Steve Vehslage is a frank, engaging young man of 26 who is currently the national amateur squash champion and who, if he can remain conscious long enough, is a favorite to retain that title next week in New York. The problem is staying conscious. Vehslage has a tendency to pass out when bumped in the area of the head and shoulders. Since a squash court is only slightly larger than a playpen and since both players try to maintain a position in the approximate center of the court, the bumps are frequent.
Vehslage has been knocked out at least 25 times in the past eight years while playing squash. His period of unconsciousness lasts about two minutes, and is followed by a daze during which, as he says, he is about three-quarters conscious and can hear the excited murmurs of the audience. This lasts for about two more minutes. Then he hops to his feet, takes a few deep breaths and signals he is ready to resume play. Vehslage has never suffered the slightest aftereffect from these journeys into unconsciousness, and sometimes they almost help him. Squash players as a genre are the most courteous and considerate of athletes—the court would be pretty bloody if they weren't—and occasionally Steve's opponents, from guilt, loss of concentration or a flood of relief that he is not dead, proceed to drop the next two or three points.
Certain players knock out Vehslage more than others. Just this season Charlie Ufford, ranked fifth nationally, knocked him out in the New York state tournament. Bob Hetherington, a Yale alumnus who is now a divinity student at Harvard, knocked him out in the Gold Racquet Invitation. Colin Adair of McGill University, one of the best players in Canada, has knocked him out several times—almost each time they have met. Colin is very sturdy and has eyes, Vehslage says, mainly for the ball, a polite way of saying that he plays squash with the enthusiasm of a middle linebacker. Steve's older brother, Ramsay, who is a fine doubles player, has knocked him out while they were partners in doubles.
Most of Vehslage's opponents are aware of his condition, but occasionally Steve plays someone who is not. A few weeks ago he was playing a young man at the Yale Club in New York during the lunch hour. Unaware of his opponent's tendency to swoon, the young man was aghast when he ran into Steve while chasing a ball and saw Steve collapse. "The poor fellow thought he had killed me," Vehslage recalls. "He burst out of the room to get a doctor. I came to and found nobody in the court, so I went to the locker room to look for him. Meanwhile, he came back to the court with three doctors he had found in the club and was even more shocked to find the court empty. Finally I returned and explained to him it was an old habit with me."
February 7, 1966
Vehslage accepts all this with remarkable good humor. Last month, after he had beaten Sam Howe, a former national champion, in the quarter-final of the North American Open in Detroit, Vehslage remarked casually that he hadn't "pulled my act in this tournament yet." Although they have played each other since they were children, Howe has never knocked Vehslage out, either as an opponent or as a doubles partner. Vehslage expressed satisfaction that Adair was not in his half of the draw. Referring to the Canadian's desire to reach and strike the ball despite obstacles, Vehslage surmised that Adair would have kept him unconscious throughout their match.
Vehslage has been to dozens of doctors in an effort to determine what causes these spells, and everything has come up negative. There are only two reasons, doctors have told him, for unconsciousness: convulsion or syncope (fainting)—the latter caused by a decrease in the blood available to the brain. He has taken batteries of tests—electroencephalograms, neurological tests, tests to determine his sensitivity to heat and color. While it has not been discovered why these blackouts occur, doctors have assured him of two things: that he has not suffered any damage from the lapses into unconsciousness and that the lapses themselves are not growing worse. The only unpleasant effect he seems to suffer is the embarrassment of finding himself on his back staring at the ceiling.
Vehslage knows exactly how his problem began. A soccer player from the time he was in the first grade in Haverford, Pa., he "met heads" with an opposing player in a high school soccer game and was knocked out briefly. Later he underwent a thorough medical examination, but no damage seemed to have been done. However, it kept happening—and happening.
Because he was a center halfback, Vehslage often had to head the ball away from the goal mouth. When, in leaping for the ball, he bumped heads with an opponent instead, out he would go. Playing soccer at Princeton in 1958, 1959 and 1960, it got so that when the ball hit his head he would succumb. His soccer coach devised a special headgear made of leather and soft rubber to protect him from getting knocked out by the ball. Since collegiate soccer players are not supposed to wear helmets for fear of injuring unhelmeted players, Vehslage had to obtain permission from the coach of the opposing team before each game to don the helmet. Once, when the Yale coach refused permission, Vehslage was so incensed that, bareheaded, he played the best game of his college career and stayed conscious throughout.
Despite his predilection for passing out on the soccer field, he was selected to the All-Ivy League soccer team his junior and senior years, and in his senior year received honorable mention on the All-America team. In that year, thanks mainly to his heading balls away from the goal, Princeton won the Ivy League championship.
Vehslage also played a good deal of squash at Princeton. He had both a natural aptitude for the game and a propitious background. His father was an avid player, and the family lived next door to the Merion Cricket Club, the Yankee Stadium of squash. Both the Vehslage brothers and the Howe brothers (Sam's brother Ralph was national champion in 1964) played a great deal together on the Cricket Club courts and, when they were 15, Sam and Steve became the youngest team to play in the national doubles, beating the Pennsylvania state champions to get there. Steve became the only player to win the national junior title three years straight and, while at Princeton, the intercollegiate championship three times. He also played very good tennis and was a member of a team of American court tennis players that toured Europe in 1960, competing against the best European collegians. In his senior year at Princeton he won the William Winston Roper Trophy (along with Hugh C. Scott of Wellesley, Mass.) for high scholastic rank, good sportsmanship and general proficiency in athletics.
Now married and an account executive for IBM in New York, Vehslage runs somewhat warily around the reservoir at Central Park (it is right across from his apartment on Fifth Avenue), does wind sprints inside a squash court and plays squash half an hour a day to get in shape for next week's nationals. He usually rides a bicycle to work, chaining it to a parking sign behind the Racquet and Tennis Club, where he plays most of his squash and court tennis. His wife, April, sees him play most of his squash games, showing little trepidation—perhaps because the first time she saw him he was laid out flat on the Princeton soccer field. "That's your date," pointed out the unfeeling mutual friend who was to introduce them. She recalls that Steve was ashy-pale when they met but that the date was a success.
April was most worried about him when, shortly after their marriage, he was horsing around with a friend on a dock in a lake near Charlevoix, Mich. The friend gave him a push, Steve blacked out and April, noticing how he fell into the water, shouted that he was unconscious and was likely to drown. He had indeed blacked out, but the friend jumped into the water and hauled him out.
For the first few years after his graduation, Vehslage played very erratic squash. He won a few major tournaments, such as the Harry Cowles and the New York state, but he always did less than was expected of him in the nationals, never getting past the quarter-finals. He had a tendency to become overtense, and this led to fatigue, which in turn caused him to pile up errors. Finally the most outspoken of the professionals, Jim Tully of Philadelphia, informed him that his backhand was awful. Vehslage was willing to learn, so Tully spent weeks with him to correct it. He had Vehslage get ready sooner, bring his racket back earlier and hit the ball flatter and therefore harder. By constant practice, Vehslage improved the shot so that it became as strong as his forehand. With a relatively mediocre season record behind him, in January of last year he entered the Merion Cricket Club singles, found he could hit the ball hard and accurately off both sides and won. He was not even seeded in the nationals the following month and therefore was completely relaxed, feeling he did not have the slightest chance of winning. On top of that, he was weak from a bout of flu, and on the day the matches started he could not speak because of laryngitis. Steve won his first match, then beat Colin Adair, got a welcome default from former champion Henri Salaun, beat two more players and found himself in the finals. On the morning of the final against Vic Niederhoffer he noted happily that his laryngitis had cleared up. Niederhoffer won the first game, but soon Vehslage began winning points with powerful cross-court forehands deep in the corner to Niederhoffer's backhand. He darted about the court with great agility, survived numerous collisions without passing out and swept the next three games. When he won the last game 15-8 for his first national title, a roar went up from the gallery. He was champion, and he was on his feet.