Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

30 years later, recalling 'Nova's good-luck charm

The subsequent three decades merely have confirmed what Villanova's national championship team learned for certain on the memorable night of April 1, 1985:

Jake Nevin.
Jake Nevin.Read more

The subsequent three decades merely have confirmed what Villanova's national championship team learned for certain on the memorable night of April 1, 1985:

Jake Nevin not only looked like a leprechaun, he was one.

Since his death in December 1985, some visitors to his unmarked Ardmore grave insist that if you put a cigar in the ground, the diminutive Villanova trainer, who was rarely without one, will begin puffing on it. A night watchman once chased a man he later identified as Nevin from a campus building. And when, on the first anniversary of his passing, a power outage halted basketball practice in the field house bearing his name, thick clouds suddenly lifted and the resulting sunlight allowed the workout to resume.

But anyone who knew him will tell you Nevin's greatest enchantment came 30 years ago Wednesday night, when, with him sitting motionless in a wheelchair at the end of their bench, his beloved Wildcats found their pot of gold at last, upsetting Georgetown, 66-64, in a historic NCAA title game.

"Without Jake," Chuck Everson, a backup center on that team, said Tuesday, "we don't win that game. He willed us to the championship."

For outsiders, time has obscured Nevin's spiritual contribution to the championship he'd been awaiting all his life. But not for the Wildcats who, long before it ended with his greatest miracle, dedicated that season to their dying trainer.

"Jake was magic," Everson said. "That's the only way you can describe what he meant to us."

Nevin had been Villanova's athletic trainer since 1933, four years after he began working at the Main Line university.

At the Bryn Mawr home where he was born, lived, and died, seven cement gnomes inhabited a backyard garden. Nevin liked to show the statues to visitors, noting how much they resembled him and explaining that at night, in the moonlight, they came to life.

As mischievous as he looked, the elfin, twinkly-eyed trainer pranked, prodded, and amused generations of Wildcats athletes. Before road trips, he might fill a coach's suitcase with bricks, then berate the weary toter for being out of shape. If he saw players engrossed in a newspaper, he'd set it afire. Those not paying attention often found their pockets filled with cigar ashes.

It all had a purpose. Nevin wanted players to feel as relaxed as the muscles that were his job's concern. With his sprite's nature and positive outlook, he helped soothe emotions rubbed raw by college sports' pressures.

"He is one of the people who never lost faith in me, even when I lost faith in myself," said Harold Pressley, a forward on the '85 team.

In his 70s, Nevin developed Lou Gehrig's disease. Still, for as long as he was able, Villanova players, convinced of his powers, insisted he tape their ankles.

"At the end, his tapings would be so loose that they'd practically fall apart before the game," Everson recalled. "But everyone wanted Jake to do it because no one whose ankles he taped ever got hurt."

Nevin's health deteriorated rapidly during the championship season. When, early on, coach Rollie Massimino told the Wildcats how sick the trainer was, they dedicated the season to him.

Confined to a wheelchair pushed by his closest relative and caretaker, nephew John Morris, Nevin became that team's inspirational amulet. During their up-and-down regular season, Nevin's humor and his unyielding faith in them buoyed the Wildcats.

One of his last tricks came as Villanova scuffled early in a Southeast Regional game with Michigan. Nevin reached into a bag, extracted a plastic leprechaun's hat, and placed it on his head. The sight of him in the silly plastic hat seemed to relax the Wildcats, who won, 59-55.

"He kept us loose," Everson said. "Whenever we needed something emotionally, Jake was there."

By then, thanks to all the NCAA telecasts, Nevin was nationally known. Viewers inspired by his story wrote him letters addressed simply, "Jake Nevin. Villanova".

Late in Villanova's upset of Georgetown, in which they shot a magical 78.6 percent, Harold Jensen kissed Nevin's head before sinking two crucial foul shots.

When that game ended, Nevin, pushed by Morris, careened around the Rupp Arena floor like a pinball as players, coaches, and fans sought him out for hugs, kisses, and handshakes.

Then, as if the Villanova title he'd long dreamed about at last gave him permission to depart, he was gone.

Villanova renamed the field house for him on Nov. 30. Nine days later, with Nevin by then completely paralyzed and confined to bed, Morris placed a blue-and-white Villanova pillow under his uncle's arm. When he returned to the sick room a short while later, Nevin had passed. The pillow was beneath his head.

"Who could possibly have put it there?" Morris wondered at Nevin's field house funeral. "There wasn't anyone else in the house but me."

On the day of the funeral, The Inquirer's Bill Lyon wrote of Nevin's role in Villanova's unlikely championship.

"It made no sense," Lyon wrote. "But then you remembered that the players had dedicated every game of that season to Jake Nevin and, finally, it was enough to make you believe that this was all meant somehow to be."