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Back in the game
Blair turns to coaching after recovering from accident
In 2004, Jay Blair (above) was umpire during a Colt League baseball game when a ball struck him in the carotid artery. The blow caused Blair to have a stroke, from which he has made a nearly full recovery. Four years after the accident, Blair returned to the diamond as a coach for his daughter Cameryn’s youth softball team. (Bulletin photos by MIke Wray)
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
By HARRISON HAMLET - Bulletin Staff Writer
The phrase “bad bounce” took on an entirely new meaning for umpire Jay Blair just more than a decade ago.
A pitch, thrown during a Colt League (15-16-year-olds) baseball game on June 29, 2004, took an unusual hop off home plate and struck Blair in the carotid artery. The carotid artery carries blood to the brain from the heart and is comparable to the jugular vein in size and location in the neck, according to webmd.com.
“Our daughters and I were headed out the door (to see Jay umpire) and the phone rang,” Melissa Blair, Jay’s wife, recalled. “It was Bill Parks and he said, ‘Melissa, don’t panic but something’s happened to Jay and they’re going to take him to the ER.’”
“He had all his protective gear on. He had the neck guard and he swears he didn’t turn his head,” she said. “It caught the only spot that wasn’t covered, and that’s crazy in itself. Doctors at Martinsville and Baptist said it was the flukiest accident they’ve ever seen.”
After several hours and traveling to North Carolina Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, Jay Blair eventually was diagnosed with a stroke. The stroke was caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain due to limited or a lack of blood flow through Blair’s carotid artery.
It was “like a kink in a garden hose,” Melissa said.
The damage to the artery caused a blood clot and lingering stroke symptoms. Blair went into emergency surgery to relieve the blood clot about 12 hours after the pitch was thrown.
“I remember it all,” he said in a recent interview. “I remember not being able to talk or move in Martinsville. I remember people coming up to me and I couldn’t talk and the ride down to Winston in the ambulance. I remember the surgery at Baptist. I was awake for that.”
Blair made it through the surgery, but the doctors couldn’t promise a full recovery.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to walk,” he said.
Through physical and mental therapy, Blair has regained his ability to live mostly as he did before. He can walk, has full use of his left hand although his dominant right hand is limited, and according to Melissa, he has retained a charming personality.
Blair, who lives with his family in Martinsville, still works for the Henry County Public Service Authority as an inspector. He has worked part time since his stroke.
Four years after the accident, Blair returned to the diamond as a coach for his daughter Cameryn, now a rising high school freshman, and her youth softball team.
“When I realized I couldn’t umpire I wanted to coach, and I thought I would be the best coach for my daughter,” Blair said. “I was worried about being able to, and Melissa helped me the first year. We would inform the players and parents about my accident the first day but the kids don’t care anyway; they just want to have fun. They would be patient, and I had some great assistants.”
Blair listed a number of area coaches who have helped him since he started coaching. Before, Blair acted as an umpire but had never coached.
This year, he coached the Henry County Parks and Recreation department Mallard and Mallard softball team to a league championship with assistant Ricky Nelson. Nelson is the head coach of an area travel team as well, and Blair will be his assistant once the travel season begins.
“He’s learned how to do things, and being able to coach his daughter has been therapeutic,” Melissa said. “He loves those girls. He loves coaching them and trying to teach them. It’s middle school girls, too, so God help him,” she joked.
“The girls this year really wanted to learn. They wanted to know about game planning and strategizing,” Blair said, seemingly surprised by his own power to inspire. “I’m no hitting coach but defense and calling plays is where I feel more comfortable.”
He added that this year’s Mallard and Mallard team excelled defensively.
Blair’s younger daughter, Cassidy, 10, said she might follow her older sister onto the softball diamond, but right now she is spending more time on the soccer field and basketball court. Cassidy said she has asthma, and seeing how her father has dealt with his recovery “makes me feel like I can do anything.”
One side effect Blair said he has had to work hard to overcome is aphasia, a language disorder that is a common effect of strokes. Often referred to as “tip of the tongue” syndrome, it is something Blair has learned to work around.
During a recent interview with the family, Blair spoke confidently without pause. His wife offered only an occasional guiding word.
“I got pretty good at finishing his sentences in the beginning,” she said.
Blair said a recent visit to a conference on aphasia was eye-opening. He was inspired by others dealing with aphasia and the speeches they gave.
An active person, Blair had to adjust to a new physical reality after his stroke. He is right handed but has limited use of that hand, so he learned to live left handed.
“He was an athlete, an umpire, he did so many things sports wise,” Melissa said. “Now he can’t be an umpire because he can’t make quick decisions. He can still think it out, just not quickly enough to umpire. It’s interesting to watch him coach third base with the girls, if he yells stop and means go.”
Although he said he misses playing basketball the most, Blair was able to compete in, and win, the adult coed Southside Softball League championship. He said it’s always good to keep his competitive juices flowing.
He said he still looks forward to his job, but most of all he looks forward to just being a parent at sporting events.
“I love going to Bassett (High School, where Melissa coaches basketball) games, and I’m looking forward to Cameryn’s games this year,” he said. “Not as an umpire or a coach; I’m excited about being a parent.”