Jason Mannino's gloved hands are resting on his hips, and a
shiny black racket hangs from his right wrist. His opponent in
this semifinal match of the 1994 World Junior Racquetball
Championships, in Jacksonville, has called a timeout and marched
off the court to seek advice. Alone in the glass-walled chamber,
Mannino, 19, tilts his head back slightly and, from behind
protective glasses, lifts his hazel eyes toward the ceiling.
Someday this icy gaze -- which has helped Mannino meet numerous
challenges and which did not waver in the face of death -- may
turn inward. But on this December afternoon, 17 months after a car
accident that nearly claimed his life, Mannino's fierce resolve is
focused on the task at hand.
His opponent, David Hamilton, 18, whom Mannino is beating 8-5 in
the first of two games, is consulting with fellow U.S. junior
national team member Shane Wood. Wood, 17, has already won the
other semifinal and will play the winner for the world title.
Mannino, demonstrating the same brashness that made him one of the
most controversial players on the circuit before his accident,
strolls to the door of the court and opens it. ``You're next!'' he
shouts, pointing at Wood.
Mannino, a four-time national junior singles champion who has been
known to make grandiose proclamations -- ``I'm the best mental
player in the world,'' for example -- has also been known to back
them up. And, as promised, he dispatches Hamilton and the
top-seeded Wood to win the championship. It was only a month
earlier that he had picked up a racket for the first time since
being told he might never walk again.
If ever there was someone ideally suited to battle adversity, it
is Mannino. Before Mannino was a year old, his uncle, Frank, would
stand him on top of a refrigerator and have him dive into his
arms. The idea was to make Jason fearless. It worked. ``Jason was
never afraid of anything,'' says his mother, Sarah.
March 6, 1995
He began playing racquetball at the age of two at the health club
his parents owned in Staten Island, N.Y. By the time he was six he
was already telling older opponents, ``I'm going to kill you,''
before stepping onto the court with them. ``He was so cocky,''
Sarah says. ``I would say to him, `Jason, you have to be a little
more humble.' He'd say, `Mom, I'm playing to win, and I'm going to
win.' And he would get in there and do what he set out to do.
Right up until the accident.''
The evening of July 26, 1993, was calm and mild. A light rain at
dusk had cooled and slicked the steamy Staten Island streets.
Mannino and three friends had rented The Mike Tyson Story from a
local video store and were driving back to his house in two cars.
Mannino, driving with his friend Kurt Kratzer in a blue-and-gray
1988 Mustang, was leading the way. On Hylan Boulevard, less than a
mile from Mannino's house, a car in front of Mannino began to
drift from its lane as it rounded a curve. Mannino cut his wheel
to the left, hoping to avoid hitting the other car, but he lost
control on the newly paved street.
The Mustang spun toward the opposite side of the road where it was
hit from behind by another car with enough force to explode the
Mustang's gas tank and break Mannino's back and several ribs. The
wrecked car continued its violent course, slamming into a
telephone pole (the impact broke Mannino's pelvis), a fire hydrant
and finally a bus sign before coming to a stop between two large
oak trees. Mannino had suffered additional serious injuries;
Kratzer, amazingly, had only a minor concussion.
Later, when Mannino was in the emergency room at Staten Island
University Hospital, an X-ray technician stood over him and began
speaking to another technician. ``I was just coming in down Hylan
Boulevard,'' the first man said. ``They were cleaning up what was
left of a Mustang. Whoever was in that thing died.'' Mannino, who
at Kratzer's urging had pulled himself out of the window of the
burning car before it became an inferno, looked up at the man.
``No, he didn't,'' he said.
Throughout Mannino's life his self-assurance and determination
have made him a maverick. His mouthiness has gotten him into
trouble occasionally, such as when he was disqualified from the
third-place match at the world junior championships in 1988 for
arguing with the referee, and when, at the age of 11 at a U.S.
Olympic team summer racquetball camp, he told a coach who was
trying to improve his backhand, ``It's hard to improve on
perfection.'' But Mannino's arrogance also intimidates his
opponents, to whom he speaks incessantly during matches, and it
turns his proclamations into self-fulfilling prophecies.
``Everybody knows how strong I am mentally because when I talk,
people are listening,'' Mannino says. ``It's affecting people, and
it wouldn't affect them if I was just talking and I wasn't saying
anything. But I'm saying things that I've backed up day in and day
``After I hit a perfect ball, I want my opponent to know it: `How
do you feel now that I hit that perfect ball?' And that's what
he's thinking. I made him think that. When I'm playing, I feel I'm
In 1991, when Mannino learned he had not made the U.S. junior
national team, he called his father, Russell, in tears from
Colorado Springs and vowed to prove that his exclusion from the
team was a mistake. That December at the world junior
championships, Jason, then 16, played in the boys' 18 division and
whipped the U.S. junior national champion, John Ellis, in the
quarterfinals in front of the entire national team. (Jason lost
only in the final.)
In June 1992 in Salt Lake City, Mannino won the boys' 18 national
title at 17, tearing through the draw with ease. ``Not everyone
agrees with Jason's intimidating style of play,'' says Jim Hiser,
associate executive director of the American Amateur Racquetball
Association (AARA). ``But it's hard not to respect the competitor
Lying in his hospital bed after the accident, Mannino felt for the
first time in his life that he had met his match. Having broken
three vertebrae in his lower back, two ribs and his pelvis, he
waited helplessly for feeling to return to his lower body.
Within days it did, but the suddenness of the change in his life
and the possibility that he would never compete again ravaged his
spirit. He lay awake at night considering suicide. Afraid to
leave him alone, Mannino's mother and his girlfriend slept on
chairs in his hospital room. ``He said to me, `Ma, if I ever hurt
you in my whole life, I'm sorry. I don't know if I'm being
punished,' '' Sarah says. ``But I knew he would be back, because I
know my son.''
After a two-week stay in the hospital, Mannino went home and spent
the next four months confined to his bed. ``He sounded terrible,''
says Tim Storey, a member of the national board of directors for
the AARA. ``He's got so much confidence that to hear him talk like
that made me concerned not just about his racquetball future but
about his being able to function again.''
It was nearly eight months before Mannino was able to walk without
a back brace and a walker. But early last summer, he says, he
``began to get that taste back.'' Having emerged victorious in the
most grueling match of his life, he was eager to battle an
opponent other than himself.
Last November, Mannino picked up a racket again. Out of shape and
30 pounds above his playing weight of 168, he wanted to measure
himself against a competitive player. Mannino and his family, who
were by then living in San Diego and running another health club,
learned about a tournament the following week in San Jose. Over
the phone Mannino convinced his former sponsors, Spalding and
Power Bar, that he was going to make a comeback and secured a spot
in the draw without having to qualify. After only three days of
practice, he won one match before losing 15-9, 15-7 to a touring
pro ranked in the Top 20 in the country.
Mannino, who had never really trained before, spent the next three
weeks getting into shape. He dropped 18 pounds and held sway over
the December world junior championships as if he had never left
the game: He guaranteed a victory, then delivered one. ``I'm not
surprised,'' he said afterward. ``If it hadn't been for the
accident, I could have won this tournament lefthanded.'' Two
months ago he joined the professional tour. In his second
tournament he upset Tim Doyle, the third-ranked player in the
``Jason doesn't understand everything about the accident yet,''
says his best friend, Sudsy Monchik, also a pro player. ``But a
couple of years from now, I promise, he will use it to give him
As if he needed more.