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York’s Jay Nelson, The Last Man Standing



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2003, By Rob Dinerman © 2002 SquashTalk
Photos: © 2001 SquashTalk

Has Outlasted His
Peers on National Squash Stage

Jay Nelson in the mid 70s.. © SquashTalk LLC

In a 1991 interview
he gave a few years before his death, the late and extraordinarily great
New York Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle dolefully recalled looking around
the clubhouse early in the 1967 season, realizing that second baseman
Bobby Richardson, shortstop Tony Kubek, third baseman Cletis Boyer, catcher
Elston Howard, fellow outfielders Roger Maris and Tom Tresh, valuable
reserves John Blanchard and Phil Linz and pitching ace Whitey Ford —
the entire core of the great dynasty he had led to a record five consecutive
pennants from 1960-64-were all no longer there, and wondering out loud
"Where IS everybody?
I’m the only one left!"

When Jay Nelson,
Harvard class of 1962, Andover class of ’58 and by many years the last
still-active singles squash player from the group that filled the USSRA
top-10 rankings during the decade from the mid-1960’s through the mid-1970’s,
was told the Mantle story and asked if he had ever experienced a similar
feeling as contemporaries John Reese, Victor Niederhoffer, Tom Poor, Len
Bernheimer, Bob Hetherington, Scott Ryan, Glenn Greenberg, Sam and Ralph
Howe and Frank Satterthwaite all either voluntarily or involuntarily (i.e.injuries)
drifted into either retirement or age-group doubles, he resisted whatever
temptation there might have been to give a poetically fitting answer,
instead responding,

"Not really.
There was still
plenty of competition at the time, especially in softball."

In an important respect
the dichotomy between Mantle’s and Nelson’s respective reactions to their
analagous experiences makes absolute sense. For while the career of Mantle
was nearly over by the time he had reached his late 30’s in ’67, by contrast
arguably the most noteworthy aspect of Nelson’s career—the record he
has amassed in USSRA age-group singles titles, the 20th of which he registered
this past spring, a total second only to Henri Salaun’s 26—didn’t even
begin until September ’84, by which time he was 42 years old.

Jay Nelson in 2000 © SquashTalk LLC

More significantly,
he was pretty much embarking on a new and "second" squash career
during that early-1980’s period, having taken a four-year hiatus from
the game from 1978 to 1982 which re-charged the physical and emotional
batteries to a degree that has carried him through the past nearly two
decades of USSRA age-group titles in both hardball (in which he won the
45’s in 1989 and 1990 and the 50’s in 1992 and 1995 before stopping after
the ’96 event) and softball, in which he won the 40’s in ’84 and ’85,
the 45’s in ’87 and ’88 and, starting in ’92, the last 12 age-group Nationals,
having run the five-year board in both the 50’s and 55’s and taken the
first two steps towards doing the same in the 60’s in ’02 and ’03. All
this in spite of back and knee injuries, especially in recent years, and
surgery in ’97 for prostate cancer which, happily, has remained in remission
ever since.

Not that Nelson hadn’t
had a fine career even before becoming eligible for age-group competition.
Indeed, the success he has experienced in this latter category was a natural
by-product of the arc of the "Open" career that preceded it.
Although he played for Jack Barnaby’s intercollegiate
championship teams at Harvard, he was nowhere near the top of the formidable
Crimson line-up,
loitering at the Nos. 5 and 6 positions while Niederhoffer led the way
at No. 1.

Jay Nelson circa 1975
© SquashTalk LLC

But once ensconced
in New York’s competitive and star-studded league and tournament environment
in ’69, having served a two-year stint in Berlin as a member of the armed
forces, earned an MBA at Harvard Business School and spent several years
as a computer programmer during the seven-year interim since his college
graduation, Nelson decided to really dedicate himself to the game.

This he successfully
did by complementing the solid strokes and outstanding three-wall that
he had learned from Coach Barnaby with a commitment to conditioning that
marked him as perhaps the best "grinder" in the amateur game
at the time while also setting the stage for the softball success that
would follow.

The latter included
membership along with Poor, Satterthwaite and Dinny Adams on the first
U. S. team ever to compete in the world team championships, in South Africa
in ’73, an experience that Nelson credits with playing a major role in
the breakthrough ’74 season that ensued. During this possibly career-best
campaign he defeated Niederhoffer and Mo Khan at the William White Invitational,
reached the second of his four Nationals semi-finals (three of which,
against Gordy Anderson in ’74, Peter Briggs in ’75 and Mario Sanchez in
’78, he took to a fifth game) and received the Eddie Standing Award "For
Sportsmanship Combined With A High Level Of Play" from the MSRA,
which also subsequently bestowed on him its other major award, the Edwin
Bigelow Trophy "For Excellence In Competition," in both ’77
and ’92. This 19-year spread between the first and last of the MSRA’s
most prestigious awards exemplified the remarkable longevity that had
arguably become the most noteworthy aspect of Nelson’s career even before
he began his ongoing assault on the age group tournaments.

He won his third
and last Metropolitan Open title in ’89 at age 47 during a springtime
stretch in which his quadruple-exploits in also winning the Met A, 35
and 45 tourneys led to his being cited by Sports Illustrated in its famed
"Faces In The Crowd" section. Nelson annexed his third and last
York State Open in ’93 a few weeks after his 52nd birthday (and a full
16 years after his second such title in ’77) and tied his career-highest
USSRA Men’s ranking, No. 2, in ’77 and ’78, by which time he was well
past age 35.

As recently as last
year, several months into his seventh decade and five years after his
retirement from the Wall Street investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman,
where he spent 29 years as a securities analyst, Nelson took on one of
Ivy League champion Princeton’s starting nine in a practice match and
out-lasted a talented opponent 40 years his junior! Nelson also combined
with Harvard Club teammates Daniel Ezra and George Polsky to win the 2002
MSRA A League title, saving several match points against him to eke out
a fifth-set tiebreaker victory in the finals against Lincoln. He is by
a large margin the last remaining protagonist from an otherwise by-gone
period of USSRA history who unflappably made the transition from the cold
courts and gentlemanly atmosphere
of that earlier era to the far more athletically demanding pitch of today’s
environment, an old-school product who is nevertheless thriving in the
present climate and who, based upon his recent results and continuing
enthusiasm for the game, may well be working his ageless magic for many
years to come.


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