American Way Magazine, 2009
When Jerry Stark was 28, he had been working on the General Motors assembly line in Kansas City for four years. The job was not resembling anything like a long-term plan, and Stark was unhappy. “I had no desire to work on the assembly line the rest of my life,” he says. “It was just a job. I wanted something different.”
But Stark, who sports a six-inch-long red goatee, is not the kind of guy who would pick just any new gig ─ or the kind who would find his path to happiness in a typical place. He found it in a Kansas City backyard, at a croquet tournament with 200 people and 50 kegs of beer. “I had a blast,” says the 6-foot-one former high school football player, laughing. “With a bunch of buddies, we started playing every weekend. That sort of hooked me.”
And then one day, a friend showed up with a croquet magazine complete with eye-opening stories about fancy custom-made mallets and well-tended grass courts in Phoenix. “I just thought, ‘Wow, there’s real croquet out there,’” he says. So he took a two-week trip to Phoenix, and after plenty of play at the Arizona Croquet Club, he returned home with a plan. “It took me a year to sell my house, quit my job and move to Phoenix. My family and friends ─ they all thought I was crazy. But I wanted to go and play real croquet. The bug just got me,” he says.
Not exactly a smart career move for a headstrong young man, you say? (“I was 28,” Stark says. “Nobody could really tell me what to do.”) Well, in fact, it was ─ Stark became a professional croquet player.
Now 54 and clad in all white, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “Yeah, I like to be different,” says Stark from the grounds of Meadowood, an elegant Napa Valley resort where he’s been the resident pro for the last two decades. He may not be the first autoworker to take his job and shove it, but he’s surely the only one who found a new life in croquet. And, as congenial a fellow as Stark may be (one friend calls him “a gentle giant”), he’s taken the game by storm. He’s currently one of the top-ranked players in the United States and 56th in the world, has won five national titles, and has even earned a spot in the U.S. Croquet Association’s Hall of Fame.
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