PITTSBURGH — When Meg Burkardt arrived at pickleball courts in the Pittsburgh area Saturday, she noticed that a few strapping young men were on the court where she and her friends usually play. Two of them were playing one-on-one, and she saw that a third was just sitting down watching, so what she did next came natural.
"I could tell they were beginners. Don't tell them I said that," Burkardt said with a laugh Monday. "But I thought, 'Oh, this is great. Probably the guy on the bench doesn't have a paddle, that's why he's not playing.' So I grabbed my extra paddle, rolled on up and plopped down next to him. 'Hey, do you want to take these guys on?'"
It wasn't until after four or five competitive games that Burkardt realized she'd stumbled into her "15 minutes of fame." As they were finishing up, she realized that other pickleballers had stopped playing and started watching. She didn't really know why, but she figured it out when people started asking for photos.
Burkardt, a 64-year-old attorney who has five children and one grandson, was the fourth wheel for a weekend outing with Steelers defenders T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Alex Highsmith. That's the reigning defensive player of the year in the NFL, a two-time All-Pro safety and a starting outside linebacker.
"She taught us some lessons," Watt said with a smile Monday morning. "She had a wicked serve with a lot of spin on it, so it made for a fun afternoon."
And it's made for a wild few days for Burkardt, who said a local bakery wants to make cookies with her and Fitzpatrick on one, Watt and Highsmith on the other. Burkardt prefers playing sports to watching, so she's not exactly a die-hard Steelers fan. That's why she didn't recognize the three Steelers, though she could tell they were athletic and figured they might be Marines or something along those lines.
But when she texted a photo of her and her new pals to her family group chat, her daughter Natalie posted it to Twitter for the world to see.
Watt's oldest brother, J.J., blasted it out to his followers, and eventually T.J. did, too. Burkardt was just hanging out at the Three Rivers Arts Festival over the weekend, not looking at her phone, when her daughter asked if she saw that the story was going viral.
"It's very exciting," Burkardt said. "It was one of those surreal things that you get in your car to leave and you're like, 'I can't believe that just happened.'"
Watt had recently picked up the sport at his bachelor party weekend in Idaho, so when Fitzpatrick asked him what he'd be doing last weekend after the Steelers finished up minicamp, Watt told him they should go buy some paddles and play.
As for the games themselves, both Burkardt and Watt said they rotated the pairings frequently. They discovered that the best matchup was Burkardt and Fitzpatrick against the two pass rushers, Watt and Highsmith.
Ever the competitor, Watt wanted it to be known that he and Highsmith won the second-to-last match, before they determined that the finale would be for all the marbles. All Burkardt's text to her family said was: "Last game the guy in the green shirt and I whooped the other two." Her friends have already joked that they need to make her a No. 39 Steelers jersey with "guy in the green shirt" on the back instead of Fitzpatrick.
"She won when it counted," Watt admitted. "I don't know how much Minkah actually did. She definitely carried the team."
Burkardt added this little nugget, too: "The last shot I hit went right past T.J., which, let me tell you, is not easy to do because he covers up a big part of that court. Minkah and I were jumping up and down."
But Watt doesn't regret inviting the ringer to play with them.
"It was a lot of fun. It's something I would be more than willing to do again — just show up and play pickleball with anybody because in that sport, anybody can play. You don't have to be super athletic."
Burkardt and the guys didn't exchange numbers or anything. It'll just be an all-time story for her to tell family and friends, and probably the same for Watt, Fitzpatrick and Highsmith. And she'll pay closer attention to Steelers games this season.
"You bet I am," Burkardt said. "I figure now I'll have a good reason to watch. If they need any tips or help on their pickleball game, they can always call me."
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