Story by Heather Harris Michonski; Photos and Video by Carl Hollant (University News & Video)
BRIDGEATER, Mass. -- Most retirees take up gardening or travel in their golden years, but not Sheila (Tunstall) McKenna, ’62. She’s too busy lacing up her sneakers and hitting the court.
“I am never going to use a walker,” said the feisty 78-year-old.
McKenna recently met up with the Bridgewater State University women’s basketball team for a workout in the Tinsley Center, where she shared her love of the game.
The older Bear may have moved a tad slower than the rest of the team, all at least 50 years younger. But if you looked closer, the echoes of the young woman who averaged 20.5 points per game in high school, came into focus.
Back and forth, her fingers maneuvered the basketball with ease, a little fake here, a stutter step there. From the elbow McKenna pulled up to take a shot. The ball left her weathered hands and soared through the air, ending with a snap through the net.
In 1958, when McKenna first arrived from Fairhaven at what was then Bridgewater Teachers College, there was no women’s basketball team.
Still wanting to play, she opted to participate in intramurals. After collecting her degree in health and physical education McKenna embarked on a physical education teaching career at Attleboro High School, where she also coached volleyball, field hockey, track and, of course, basketball.
During her recent visit, McKenna let the BSU players know that age isn’t an excuse to stop doing what you love and shared that she still plays as a member of the Connecticut High Fives Senior Women’s team, where the players’ ages range from 76-81.
Last April, basketball even opened up a new door, when a casting agent for Showtime was looking for women in their 70’s who play basketball to appear on a series featuring writer and actor Frankie Shaw (Rosie O’Donnell also co-stars). The agent was directed to the CT High Fives.
Nine players on the team tried out for the part but in the end McKenna, always the competitor, scored a small speaking role. She shot her scenes on a Boston set this past summer where she got to show off her on-court skills.
“The whole crew was wonderful and oh-so young. They were all very welcoming,” she said.
The experience was so inspiring that McKenna enrolled in acting lessons and is now auditioning for new roles.
“I wanted to do something different and out of my comfort zone,” she said.
She may have developed a new passion for acting, but McKenna will never give up playing hoops.
“There are men and women competing who are 100, that’s what keeps me going,” she said.
During a quick break at the Tinsley Center, McKenna watched the members of the BSU women’s team continue their workout. Staring out to the court she smiled and offered a tip for the younger players.
“Work hard, play hard, study hard. Your years at Bridgewater will be some of the best years of your life,” she said.