Lionel Richie Was Once a Star Tennis Player — And He Still Lives By This Life Lesson He Learned

For decades, Lionel Richie has entertained audiences and provided some of the most iconic love songs in music history. But before he became the Grammy-winning sensation and American Idol host that fans know and love today, he was a completely different life path separate from music.

Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie on American Idol | ABC via Getty Images

Lionel Richie was an athlete before he was a musician

In his youth, Lionel Richie was a student athlete and an active tennis player. He went to college at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on a tennis scholarship.

Richie recounted his tennis days in an interview with supermodel Naomi Campbell on her web series No Filter with Naomi. “I was a tennis player, and I could play tennis when you could see the ball. Now, they have 100-mile-an-hour serves and they have 100-mile-an-hour forehand and backhand,” he said as Campbell laughed.

Once the athletes around him started getting stronger at the sport, he realized that he might not have a lengthy future in it. “I kind of gave up early in life,” he admitted. “[I knew] that tennis was not going to be my thing.”

Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie
Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in Los Angeles, California | Lester Cohen/WireImage

Lionel Richie learned important lessons in his tennis days

As he eventually lost his passion for tennis, Richie never lost his appreciation for the lessons he learned both on and off the court.

“It taught me a great thing,” he revealed. “They had great little things that happens where your coach will say certain things to you that stuck with me.”

Among those adages was one that applied to both tennis and to life: “Don’t let the point make you lose the game; don’t let the game make you lose the set.”

Richie mused that those words stay with him to this day. “You use that in life,” he said honestly. He described an old book simply titled Tennis that he and his fellow athletes read that “gave all the principles of tennis that applied to life.”

“Forget the tennis part; [the book taught] the life lessons of tennis,” he said honestly. “It was just one of those things where from tennis, it gave me the mantras to stick to, ‘That was that, this was this, let’s move on.'”

Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie | Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images

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Lionel Richie’s passion changed from tennis to priesthood to music

At the same time in college, Richie was also struggling to figure out what career path he wanted for himself. He described to Campbell a brief period when he was interested in becoming a priest after developing close relationships with Episcopal ministers.

However, his desire to join the priesthood quickly evaporated after he joined the music group that would come to be known as The Commodores. He felt a rush unlike any other when performing in front of other people that every other thing he tried in life never gave him.

With the life lessons of tennis under his belt, Richie went on to graduate from Tuskegee and conquer the world in the following decades. He’s sold over 100 million records to date and has several Grammys and other awards to his name.