Editor’s note: The 23rd Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame & Reunion Dinner takes place Monday at Glen Sanders Mansion. Inductees are Ed Alger, Al Burnham and Joe Zelezniak, while the undefeated 1969-70 Linton boys’ basketball team earned the legacy tribute. Today’s story is the third in a four-part series recognizing this year’s induction class.
Joe Zelezniak was an intimidating thrower years before he ever picked up the shot put or discus.
“He started out as a pitcher in Little League,” said long-time friend Rit DiCaprio, who grew up with Zelezniak and was his teammate on the Mont Pleasant track and football teams. “The batters were terrified to face him. He would throw very hard. Not too accurate, but very hard.
“In football, he could throw the ball 70 yards in the air, and the short passes were like a Scud missile coming at you.”
Despite his throwing prowess, when Zelezniak began his track and field career at Mont Pleasant in the late 1960s, he was a sprinter.
By the time he graduated in 1970, Zelezniak had made the switch from sprints to throws and left an indelible mark as a two-time state champion whose Section II record throw of 62 feet, 3 inches in the shot put still stands more than 50 years after he set it.
Zelezniak will be honored Monday as part of the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame & Reunion Dinner at Glen Sanders Mansion.
Zelezniak, who was also a standout pitcher on the baseball diamond and a quarterback who played on two Class A League championship-winning football teams at Mont Pleasant, started his track and field career as a sprinter because he was inspired by former Mont Pleasant track star Jerry Ostrander.
It was before his sophomore year that, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Zelezniak switched from the sprints to the shot put.
“Being a sprinter and throwing the shot put worked hand-in-hand,” Zelezniak said, “because you need to be quick through the [throwing] circle.”
It was a switch that certainly paid off. He broke the school record in the shot put as a 10th-grader, and the feats got more impressive from there. Among Zelezniak’s numerous titles as a high schooler, he won state championships in the shot put as a junior and senior, in addition to a second-place finish in the discus throw at the 1970 meet.
Zelezniak’s talent was evident early on, and Jan Zadoorian — who served as the head coach of Mont Pleasant’s indoor track team and an assistant coach on the outdoor team — helped foster it.
Zadoorian recalled post-practice indoor workouts in the Mont Pleasant girls’ gym, where it quickly became obvious that the confines couldn’t contain Zelezniak’s talent.
“We were shooting for the Mont Pleasant record, which was 54 feet,” Zadoorian said. “The court wasn’t that big, so we’d mark spots on the wall that’d say, ‘This is 54 feet,’ and we went up the wall until he got over 60 feet.”
As a fellow shot putter, DiCaprio learned quickly that he couldn’t match Zelezniak’s booming throws.
“I was in his dust,” he said. “He was second-to-none on the shot put. He did everything perfectly. . . . He’d beat people by 10, 12, 13 feet.”
Zelezniak also may have been a little bit ahead of his time, as both he and Zadoorian said that Zelezniak began working on the “spin” technique of throwing the shot put while Zelezniak was still in high school, before the method was popularized by former world recorder holder Brian Oldfield.
Zelezniak didn’t stick with the technique in high school for a simple concern — the safety of others.
“I’m left-handed,” he said, “and all the people that stood to watch the shot put at Mont Pleasant were down the left side of the sector. Having released a few into that area during practice, we decided that wasn’t a good idea to try that.
“Had I worked on it and tried to perfect it more, it would’ve been a better technique for me. We tried it and gave up on it. Of course, years later, everybody was using it.
Regardless of technique, Zelezniak routinely unleashed throws that marveled those around him.
“Watching him throw,” DiCaprio said, “it was like a cannon.”
As a senior, Zelezniak established a mark that still stands to this day with a throw of 62 feet, 3 inches that remains the official Section II record. He’s since been passed by just two others on the Section II list of all-time bests — Niskayuna’s Andy Bloom in 1991 and Taconic Hills’ John Dunn in 1974 — but more than 50 years after he set it, Zelezniak’s throw remains the best-ever in a competition where a Section II record can be established.
“It’s kind of flabbergasting, I guess,” Zelezniak said.
After high school, Zelezniak went on to cement himself as one of the best shot putters in the country, competing against the likes of Oldfield, Al Oerter and Michael Carter. He recorded top-five finishes in the Olympic Sports Festival, National Sports Festival and European Indoor Championships, and won eight gold medals at the Empire State Games, where he set the record in the shot put.
In addition to his throwing prowess, Zelezniak also branched out to other strength-based sports, finishing ninth in the 1981 World’s Strongest Man competition.
Zelezniak, who now lives in Florida, said he was thrilled for the chance to come back home for Monday’s event.
“It’s going to be nice,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a pretty nice weekend.”
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