John Hyden was going through his garage the other day, his new one just outside Nashville, when his wife, Robyn, stumbled across a box of old Volleyball Monthly magazines.
He flipped open one from 2008, which featured a story on the then-35-year-old defender.
“I won something, and they’re like ‘How long do you think you can go for? You’re older now?’” Hyden said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Thirty-five? I said ‘I don’t know, I feel like I can play another five years.’ That was at 35, I mean geez, people just keep getting older and older but I just keep going.”
It’s debatable whether the man actually gets older or not. It is not debatable that he just keeps going, as defiant to Father Time as any athlete ever has been.
It was only in 2019 when he made the finals of AVP Hawai’i, coming out of the qualifier to do so. Had he and Theo Brunner won, he’d have broken his own record for oldest player to win an AVP, which he had set the year prior when he and Brunner won AVP Hermosa. He was 45 years, 9 months and 22 days. Brunner was a sprightly 33.
His longevity, unprecedented not just in beach volleyball but in sport in general, has been cause for one of the longest running jokes on the AVP: There is your own age, then there’s your age in Hyden Years.
He’s 47 now, Hyden. And, for the first time in maybe his entire career, he’s admitting to alas being human, feeling some of the effects of playing Olympic caliber volleyball for longer than some of the current professionals have been alive.
It took him a good week to feel somewhat normal again after his nine matches in Hawai’i, the last of which was 78-minute, 21-18, 20-22, 15-17 slugfest thriller of a final against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb.
When he works out, jumping rope is now too tough on the ankles. Leg press is out of the question.
But drills aren’t. Hyden’s still got his system, Tennessee living be damned. Most of the local guys just want to play games, but when offered the opportunity to drill with Hyden — John Hyden! — you just don’t turn down the chance to serve and set the man. So you drill. You help Hyden go through the sequence he’s done since he first began to find real success on the AVP Tour with Brad Keenan.
It was 2007 when Hyden picked up Keenan, then a young pup out of Pepperdine who had cut his teeth on tour with John Mayer. That’s the year that Hyden built his now-famous (in the beach volleyball world, anyway) team, and his system for training it. He found what works, and he stuck with it.
“I had these ideas on how to run things and we just implemented them,” Hyden said. “That’s when I turned the corner. It’s when I took these ideas and said ‘Let’s try all this.’ I changed up our game where we ran a lot more on-twos when nobody was really doing that. Brad and I didn’t win, but we made a few finals and a bunch of final fours.”
With Keenan, Hyden was able to establish the system that has kept him at the top of the AVP and FIVB tours for more than a decade. He was able to sign a few sponsors, the first of which was Jamba Juice — earning him the nickname “Johnny Jamba” – which liberated him from those odd, unusual, often-dangerous jobs beach players have to work in order to pursue the game professionally.
Oh, yes. Hyden did those weird jobs, too. Before he was making finals and pulling in sponsors, he started a business hanging Christmas lights. Worked well enough until, barely a year in, he hated Christmas.
“I love Christmas!” he said, laughing. “I’d just be driving and go ‘That tree is probably worth this much money’ or ‘That house costs this much.’ I hated it.”
So he sold it and launched another side hustle, this time installing turf putting greens around San Diego. That also worked well enough, until one customer forgot to keep the dog inside, and Hyden had to fend off a charging canine.
When AVP finals and Jamba Juice came along, Hyden was back to loving Christmas, was no longer suffering from dog bites, and he found a guy with a work ethic like his: A 6-foot-5, muscle-bound Hawai’ian named Sean Scott.
“When we got together, Sean was just a workhorse,” Hyden said. “I don’t know if he stepped back, but he bought into whatever we were doing and he just wanted to do it too to be the best he could. A lot of pro athletes can’t do that, take that step back.
“Sean and I were both workhorses. Blue collar, go get it done in the gym. Go to practice and get it done there. Just no nonsense. I didn’t ever have to worry about him working out or doing what it takes to get it done and he certainly didn’t have to worry about me. That’s it right there.”
It’s easy to buy into a system when that system has you making eight finals in 2009, another four in 2010. They were so good in 2011, in fact, winning all five Corona Wide Opens, that there was a legitimate bounty on their heads: Any team that could take them out would get a bonus.
But in 2012, with the AVP being rescued out of bankruptcy and put on a ventilator with Donald Sun’s purchase, Scott was offered a job with USA Volleyball, one he still currently holds. He took it, leaving Hyden to search for a new guy. He sought one with a similar skill set to Scott, someone athletic, with a lot of touch who could also run a fast, dynamic offense.
Soon enough, a kid named Tree called.
He thought he name was Tree, anyway. How often do you see a kid named Tri?
Tree — or Tri — didn’t think Hyden was actually grooming him when they began practicing. He thought he was just a practice dummy, fresh off the indoor scene in Puerto Rico, there to help Hyden stay in shape and maybe get a few calls back when other teams joined.
When Hyden asked if the 24-year-old Hawai’ian wanted to partner, Tri was floored. So was Hyden’s trainer, Mykel Jenkins, and wife, Robyn.
“Who?” she asked, when John informed her of his new partner.
She, and the world, would find out soon enough.
In their fifth tournament on the World Tour, they won a Grand Slam — today’s equivalent of a five-star or Major. They also won nearly $30,000 each.
“We’re sitting in the hotel room, and Tri’s like ‘What do you do with your money? I don’t know what to do with my money now,’” Hyden recalled.
Hyden, then, did what he does best: He coached his guy. He had showed Keenan how to be a professional on the court. He and Scott built a system for how to win volleyball matches. And he and Bourne enjoyed almost an uncle-nephew type relationship, Hyden teaching Bourne about far more beach volleyball, though he did impart plenty of knowledge in that area.
“It wasn’t just lessons on the court,” Bourne said. “There was a lot of stuff I had to ask him over the years: finances, buying cars, all that stuff.”
Hyden’s still coaching, now even more. He and his family moved to 30 minutes outside Nashville about two years ago. In June, he opened up Hyden Beach, where he has launched a juniors program and is one of the only high-level coaches in the area.
“When people found out I was moving out here, a lot of the parents contacted me and said ‘There’s really not a lot of elite coaching out here’ and that’s a good thing for me,” Hyden said. “It’s not like California where you have AVP pros.”
He’s put in six courts, with plans for two more. Concessions stands are still to come, as is a deck area overlooking court one, which will create a center court vibe, with patrons able to enjoy a few drinks and watch good volleyball.
He knows that while he is in the last act of his career as a player, through coaching, Hyden will be able to stay in this game for a very, very long time.
Long enough that one day, he’ll be able to look back upon this story and think: “47? Geez. People keep getting older but I just keep going.”