Unless you live in a cave, you probably know that Clay Stanley is one of the hottest volleyball players on the planet right now. A member of the U.S. Men’s National Team for the last 12 years, he has played on two Olympic teams, including the gold-medal winning 2008 squad, for which Clay was voted Most Valuable Player.
But what you might not know (even if you don’t live in a cave) is that Clay’s father, Jon Stanley, is an even more accomplished volleyball champion than his world-class son. Indeed, Jon Stanley could reasonably be called a living legend of volleyball—in more ways than one.
Regarded by many as the top indoor player for his age in the world, the 68-year-old Stanley got his start in volleyball not on an indoor court, but on the beach in Encinitas, Calif., while he was body surfing with his buddies.
“We were hanging out, saw some guys playing volleyball, and wanted to play. But they wouldn’t let us,” said Stanley of his first experience with the sport in high school. “So we’d come down early in the morning and get on the court and practice. They’d have to beat us to get the court.
“At first they did, but pretty soon we started beating these guys and staying on the court,” he continued. “And it wasn’t too long before we had won something like 200 matches without getting beaten.”
As would later be the case with his son Clay, Jon Stanley’s first choice of sport in college was not volleyball, but basketball. He attended Brigham Young University (BYU) to play the other court sport.
“One day I was out in the back gym shooting, and some kids came out playing volleyball on the other side of gym,” he said. “I went down to play with them, and one guy left and came back with the coach. He introduced me, said he’d like me to try out for the club team. From then on I played on the club team after basketball practice.”
Stanley’s contribution to his first volleyball team was evident that year (1965) when he was named an Academic All-American. Two years later, he was nominated for the Sullivan Award, which recognizes the top college athlete.
At this point Stanley’s unusually high level of skill on the court brought him to the attention of the U.S. National Team, which invited him to try out.
“I tried out and became a starting middle,” he said. “The coach had just come back from Japan where he’d studied Japanese training. He said, ‘I’ll teach you, and we’ll go to the 1968 Olympics.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right coach.’ Anyway, it came true.”
The 1968 Olympics, which took place in Mexico City, were Stanley’s first major international competition. The team to beat was Russia, the dominant volleyball power in the world in those days.
“We started out great,” said Stanley, who played outside hitter for the event. “We beat the Russians in the opening match, which is one of the top events in volleyball history. They were the only team to go undefeated, and we beat them.”
But after this dream win over the eventual gold medal winners, things went south for the U.S. team.
“We just had some bad luck,” said Stanley, noting that both Larry Rundle and Pedro Velasco sprained their ankles, while he got “Montezuma’s Revenge” the day of the Russia match, and was out for the next several matches. “I lost 25 pounds. That hurt us some, I guess. So we kind of struggled, finishing [seventh]. But the experience was great.”
Stanley was also on the U.S. Olympic teams of 1972 and 1976, but America didn’t make it past the qualifying stage in those years. As for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the U.S. boycotted the event in protest of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, so Stanley didn’t get to play in his fourth Olympics.
Having made Hawaii his home for many years, Stanley has long been a regular at the famous Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu, a breeding ground for many top volleyball champions. Stanley has coached a number of the best junior players to emerge from Outrigger, and he has also remained active in tournament play for the club, continuing to hone his game and rack up every title in sight. While playing for Outrigger in various age brackets over the years, Stanley has been named a USA Volleyball All-American a whopping 27 times, and won numerous USAV championships.
Stanley was one of the original players in the short-lived (but illustrious) coed International Volleyball Association (IVA). Between the years 1975 and 1980 he was named All-Pro six times.
Setter Lyle “Spike” Boarts, who was a referee for the IVA and now plays alongside Stanley with the Quiksilver Legends, said that Jon was the leader of the IVA pack.
“Jon was consistently the best of the best pro players,” he said. “He was MVP many times.”
In 1984, Jon was selected as a USAV All-Time Great. Eight years later, in 1992, he received the ultimate accolade: he was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke, Mass.
In 1999, at the age of 55, Stanley achieved two key milestones. First he led his team, the Quiksilver Legends, to victory at the World Masters Championships in Portland, Ore. This was the first of what have, so far, been four victories for the Legends at this elite event.
Second, he became a father for the third time, after an 18-year “break” from new-dad duty. He recalls hoisting his one-year-old son Will onto his shoulders as he took the stage to accept a medal following a particularly exciting and hard-fought national event in San Jose, Calif., playing with Outrigger on the 35’s team. Indeed, that means that Stanley was competing against stars 20 years his junior.
“I’m playing with guys like Matt Rigg, Todd Harris, and John Anderson, and we’re playing a Brazilian team in the finals, and they have a few Olympians,” he said. “We ended up beating them 15-13 in the final (2-1). It was such a great match that all the other courts cleared, everybody was watching that match.”
Flash forward 12 years, and Stanley now coaches 13-year-old Will on the Junior Nationals 14s team, which means yet another in a series of Stanley stars is in the making. He notes, though, that this is his first real experience coaching a son in volleyball. Surprising as it may sound, Clay Stanley’s world-class volleyball skill was cultivated without any real coaching or training from his champion father.
“He wasn’t a guy who wanted to be coached a lot,” said the elder Stanley. “He just started playing after his senior year in high school and picked it all up.”
Indeed, said Stanley, the two men’s approaches to the game are so stylistically different that coaching Clay has never really been a feasible option.
“His game is totally different. He’d drive me crazy if I tried to coach him, because his game is all power. His style is completely different. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do what he does. He’s unique, he’s not like anybody else.”
Stanley acknowledges, though, that he may have had a “genetic” influence on Clay’s phenomenal volleyball prowess.
“He inherited his 6'9" from me,” said the 6'5" father, “and his body from his mother’s side. His uncle was a 6'4" 230-pound hockey player from Canada.”
Stanley is now in his 21st year with the Quiksilver Legends, possibly the world’s top 60+ volleyball team. Together with fellow Olympian John Alstrom and a roster of other heavy-hitters, Stanley competes in the highest-level international events for his age group, routinely facing—and beating—the best senior players in the world.
The unanimity of the Legends’ respect for Stanley’s prowess is shown in the nickname they have given him: “The Franchise.”
Burch explains: “In sports, a ‘franchise’ player is one that a team builds around. I think in the NFL they even designate a franchise player that is protected from other teams or new teams. Jon is the ‘Franchise.’ He takes good players and creates a great team.”
So how much longer does “The Franchise” plan to go on winning?
“Well, we talked about that,” said Stanley. “We watch these 75-year-old guys out there, and we want to be there. I keep hearing guys are going to retire, and one of the motivations is to get together and see these guys every year; and if they all drop out, it may not be as fun a thing to do. I’ve taken up tennis, so who knows? But physically, as long as we have the guys around, and we’re healthy, we’ll play; so we’re looking at a long thing here.”
Indeed, the legend lives on.
Originally published in May 2012