The first year Jeff Blatnick was a high school wrestler, the sophomore “counted a lot of lights in a lot of gyms,” Joe Bena told everyone on Monday morning.
There probably weren’t many people at Our Lady of Grace Church who needed an explanation, including about three dozen high school wrestlers, but Blatnick’s old coach at Niskayuna High School supplied one, anyway.
“That’s bad, because you’re on your back, looking up at the ceiling,” Bena said as everyone laughed.
It wasn’t long before Blatnick was putting everyone else on their backs, though.
By the time he was a senior, he went 29-0 with 27 pins on his way to the state championship.
Confined to a hospital bed in 1982 because of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Blatnick scored the ultimate reversal by beating the disease and winning the Greco-Roman heavyweight gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, memorably falling to his knees, clasping his hands, then telling interviewer Russ Hellickson “I’m happy, dude.”
I watched the clip 10 times to be certain of exactly what he said, because it’s been widely reported for years that the quote is “I’m a happy dude.”
It doesn’t really matter, because the truly heart-wrenching part happens immediately after, when Blatnick bursts into tears.
Blatnick died of cardiopulmary arrest at the age of 55 last Wednesday, leaving behind his wife, Lori, two children, Ian and Niki, and a grieving wrestling community that came together on Monday to commemorate a life well lived.
Bena offered the eulogy, and a thread woven throughout it was the humility, grace, dignity and good humor Blatnick demonstrated to those who knew him, and to those who didn’t.
The prelude to his astonishing wrestling career, which was thwarted only temporarily by the U.S. Olympic boycott in 1980 and cancer in 1982, consisted of telling Bena, “I don’t like wrestling.”
Bena didn’t have a 200-pounder in the room, so he went outside the room, spotting Blatnick in the hallways, and even took advantage of school emergencies to cajole the big man.
“That fall, we had a lot of bomb scares at the high school,” Bena said. “One of my jobs was to go out on the athletic fields and supervise during the evacuation. I would always conveniently run into this big kid, who I found out was named Jeff Blatnick.”
After spending his sophomore rookie season looking up at the lights, Blatnick went to a summer camp in Pennsylvania and came back a vastly improved wrestler, “a different hombre,” Bena said.
After a college career that included a Division II national championship at Springfield College, Blatnick came back to Niskayuna one day and delivered the bad news to Bena, that he had cancer.
He delivered the good news from his hospital bed.
“He had the electronics hooked up to him, meters were going, and he looked at me through glazed eyes and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to be there in 1984,’ ” Bena said. “I said, ‘Jeff, I hope you’re right.’
At the Olympics, Blatnick faced a Swedish bear who outweighed him by 30 pounds named Thomas Johansson.
Blatnick steadfastly waited for his moment against the bigger man, who appeared to be trying to rip Blatnick’s head off at one of the stoppages.
With 1:04 left, Blatnick gets both arms under Johansson’s shoulders and drags him to his knees for a point, then does it again with 25 seconds left as play-by-play man Tom Mees says, “What an inspiration this young man is.”
Blatnick’s knees buckle only when the match is finally over, his parents waving the Niskayuna town flag in the stands.
He lets out a huge sigh, and is practically hyperventilating throughout the interview with Hellickson, his voice cracking as he says “I’d never got here without them,” referring to his hometown and high school.
Later, he and Bena left the hotel to find a pizza, settling on a bar with a blinking neon pizza sign.
“Before we went through the door, Jeff said, ‘Coach, keep a low profile,’ ” Bena said. “It’s pretty hard to keep a low profile with a guy the size of Jeff, especially when he’s wearing his Olympic warmup uniform and his gold medal.”
Inside the crowded bar, they found a softball team enjoying some post-game beers and watching the Olympics on TV.
“I don’t know what went through my brain, but I yelled out, ‘I want everyone’s attention!’ ” Bena said. “Behind me, I heard Jeff say, ‘Aw, coach . . .’ And the room was silent. I said, ‘This man just won the Olympics, he’s a gold medal champion.’ They looked at us and said, ‘Hey, we just saw you on TV!’”
So there was Blatnick, autographing napkins, “the first shot to be with common, everyday people like us,” Bena said.
Blatnick went on to beat cancer again, became a successful motivational speaker and helped the American Cancer Society and the Special Olympics.
He stayed home, a friendly helping hand to the wrestling community who was just “Jeff” to everyone, not a big shot who wore his moment of glory on his sleeve.
Two days before he died, he watched his daughter play volleyball and attended a coaches meeting for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High wrestling team, for whom he served as an unpaid volunteer assistant.
“He was a humble man,” Bena said. “You could meet Jeff somewhere and not realize that he was an Olympian and a gold medal champion, because he didn’t boast and brag about it. He was a very dedicated family man.
“He did not forget his family, he did not forget his roots.”
Fittingly, Our Lady of Grace Church does not have elaborate trappings.
There are metal chairs instead of pews, a simple autumn wreath on one wall.
You look up at the white ceiling, and there are dozens of lights.
Your eye is drawn to the windows on the far wall, and the tree branches outside are swaying as the first signs of Hurricane Sandy move into the neighborhood. Leaves swirl about in a madcap frenzy.
But everything looks real sturdy, firmly rooted.
The top of a yellow school bus moves into view, ready to take a bunch of high school wrestlers out into the world.