NISKAYUNA — “You almost don’t want to step on it,” a spectator in the stands whispered to someone next to him.
At least one feisty person wanted to step on the beautiful new wrestling mat, though, with its rich red border, but otherwise covered by a big white plastic tarp.
“My [1-year-old] great-grandson did want to step on it, and it took about 25 minutes of keeping him away,” Lois Bena said with a twinkle in her eye. “It was fun.
“He never made it.”
The tarp was finally removed, and not long after that the Niskayuna High School team jogged out of the locker room so that the mat could be what it is, the simplest — but one of the most brutally revealing — platforms in all of sports. A flat, no-frills square of rubber on the floor with two concentric circles in the middle. Two wrestlers step into the circles, and only one leaves a winner.
This mat is so much more than that, though, as Niskayuna chose Wednesday night’s match against Schenectady to unveil its newest piece of athletic equipment that will also serve as the perfect tribute to the late Joe Bena, who died at the age of 79 in February.
The Niskayuna Class of 1988 was set to celebrate its 30th anniversary this summer and wanted to make an appropriate gesture to not only commemorate that, but also the late, great coach, who sent wrestlers to state championships and the Olympics, won a state-record 673 matches, but mostly won the hearts of everyone he came across.
So the Class of ’88 put together a GoFundMe campaign and raised over $13,000, and now the Silver Warriors have a new mat with “Coach Joe Bena” printed in giant block letters at the top of the silver circle and “Memorial Mat” at the bottom.
After a presentation by principal John Rickert, former Niskayuna wrestler Jason Furlani, who was among dozens of people who helped with the fund drive, and head coach Shaun Neely, the white tarp was pulled back to a long round of applause.
A terrific way to honor coach Joe Bena. Niskayuna HS unveils a new mat dedicated to him: pic.twitter.com/nT5MCSOAmQ
— Mike MacAdam (@Mike_MacAdam) December 5, 2018
“I thought it was beautiful,” said Lois, Joe’s wife. “It was high drama for me. I couldn’t wait to see it. And the whole scene helped me remember his very first year here as a coach, and he invented a kind of light that would come down from the ceiling.”
Lois went on to describe a wooden rope contraption that her industrial arts teacher of a husband built to add an interesting element of pageantry to the Silver Warriors’ home matches. He built that light, then built a state powerhouse.
That first season here came in 1968, after Joe had coached for a short stint at Newburgh Free Academy, followed by over three decades at Niskayuna. He retired briefly, then coached several more seasons at Duanesburg High.
Over the course of that time, his influence on the sport spread well beyond the walls of Niskayuna High.
“He was just a really cool guy who touched a lot of people, not just wrestling,” Neely said. “He wasn’t just a wrestling coach, he was a shop technology teacher, and everyone loved him. He was a people person.
Neely, who was well aware of Bena’s reputation when he wrestled at Glens Falls High in the early 1990s, served in the challenging role of becoming the Niskayuna varsity head coach while Bena was coaching at Duanesburg.
He uses “almost everything” he learned from Bena through the years, as do many throughout Section II and New York state. “I try to model myself after him with everything.”
The kids Neely coaches now may not have been familiar with Bena’s legacy, but that will change. Every time they’re out there for a home match, his name will embrace that circle.
“Yeah, they’re starting to figure this out,” Neely said. “One of the varsity kids, when it [dedication ceremony] was over, said, ‘That was really cool, coach.’ So they get it. They get it.”
The urge to commemorate someone who has had such a profound impact on a sport and a school and a community is always a strong one, and there are any number of ways to do it.
Banners on a wall, framed jerseys and plaques in a trophy case are all meaningful and important, and represent a heartfelt desire to not just cling to memories, but remind people of what that person meant and how they lived their life.
The Joe Bena Memorial Mat — reflecting someone who explored so much about the world in and outside the wrestling room — is perfect because it’s a place where kids will get right down to the ground and sweat out who they are and what they have and who they can be.
“Coach Bena would love this, because it’s more than just a flag on a wall,” Neely said. “This is something we’ll get to use for years and years. It’ll probably outlast me as a coach. We get to do the sport he loves here.”
“You know, a hundred years from now, no one will remember either of our names,” Lois Bena said. “But right now, it’s very sweet.”
“It meant more than just a sport. It was family-oriented, devoted, fun, hard work … and great love.”