said recently via e-mail. “My Dad bought me a tennis racket after he was asked for permission (from me) to play peewee football. That was after he declined letting me play little league baseball.”

Kathy and the Worfel family arrived in Wayland in 1967 and they lived on East Superior Street.

“I followed my big brother (Rich) everywhere,” she explained. “After we moved to Wayland, I became an athelete. My Dad decided I was not going to play football and bought me a tennis racket instead… I was just a good athlete. I had great natural hand-eye coordination… I don’t have it any more.”

Though she played on the boys’ tennis team and was was the most valuable player on the basketball team during the same two years, she played the latter sport when the rules lagged far behind the talent. She was excelling in a

Kathy Worfel and Jack Hunter in younger days.

backward time when too many observers dismissed successful female athletes as either lesbians or women’s liberation  advocates.

“I wasn’t, nor have I ever been a lesbian,” she said. “And I didn’t even understand feminism. I just liked to play sports.”

Grand Rapids Press sports writer Joe Antczak heard about the girl playing for a boys’ varsity tennis team and wrote a feature story about her, maintaining she was the first girl in all West Michigan to play a recognized boys’ sport. In her first match under coach TeRoller at No. 3 doubles against Hamilton, she and partner L.V. Frank lost in straight sets. But history was being made.

“The boys were the best,” she said. “It would take too long to mention all their names, but Mark Predum and Lynn Marurtz were the most supportive.”

Basketball, however, was more frustrating.

“Honestly, the old girls’ basketball program sucked!” she remarked candidly. “I wish the acceptance of today’s girls could have been around back then.”

Now confined to a wheelchair, Jack Hunter and grandchildren Madison and Brody Nelson. Note the football helmet in Madison’s hand.

Under the old rules, a girl could dribble only three times and a “standing guard” could only play defense at one end of the court. Interestingly, in 1975 Hopkins picked up on the new wide open game and went all the way to the state Class C finals in the first girls’ post-season tournament ever.

Wayland coach Pat Rowley noted the trend and stepped down after 1974. Two years later, Zack Moushegian took over the Wildcats’ program. But it was too late for Kathy Worfel.

Worfel was invited to play tennis and basketball for Calvin College after graduating in the spring of 1974. However, she cut short her hoops career late that fall.

“Once at Calvin (at age 18), I was approached by a lesbian while trying out for the basketball team,” she recalled. “That was the end of my basketball career.”

The following summer she worked at a camp in New Hampshire and was talked into moving to Florida with a chance to play more tennis because of better weather. She attended the University of South Florida and was a member of the team there. She also remains proud to this day of biking around the state’s coastline for a total of 1,000 miles.

Worfel majored in photography at USF and was lured to Texas by a promise of a job. Since then she has worked in the portrait photography field, has provided some tennis lessons and has worked as a representative for TVizion.

Despite rumors that she had married multiple times over the years, she has had a 36-year commitment with significant other Jack Hunter and now is his caregiver after he lost a leg to peripheral artery disease (PAD). The two never married.

Kathy Worfel (right) with daughter Nikki Mayfield.

Kathy Worfel 43 years ago.

“He had internal bleeding a year ago and passed out,” Worfel recounted. “While in ER he code blued three times, had CPR for 39 minutes and was in a coma for 17 days. Left leg died, had to be amputated and got a bad bedsore in those 17 days they couldn’t move him.

“One year later still has bedsore and lots of pain. A nurse comes by four times a week to change bandages. Yes, I am his primary caregiver, managing his meds and driving him where he needs to go. He needs someone here 24/7 to manage meds and feed him, so here I am.”

Hunter is the father of Worfel’s daughter Nikki Mayfield, a ReMax Realtor. There are two grandchildren, Madison and Brody Nelson.

“We have a lot of history,” she said of Hunter. “We haven’t been together all those years, but I love him, so here I am. I have an agreement with our daughter to take care of him.”

Worfel said she regrets she no longer has any momentoes of her historic athletic career in Wayland all those years ago.

“I threw most all my Wayland memories! away,” she said. “Big mistake! I don’t even have my yearbooks. Mostly these memories are in my head.”

When asked about being ahead of her time, she answered, “I feel like I lost out big time. If I had been born 10 years later I might have gone further in either basketball or tennis. But, the reality is what it is. I did the best I could have with the resources I had at the time.”

She said she does get a kick out of watching granddaughter Madison play top tier pee wee football. Apparently she’s a lot like her grandma.

“My granddaughter is a beautiful girl, very tomboyish like me… She is just like me, but much smarter,” Worfel quipped.

“Now I’m dealing with old age and Jack is in a wheelchair,” she reflected. “It doesn’t matter we never married. He is and always has been my soul mate!”

The only time she has come back to this area after all those years was in 2014 when she was a caregiver for her mother when she was dying with dementia.

But she still expressed affection for where it all started.

“This I can tell you…I felt great (back then). I loved Wayland and all the people there.”

4 Comments

  • Hi Dave! This article literally made my day! Unfortunately, I have misplaced the team picture that included Kathy Worfel and was happy to see it again. Kathy was very coachable and a very nice young lady. Her male team members fully accepted her, and she worked very diligently to earn a starting position on the team. That group of tennis players was a fine example of teenagers at their best. Thank you for the article.

    • Thank you Mr Tom. You were are a great inspiration for me. I will never ever forget how you supported me. Even before you were out of college I fell in love with your parents who supported me and trained me at the bowling alley every Saturday morning for several years. I looked forward all week to see them both every Saturday morning in the Junior league they sponsored at airport lanes. I remember how proud they we’re of you and it motivated me to try to be the best for you. That’s so cool that you became Superintendent at Wayland. God bless you and I hope we can meet again someday when I come up there visit.

  • David, this is such a touching and inspirational story. Thanks for sharing it with your readers. Kathy may not have her mementos now, but she was surely in the moment of every game she played, and she stands as a great role model for young women. Her story is also a testament to the open-mindedness of her male teammates and her coaches in those early, important and historic days. Best wishes to you, Kathy, for your life well-lived!

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