While I’ve been focusing on behind the scenes recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with a MD fan favorite, Shaun Wilkie at the last tournament I went to. We were in Virginia for a stop on the Action Pool Tour, a tour that Wilkie is very familiar with. Just last year he set a record for the tour, winning 6 straight stops. These stops usually include such major competition as Brandon Shuff, Mike Davis Jr., and Brett Stottlemeyer just to name a few. Wilkie was still on the winner’s side of this particular stop when we spoke, and was waiting to play Karen Corr in his next match.
As we sat, I kept a close eye on the giant screens around us. I had been warned that Wilkie might be SLIGHTLY distracted after kickoff, and he was equally aware of the screens while we talked. We discussed momentarily how big he was into all kinds of sport while I smoothed out my very crinkled papers. I had a list of questions I was planning on asking him. The usual, “When did you start playing” etc. I really wanted to know about his character though, not his stats. It’s rather hard to find that out though, so I started where his mind currently was.
“Who’s your favorite player?” I asked, motioning towards the screen.
“Wow, well in football, my favorite player was Peyton Manning. He just retired, so I mean, glad he got his last ring, you know? But now, I’ve got to move on, and I root for the Ravens, because I’m from Maryland, but I’m a player person first. Since Manning retired, I’ll be an Aaron Rodgers fan now.”
“Just because he’s electric, he’s entertaining to watch, he’s a hell of a competitor. He’s never gonna give up, and that’s kind of how I am in pool. You know, if you’re down a couple games, … you can’t give up... So he’s always like that ... he’s just fun to watch. You know that’s just what it is for me with sports. Even though I think they make way too much money, the general public watches, and that’s where the money comes from. People like him is the reason people watch.”
“It’s usually the human element that gets people to watch.” I agreed.
“He’s a down to earth human being from what I heard, too.”
“So why pool? Why not football since you’re such an enthusiast?”
“Well, I had some things when I was younger. I went through some things and had a bad leg.” He then explained that he had been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma (a stomach cancer) when he was six years old. He had to go through chemo and many hospital visits, surgeries, etc. with long recoveries.
“My family said all I wanted to do was do something else. Like if I could get out of the room or go shoot basketball in a little playroom, whatever it was. I enjoyed playing basketball when I was a kid but I had an issue with one of my legs, a blood clot. And it’s just not normal like everyone else’s but I deal with it. I have a slight limp, but it’s okay. I’m just glad to have two legs.”
He told me that while he was recovering at the Ronald McDonald house, in Baltimore, they had a pool table, and that his grandfather, who was around an APA 7 player, started playing it with him. Then when he was home, they would go practice together. “And it just stuck. I really enjoyed how fun it was, the challenge behind it. Obviously I wasn’t good then. You know, I made a couple shots here and there. I said, I think I can do this.”
“How old were you at that point?”
“I was about nine, I think. I mostly played with my grandad when my mom and everybody was still around… I lost my mom when I was 14 years old. It was tough.”
“Wow, so you really had kind of a rough start.”
“Yeah it was tough, because she had cancer, too, and unfortunately it got her. Sometimes I question it, but I’m like, well it is what it is. All I can do is live. Do what I can do, and make her proud, and that’s what she wanted.”
We talked more about his family and how much of an impact they had made on his game. His grandfather seems to have been a major mentor, not only imparting his knowledge and experience of the game, but also picking him up and driving him to practice, encouraging him, and eventually telling him he needed to watch the pros if he wanted to play at that level. That bit of advice made a lot of sense to the young, sports-obsessed Shaun.
“I always watched baseball, always watched football, tennis, and was like, you know, he’s right. When I watch them do it on TV, (I would think to myself) ‘wow what a great shot. That was the way to win the point.’ And I started to watch pool videos and it made perfect sense. It took a while to get used to the different strokes, but with anything you do in life, you’ve got to put in the time. Everybody knows that.”
I interjected because I actually don’t think most people realize exactly how much hard work and dedication it takes to get to his level. “Everyone always thinks you start, you go, you try, and all you have to do is want it more than everyone else and it’s just a lot more complicated than that.”
"Yeah, there are people that pick on me now, ‘Isn’t it nice to always win?’ And I’m like ‘Dude, I didn’t always win. I do now because I put in the work. And you know, I lose. Everybody loses. Shane Van Boening loses, and he’s the best American player on the planet right now.”
“Yeah I don’t think a lot of people realize that he misses. It can look daunting from afar.” I chime in.
“That’s what helped me when I was a kid. Funny story about this. I was a huge Efren Reyes fan, and my granddad always told me not to watch him. I guess because of how he manipulated the cue ball and all this (motioning a wild backstroke). He just thought it was too hard, and I took it as a challenge. I was like, ‘Yeah but he’s doing it the right way obviously. It might take me a little while but I’m going to figure it out.’ And I started learning it, and now I have this shot that my grandad calls my bread and butter shot. He’ll see it on the stream and he says ‘I know you’re going to make it’ because I used to practice it every day. After I learned that one shot, I could put it into all the aspects of the game… and it all comes from the challenge, because he said I couldn’t do it.”
Well, I know that feeling for sure.
“What is something pool does for you? What do you get out of it?”
“Growing up, people would tell me, ‘well you know you’re never going to be rich playing pool, it’s not like other sports.’ That wasn’t it for me, I just enjoyed playing.” He told me about making it to the pro level in 2007 and how that was such a goal of his, and how he’s been able to play against legends, and how he started out losing to them of course, but he eventually got closer and closer, and has even beaten some of his idols.
“I just get a lot of entertainment, relaxation, just joy out of the game.”
"Do you think that pool has helped make you a better person?" I ask, thinking of all he's been through.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Lala (Who may or may not have surprised Mr. Wilkie)
“Oh absolutely. Absolutely. My grandad taught me the gentleman’s side of the game growing up. I’ve never really had the hustling side that is unfortunately out there." This seemed to take his mind as he said it.
"And I get it, that’s why a lot of money’s not in the game. The general public portray it as that and that frustrates me… there used to be a pool table in a pizza shop in my hometown and they had a pool table upstairs in their office... I would go in there, go eat, with my pool case and when I was done eating, go practice. A few times I’d be in there eating and somebody would come in and be like, ‘What’s that?’ (pointing at his case) ‘Is that a bow and arrow?’ and I would say, ‘No, it’s my pool cue, I’m going to go play a little upstairs when I’m done eating.’ And it doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s a stereotype, just like people with tattoos, (they would say) ‘Well, that’s a hustler’s game.’ And I’m (reacting) wow that hurts. I say, ‘No, I actually play professional, … I do this for a living, I love the game.’ And they always would see my reaction, and say ‘I’m sorry, that’s just how my friends and I see it.’
“That’s the only way it’s portrayed.” I agree, internally replaying the innumerable times I’ve had this same experience.
“(They would say) ‘It’s played in a bar, right?’ Well, yeah but that’s bar table pool, but there’s real 9ft table, there’s snooker, …and I try to explain and they’re like ‘Oh, that does sound interesting.’ And I always have to stand firm when somebody does that, because if you don’t and you are like ‘Yeah you’re right, it’s…’ no, that’s not going to help.
“A lot of players really embrace that image and are like, ‘That’s our culture and stop denying it.’ But I really think that’s hurting the game.”
“Because the general public is what you need. And I can give the perfect example. I’m a huge sports fan, the general public can go to a football game, ... they can go with their friends, enjoy the time, and have no clue what’s going on in the game. But they’re having a blast because it’s entertainment. They know that if (the players) throw the ball and catch it, it’s a good play. If they drop it, it’s not. Pool is little more complicated, and I understand. It’s hard for people to keep that focus.”
“I think if it was a sit down dinner type of place, they would be able to enjoy it.” I added, thinking of how my friends and I enjoy this game.
“That would be cool, where if they had a restaurant where the tables were below.” Shaun agreed, imagining.
“Or like Las Vegas style dining is what I thought would be kind of great.” I could play the imagine-what-pool-could-be game all day.
“Of course with 9ft tables and the professional side.” He continued, apparently feeling the same.
“Something nice like that, classy. Because they have that in Europe.” I often get jealous of the large following cue sports have across the pond. I try not to make faces about it.
“Yeah they do. They definitely have it going on better than we do ... And of course snooker. I don’t really know the full background over there but that’s huge. They dress up, they have refs, they have everything.” We were clearly on the same page with that, but I wanted to shift the focus back to him, his accomplishments, and what it means for the future of this wonderful pastime.
“Is there anything you want to get out there, any message in particular?”
“Of course we still have the Juniors playing, and I’d just like to tell them to stick with it. I know it’s unfortunate, there’s not a lot of money in it. We’re never going to be rich unless somebody hits the lottery that wants to put money into the game… but we deserve more. Just remember that and enjoy the game. Get better with your skills, how you develop your mind game. The mental game is huge.”
And then he told me a story I’ll never forget. He said he used to struggle being in the chair when his opponent was getting lucky rolls. Sometimes one roll can cause that opponent to win several games or even the match. Maybe they go on to win the tournament.
“You’re like, ‘man if it wasn’t for that one shot’ but I started watching (certain pros) and they’re just like, ice cold, calm, … and I’m like, ‘I wonder why that doesn’t affect them?’ so I asked them, I think I asked Neils (Feijin). ‘How do you do it?’ and he goes, ‘It happens, it’s part of the game. Haven’t you got lucky?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have.’ … (then Neils says) ‘Well then you’ve won games by getting lucky, it’s going to happen. Maybe the next match you’ll get lucky or the next tournament and then play 3 good matches after that. That one lucky game, could’ve helped you win the tournament.’ And I was like, “Yeah, that’s a good theory.”
And we talked a bit more, but that last bit stuck with me. For such a “ruffian” sport, there sure is a lot of room for contemplation and empathy. Shaun’s a stand up guy with a big heart for the game, for his family, and for people in general. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, and if you’d like to give him or his sponsors a shout out, you can find him on Facebook
. His sponsors are Lucasi Hybrid
, Black Heart Tips
, Lights Out Billiards Apparel, Pure X Cues
, and Rayman’s Pro Shop