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Santa Rosa CBD company hitches its wagon to professional pickleball

Don Shaffer and Cheryl Heller, who founded Medicileaf in 2015, say pickleball has grown their business and “changed our lives.”|

It was a tale of two racket sports. The five tennis courts at Howarth Park were deserted around 5:30 on a recent evening, with the exception of a solitary man hitting against a backboard.

A mere drop shot away, the park’s four pickleball courts were packed with four players apiece, laughing, whooping, accompanied by a bass beat and the lyrical stylings of Santa Rosa’s Max Heller, aka Maxta Chief, a semipro pickleballer who is also the sport’s unofficial poet laureate, as evidenced in these hip-hop verses from his song, “What You Know About Pickleball”:

“Out here pickling when it’s hotter than a sauna/

But I always keep it cool, like the next volley llama.”

Heller and his sister Heidi were engaged in a spirited doubles match against his mother, Cheryl, and her fiance, a rangy, grinning man in a white ball cap bearing the legend: Medicileaf.

That was Don Shaffer, who had reason to smile, even if he had just lost consecutive points by dumping attempted dink shots into the net.

The 60-year-old from Rincon valley has hitched his wagon to a pair of rising stars. In January of 2021, Medicileaf, the 8-year-old company he and Cheryl started, became the official CBD supplier of the Professional Pickleball Association. Medicileaf recently merged with AloeMD, a much larger, Texas-based company that makes patented therapeutic creams. While AloeMD is now a sponsor of the PPA, Medicileaf is no longer the tour’s official CBD supplier.

Don and Cheryl travel with the pro tour, attesting under the shade of their pop-up tent to the wonders and benefits of both this booming sport and their creams, tinctures and topical sprays — none of which, they emphasize, contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Soccer takes a back seat

Like plenty of others who play it, Shaffer came to pickleball late in life. Along with his brothers Dave and Dwayne, he is a member of what some have described as Santa Rosa’s first family of soccer. Dwayne is in his 25th season as men’s head soccer coach at UC Davis. Dave, who passed away in May, played soccer professionally before embarking on a successful career as a coach.

Don Shaffer still loves the beautiful game, but it has taken a back seat in his life to pickleball, a tennis-like activity played with paddles and a whiffle-like ball, which is described in nearly every story written about it as “the fastest-growing sport in America.”

While a student at Santa Rosa Junior College in the late 1990s, Shaffer made money on the side by giving private soccer lessons. After one coaching session, he was approached by the mother of a goalkeeper he’d been teaching.

She was impressed by his coaching, and encouraged him to go into real estate. Shaffer did, and made a good living at it.

A pill tray a foot long’

Shaffer was rebounding from the Great Recession of 2008, when he branched into the CBD space. It started in 2013 with a trip to Lake County, to see his stepfather, Jim, an ex-Oregon Duck football player who suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

“He was basically a zombie,” recalled Shaffer, “and it wasn’t all the Parkinson’s. It was also all the medications he was on. He had a pill tray a foot long.”

Shaffer had heard about cannabinoids — CBD — and their potential as holistic remedies. He started doing research. A friend gave him “his private potion,” a CBD product. After “boosting” it, Don gave it to his mother, who rubbed some of it onto Jim’s knees, back and shoulders.

“And he was up and walking in 20 minutes,” said Don. The family believes CBD products helped to extend Jim’s life more than five years beyond doctor’s estimates.

Meanwhile, Don kept researching and tweaking that “potion,” which became highly popular with his friends dealing with the aches and pains of adult league soccer.

In 2015, Don and Cheryl started their company, Medicileaf. It was around that time Don entered one of the company’s products in the Emerald Cup, known as “the Oscars of the cannabis industry.”

He had reservations about it. “It cost me like 400 bucks,” he recalled. When he entered the pavilion where the products were displayed, his was not there. Then a woman told him, “that means you made the finals.”

While he didn’t win — “we got beat by Whoopi Goldberg’s salve, or something” — Shaffer felt validated.

Weaned off painkillers

As studies started coming in, at least partially confirming CBD’s medicinal value, the space got crowded. Medicileaf plugged along, helped by its loyal, local customer base, and its owners dedication to producing “super-high quality products,” as Don said. “My stuff all tests out at 99.9% pure CBD. The plants are organically grown, no pesticides, GMP certified.”

Among the company’s paid representatives is NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, who tweeted last year that “I was as able to completely quit my dependency on pain killers” after experiencing the “natural health benefits” of Medicileaf products.

About three years ago, a Medicileaf distributor in Utah, a soccer player Shaffer had once coached, called him with news. He’d taken up pickleball, and often played with the two founders of the Professional Pickleball Association.

One had used a Medicileaf salve, loved it, and wanted to meet Shaffer. The tour was looking to bring on an official CBD supplier. In the end, the Professional Pickleball Association interviewed eight suppliers, and picked Medicileaf.

“Cheryl and I were both kind of shocked,” recalled Shaffer. “We’d spent no money on marketing at all.”

Being a sponsor would require frequent travel — two tournaments a month, on average. “But we love to travel. So we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

In addition to growing their company, they’ve dramatically increased their circle of friends.

Even though they’d been playing the sport for less than two years, said Cheryl, between games at Howarth Park, “it’s truly changed our lives.”

“Two years ago I didn’t know any of these people,” added Don, his gesture taking in the two dozen players on the courts and waiting in the wings. “And now I know ‘em all.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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