His resume as a high school wrestling coach is a mile long.
The roster of former champions and current coaches who came under his influence branches out like a giant tree.
But you only have to dig a little deeper to find the real root of Joe Bena’s impact on the people who knew him.
The legendary coach at Niskayuna and later Duanesburg died at his home in Alplaus at the age of 79 on Saturday morning, after weeks of declining health.
His coaching accomplishments speak for themselves — three future Olympians, 673 victories, 11 wrestlers who totaled 13 state championships. But he is remembered as much for how he viewed everyone on an equal plane, whether it was one of his star athletes or a kid in the halls who would never see a wrestling mat in his life.
“You meet a lot of people who treat you differently when you’re different things to them,” said Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time state champ for Bena at Duanesburg High who is now pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. “From being a seventh grader with no wrestling experience to what I am today, he would treat my friends who never wrestled the same way he would treat me.
“You don’t see that too often.”
I received a call and few texts early this morning to tell me about the passing of my one of my first coaches in wrestling. Joe Bena was a good coach and great man and friend. He knew wrestling but more than anything he knew how to treat people and be a great friend. He truly treated people the way he would want to be treated. Didn’t matter if you didn’t wrestle, didn’t win, got cradled, won championships or was someone he just met. The way he taught you, treated you, coached you, listened to you was all the same. I learned so much from this man I consider myself lucky to have known him for half of my life. Especially during years where I was most impressionable, his impact was tremendous. Thanks Coach for the many years of jokes, lessons, stories, wrestling technique, sitting in my corner and friendship.
“He was the greatest coach in everything,” said long-time coach Joe DeMeo, who guided multiple U.S. world teams and whose sons wrestled for Bena at Niskayuna. “He had two Olympians, Andy Seras and Jeff Blatnick.
“Everybody’s sad about his dying, but what I feel is 100 percent of the story is what a great human being he was, and what he meant to everyone else. He helped you feel better. People need to think about that … [after all], we’re all dying.”
“When he sat down with you, he wouldn’t talk technique,” Frank Popolizio said. “He was not a master technician, he was a master at getting you to believe in yourself.
“And you were reborn. You were alive.”
Popolizio wrestled for Bena, along with his brother, North Carolina State coach Pat Popolizio, who was one of Bena’s state champions.
Through Frank Popolizio, Bena’s family released the following statement reinforcing the impact the coach had beyond the wrestling mat:
“Coach Joseph Bena died on February 17th, surrounded by loving family, after a five-year battle with cardiac amyloidosis. He was born on September 4, 1938, and has left a legacy of how to live a beautiful life. He taught unending acceptance, encouragement and kindness and became a friend of all he met.”
His immediate family includes wife Lois and children Aimee, Joe Jr., John and Michael.
His extended family is vast.
When Bena retired — for a second time — as Duanesburg’s coach in 2014, he had more high school wrestling victories (673) than anyone in New York state history, based on research by the New York State Sportswriters Association. His state record for victories was subsequently passed by John Grillo of Holley in Section V.
Bena’s career began in 1966, with two seasons at Newburgh Free Academy, followed by a spectacular run from 1968 to 2003, during which Niskayuna became a state powerhouse.
Blatnick went on to win the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in 1984 after surviving cancer, and another Bena wrestler at Niskayuna, Dave Koplovitz, went on to be an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team. Blatnick survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but died of heart failure in 2012.
Bena coached a state champ, Al Favata, at NFA, and his state champs at Niskayuna were Blatnick (1975), Tim Abigail (1980), John Placek (1982), Bena’s son John (1989), Kyle James (1995), Pat Popolizio (1996) and Bob Hafler (1998).
The coach, an industrial arts teacher at Niskayuna until 2001, retired from coaching in 2003 after 34 seasons with the Silver Warriors, only to come out of retirement to coach at Duanesburg, where the string of state champs continued with Jimmy Almy (2005, 2006), Brian Borst (2008) and Gwiazdowski (2010, 2011).
He was inducted to the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Frank Popolizo, who will join Bena in the Hall this fall, said Bena was a disciple of Norman Vincent Peale. Bena gave Popolizio his own copy of Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
Popolizio said he opened the book Saturday morning and found one passage that perfectly summed up Bena and his approach to life, part of which reads, “Spend so much time improving yourself that you have no time left to criticize others. Be too big for worry and too noble for anger.”
“He was a special guy . . . unique, not only because of what he accomplished, but for how good of a man he was,” said Gwiazdowski, a two-time NCAA national champ at N.C. State. “A very genuine guy.
“Probably his greatest asset was his ability to connect with you, respect you and motivate you, but in a polite … well, ‘polite’ isn’t the right word, but in a manner that wasn’t pushy. He was pushing you, without being pushy.”
“How do you replace a legend?” Frank Popolizio said. “Who’s going to fill his shoes? Well, you can’t. You can only carry on the legacy.
“Even when he was at the end of his life, even when the caretakers were in there, he would warm them up. They were supposed to be looking after him, and he was asking them how they were doing.”