As Jeff Blatnick came around from his 1982 surgery to treat his Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among those waiting to visit was his old high school wrestling coach Joseph Bena.
Blatnick had made the U.S. Olympic Team two years earlier, only to miss the games with the rest of the team with the U.S. boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“His eyes still glassy,” Bena told mourners Monday morning at Blatnick’s funeral, “he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to be there in 1984.’”
Bena told him he hoped he was right. And he was.
Bena also recalled watching Blatnick, having won the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, waiting on the medal stand as the U.S. National Anthem was played at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
“If you don’t think that was a pretty thrilling moment, think again,” Bena told mourners. “That was outstanding.”
Blatnick, a motivational speaker, sports commentator and Olympic icon, passed away unexpectedly last week at the age of 55. He left behind his wife, Lori, and two children, Ian and Niki.
Services were held Monday in Our Lady of Grace Church in Ballston Lake, where the family lived. The Rev. Jack Varno celebrated the funeral Mass, which was followed by burial at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna, the town where Blatnick grew up and graduated from the high school where he learned the sport that catapulted him onto the national stage.
Bena, not only Blatnick’s old coach, but the man who got him involved in wrestling in the first place, gave his eulogy.
He acknowledged many of those present, including family, friends and old teammates, and people he had met at Blatnick’s Sunday wake. One man, an old teammate, Bena recalled meeting, drove for 20 hours from the Midwest to pay his respects.
Olympic wrestling champion Jeff Blatnick dies at 55. Click here.
There were others there — like the TV interviewer after his gold medal win — to whom Blatnick described himself as “one happy dude” — and the executive director of the U.S. Wrestling Association.
Bena guided those present on a trip through Blatnick’s life, from his wrestling days which began at Niskayuna High and to California and the Anaheim venue where he won his gold medal. He also spoke of Blatnick’s love for his family and his faith.
Along the way, Bena even let the mourners laugh a little — at Bena’s attempts to get Blatnick on the wrestling team and Blatnick’s attempt to keep a low profile as they went to get pizza after his Olympic victory only to have Bena announce to the entire bar who Blatnick was.
Bena told of his search for a heavyweight wrestler at Niskayuna High and his picking Blatnick out of the hallway and suggesting wrestling to him.
Blatnick, though, wasn’t so sure. He didn’t like wrestling, Bena said. It was a story he’d told many times before.
But the coach was persistent, even away from school. “I’d always conveniently ran into the big kid,” Bena said. “I found out his name was Jeff Blatnick.”
Blatnick finally gave in and, as a sophomore, started wrestling.
It was his first year he wasn’t very good. His second year he was better. By his senior year, Blatnick was state champion, winning all 29 matches, 27 by pin.
“That’s dominant,” Bena said.
By 1980, Blatnick made the Olympic team. When the team didn’t go, Bena recalled that Blatnick said he would be back for 1984. Blatnick then made a similar statement to his old coach after his 1982 surgery for the cancer that attacked Blatnick’s lymph system and required the removal of his spleen and appendix.
Blatnick then backed up his 1982 promise. Bena recalled him resuming training even before the doctors gave him the OK.
Bena was fortunate enough to be in Anaheim, at the wrestling venue for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, to see Blatnick win gold. Afterward, he went out with Blatnick and others for pizza.
When they found a bar, Blatnick, still clad in his Olympic warmup jacket and gold medal, asked if they could keep a low profile. Bena, however, announced to everyone there what Blatnick had just done.
“They were so excited to see him,” Bena recalled. Blatnick signed autographs, many of them on bar napkins.
He recalled Blatnick sarcastically complimenting him on keeping the low profile. Bena said they did get free pizza.
Bena also recalled seeing Blatnick’s photo in the newspapers as the coach left to return home to Albany, and the iconic scene of Blatnick on his knees, looking up and thanking God.
He remembered Blatnick’s work with various organizations, including the American Cancer Society and Special Olympics, and his encouragement of young wrestlers.
Through it all, Bena said, Blatnick remained a humble man.
One of the last times he saw Blatnick was a few weeks ago at a store.
Blatnick was shopping for his mother.
“He did not forget his family,” Bena said. “He did not forget his roots.”
Blatnick coached his son Ian in wrestling, not an easy job, Bena said, but something that Blatnick, a patient man, made look easy. Blatnick also frequently attended daughter Niki’s volleyball games.
The coach read a letter Niki wrote about her father when she was in fourth grade that was on display during his wake.
She thanked her father for taking her fishing, walking with her, stopping to get flowers, calling him the best dad ever.
When Blatnick talked about his family, Bena said, his face lit up. “He was so proud.”
Bena noted the tributes to Blatnick after his death. He was “determined” and “a good man” and “a classy guy,” “inspirational” and “a role model.”
“Jeff was all these things and more,” Bena said.
“He will be missed.”