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A Look Back on the Road to Paris…1984 New York Games

Posted April 11, 2024  Goalball

As the USA Goalball men’s team journeys along on the Road to Paris, during the month of April we’ll be taking a peek in the rearview mirror at past Paralympic Games where the U.S. men’s team reached the podium. This week we reflect on the 1984 Games in Nassau County, N.Y.

The 1984 USA Goalball men's team poses in their uniforms outside.
The 1984 USA Goalball Men’s Paralympic Team. Front row (l to r) Coach Stephen Kearney, James Neppl, Kevin Szott, John Cutliff and Trainer Val Lindbloom. Back row (l to r) Winford Haynes, Reni Jackson and George Morris.

The first Paralympic Games held on U.S. soil occurred June 16-30, 1984 in Nassau County, N.Y., more than a month before the Games of the XVIII Olympiad kicked off across the country in Los Angeles.

This was the final year the event was known as the International Games for the Disabled. In 1988 the Games would come to be known as the Paralympic Games and mark the first time in 24 years the event was held in the same city as the Olympic Games of the same year, a precedent adhered to ever since.

More than 1,800 athletes from 55 countries descended on Long Island for the 1984 Games. The opening ceremony included President Ronald Reagan arriving via helicopter at Mitchel Park Stadium to officially open the competition.

“There was an opera singer and The Spinners played,” recalled USABA Hall of Fame member Winford Haynes of the opening ceremony. “(Teammate) Richard Keeney and I were into pin trading, and we got on the stage with The Spinners and gave them some pins.”

Haynes, who hailed from New Mexico, and Keeney who was from California, were two of 59 blind or visually impaired athletes on the 1984 U.S. delegation. For Haynes, it marked the third of six Paralympic Games he would compete in. A member of the first U.S. goalball team in 1976, Haynes also competed in track and wrestling in 1984, winning gold in the B1 100 meters (11.78 seconds) and setting a world record in the B1 400 meters with a time of 54.58. In wrestling, he earned the silver medal in the -68kg competition.

The progression of goalball since the sport’s first inclusion at the 1976 Games was evident in 1984.

“In 1976, we played on a carpet that was 7.5 meters wide and the goalball was larger and heavier than the one used today,” noted Haynes. “Our uniforms were basically track gear…shorts and t-shirts and no knee or elbow pads. We didn’t know you should be wearing pads. At the 1984 Games, we had super elbow and knee pads that covered a lot of area, and we had football pants and jerseys similar to football jerseys. And the guys were bigger.”

Nobody on the U.S. goalball team in 1984 loomed larger than Kentucky’s Reni Jackson, a future USABA Hall of Famer who stood 6’4” and weighed around 220 pounds. Together with Haynes and Jackson, the 1984 team produced four  USABA Hall of Famers, including player James Neppl from Illinois and coach Stephen Kearney from Oklahoma. The team itself would be inducted in 2009.

The 1984 goalball team featured an overhauled roster with no returning players from the 1980 squad that won the silver medal in Arnhem, Holland.

Reni Jackson walks outside in an undershirt wearing his gold medal after giving his USA jersey to a young fan
Reni Jackson with his goalball gold medal after giving his jersey to a young fan

Haynes served as the backup center to Missouri’s George Morris. Other team members were John Cutliff from Oklahoma and Kevin Szott from New Jersey.

The pre-Games training camp for the U.S. goalball team was held in St. Louis.

“I was away from Louisville for four weeks,” recalled Jackson. “They took us to Chicago after training camp to get outfitted and get in some more practices. From there we flew to New York.”

The 1984 goalball venue was Nassau Community College with athletes staying at the Hofstra University dormitories.

“It was a small but nice facility,” said Jackson. “There were no bleachers, so spectators had to sit on the floor around the court.”

As the goalball competition reached the final day, the U.S. team found itself squaring off against a familiar foe in the gold medal match…Egypt.

“We always seemed to run up against those guys,” recalled Jackson. “They were very good defensively because of their center. You couldn’t score on him. In regulation time we were only concerned about not making mistakes. The thought was that if we could get them into an overtime shootout, we knew we could beat them.”

Before each match, coaches from both teams wrote down the players and the order in which they would throw in the event of an overtime shootout. U.S. Coach Kearney listed Morris first followed by Jackson and Neppl. After Morris deadlocked against the Egypt center, it was left to Jackson and Neppl to pull the team through.

“Luckily, I had the winning score against one of the wing players,” Jackson recalled. “Then Neppl scored against their other wing.”

The win gave the U.S. goalball teams a gold-medal sweep as the U.S. women’s team also stood on the top step of the podium in the debut of women’s goalball at the Games. Another significant improvement at the 1984 Games was the playing of national anthems for the winning countries. Prior Games used a generic anthem for the medal ceremony.

“It is hard to describe the feeling on the medal stand,” said Jackson. “It was a small area with nothing special for the medal presentation. But I remember feeling that you’re the best in the world. You can’t comprehend it at the time. It dawns on you weeks later when you’re back to your normal life, and especially when you can’t compete anymore.”

Another moment stands out for Jackson, one that occurred after the gold medal match.

“I was talking to a little boy and his mother while watching the U.S. women’s team play and the boy was asking questions about being blind. I gave him my goalball shirt and I hope he went on to grow up and fit into it.”

Like Haynes and so many athletes of the time, Jackson competed in multiple sports at the early Paralympic Games. In 1984 he earned the silver medal in the B2 javelin, the first of three Paralympics in which Jackson would compete. Morris would also capture gold in wrestling and bronze in the high jump, Neppl doubled up with a world record in the shot put to win gold, and Szott took gold in wrestling and silver in shot put.

The U.S. delegation would top the medal charts with 105 total medals (56 gold, 27 silver and 22 bronze) with Canada finishing a distant second with 49 medals.

“You think back on it and all of the guys we knew…40 years have passed so fast,” said Jackson. “I refer to it as my first life. I was very, very fortunate to be healthy other than my eyes. I got to travel around the world for world championships in Korea, Canada and Spain…great memories.”

The USA men's team raises their arms in victory wearing red USA jerseys.
The USA Goalball men’s team celebrates after winning the gold medal. George Morris (seated); kneeling (l to r) John Cutliff and Winford Haynes; standing (l to r) trainer Val Lindbloom, Kevin Szott, James Nepple, Reni Jackson and coach Stephen Kearney.
A look from above the court during a goalball match at Nassau Community College gymnasium
The goalball venue at Nassau Community College
Wearing red USA jerseys, James Neppl and George Morris dive to their right as they play defense
James Neppl (l) and George Morris combine to block a shot out of bounds
Reni Jackson wears eyeshades as he kneels on one knee while anticipating an opponent's throw
Reni Jackson
George Morris blocks the ball with his body at the center position as he is backed up by teammates James Neppl and Reni Jackson.
Center George Morris makes a stop backed up by James Neppl (l) and Reni Jackson
U.S. President Ronald Reagan stands on the track with his arm around a young boy with a bleacher full of spectators in the background
President Ronald Reagan at the opening ceremony
The USA Team sits in the bleachers wearing matching white jackets.
the 1984 USABA delegation in the bleachers at the opening ceremony of the International Games for the Disabled in Nassau County, N.Y.
Athletes and officials look over a pile of luggage on an outside sidewalk.
Reni Jackson (center) looks over the pile of luggage outside the U.S. team’s training in St. Louis before departing for New York