Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson transferred to UMSL after earning his associate degree in business at St. Charles Community College and is a recipient of the Community College President’s Scholarship. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Justin Johnson transferred to University of MissouriSt. Louis from St. Charles Community College this year, he brought more than just a 3.9 GPA and a quest for a bachelor’s degree. He brought his skill and expertise in the sport of pickleball.

If you haven’t heard of pickleball, then you are not among the 3.3 million people in America who actively participate in the sport, according to the USA Pickleball Association. Combining the elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is played on a smaller court and with a shorter net than tennis.

While pickleball may not have yet reached the masses, it’s reach to Justin Johnson, 25, changed his life. Participating in the sport enabled him to meet a support system of people including a business mentor and an adoptive family.

“Pickleball is a growing sport and the pickleball community has really come in and helped me out,” Johnson said. “I was in a rut, and some people came in and helped me change direction.” 

Johnson said it was his “pickleball family” – including Cindy Butler, the president of the St. Louis Metro Pickleball Club, and her husband, Jim – that introduced him to UMSL and its pickleball program. Johnson, who has won local and regional pickleball tournaments, said he hopes to help develop further. UMSL currently has intramural leagues for pickleball.

“Jim and Cindy Butler have been my biggest role models and helped me out the most,” Johnson said. “Jim helped me get a job at his company, and Cindy encouraged me to go to college. She talked to me about helping out with the pickleball program and helping it grow at UMSL.” 

Johnson, who earned his associate degree in business at St. Charles Community College, also chose UMSL because of its academic reputation. He now plans to pursue a bachelor’s in business administration while staying close to the people who are important to him.

“It’s one of the best business schools around, and it’s local,” he said. “I don’t want to go too far away. If I leave the support system I have here, I think I’d be setting myself up for failure.”

He said UMSL academic advisors Teri Furlow and Monica Farrell, who worked together to help him create his class schedule, are helping him stay on the right track.

“They’ve been friends longer than I’ve been alive,” he said, laughing. “And they were definitely a big help, especially with picking out my classes.”

Johnson said he wants to study business because he has been inspired by his mentor, retired Anheuser-Busch executive Bob Franceschelli, who is also a board member of the USA Pickleball Association. He said Franceschelli has guided him in both the sport and toward a career.

“I’d like to be following in my mentor’s footsteps and getting a job in a meaningful business position,” he said of his hopes for the future. “Making a difference somewhere.”

Johnson worked hard to become a recipient of the full-tuition Community College Presidential’s Scholarship, securing the financial support he needs to earn his degree and to “have as many doors open as possible.”

“I didn’t have the best life growing up,” Johnson said. “I grew up in downtown St. Louis, not the best neighborhood. I grew up in a single-parent household. My dad wasn’t around. So I knew that’s not the life I wanted to live one day. I just wanted to do my best in everything I do.”

“I thank God for UMSL, pickleball and the many great people who have helped me along the way. I look forward to continuing to grow and develop into a well-rounded, contributing member of society.”

Ramona Curtis

Ramona Curtis