REXFORD — Four years ago, Joe Bena was hospitalized with a stroke.
His wife Lois rarely left his side, and was sitting next to his bed at Ellis Hospital when a man in medical scrubs walked in one night and placed his hands on the patient.
“Do you need to take more tests?” Lois asked, to which the man responded, “No. But I love this man. He changed my life.”
Joe and Lois Bena’s son John told this story on Monday morning during funeral services at Faith Baptist Church for the iconic high school wrestling coach, who died of cardiac amyloidosis at the age of 79 on Saturday, Feb. 17.
The story was all the more powerful because the man who went out of his way to visit the coach never even wrestled for Bena, who retired as the all-time New York state record holder for career victories and has sent athletes from Niskayuna and Duanesburg high schools to the Olympics and World Championships.
Those stars and many others were mentioned during the testimonials, but even more prominent and revealing were the stories and portrait of Bena as someone who genuinely and unflaggingly cared about other people, and saw in them the potential they may not have believed was there.
Once his reputation and resume as a coach were established, it made sense that a high school wrestler would want to compete for him; once they were under his tutelage, it made sense that they would want to be the best they could be, that he would bring that out of them. And that had to be a significant component of his success over the years, for sure, but it also would explain why the testimonials covered so much more ground than wrestling.
And why — as my friend Terry Miller, whose son Shaun wrestled for Bena at Niskayuna, said — there was an hour and 45-minute wait to get through the line during visiting hours on Sunday.
And why a kid who attended one wrestling camp a long time ago during the summer after eighth grade, then decided to quit the sport, would still feel compelled to seek out Bena during the old coach’s time of need in the hospital.
“Dad had convinced him that no matter how he was doing in life or as a wrestler, good or bad, he could always do better,” John Bena said. “He told mom what it was like to have someone believe in him. Dad believed in him, he believed in people, he believed in everyone he touched.”
“He didn’t give up on you, did he?” Joe Bena’s brother David asked the congregation. “He never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself.”
“He made every person he met feel like the most important person in the world,” Bena’s daughter Aimee said during the funeral.
“He wasn’t faking it.”
Joe Bena began his coaching career in 1966 with a brief stint at Newburgh Free Academy, after which he started at Niskayuna, where he was an industrial arts teacher and coach for 34 seasons.
His Silver Warriors included Olympic Greco-Roman gold medalist Jeff Blatnick, Olympian Andy Seras and another wrestler, Dave Koplovitz, who was a Team USA alternate.
After he retired from Niskayuna, the gravitational pull of coaching remained strong, so he revived his career at Duanesburg, where he coached Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time NCAA national champion at North Carolina State.
Bena, an inductee to the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, retired from Duanesburg with 673 victories at the three schools, a state record subsequently passed by John Grillo of Holley in Section V. Eleven of Bena’s wrestlers won a total of 13 state championships, including his son John.
“Even though I had been a wrestler since age four, when I hit eighth grade, I had the honor of being one of Dad’s Niskayuna Silver Warriors,” John Bena said at the service. “My senior year, Dad would wake us at 6 a.m. for school, we’d have breakfast together, he’d drive us to school, where I took two of his shop classes.
“After the 2:30 bell rang, we’d roll the mats down the long hallway to the cafeteria, where it was transformed into a wrestling room. Dad was now my coach for the next two hours. Then we got back in the car and drove home, and our family had a meal together. After dinner, Dad would ask me if I was prepared for a test in his class the next day.”
That’s a side of Bena that can get lost in the shuffle of his studded wrestling resume.
He took academics as seriously as he did wrestling, which meant that parents of his athletes could expect phone calls at night to make sure the kids were passing their classes and staying out of trouble.
“I can remember walking into the room, and some kids would be on the sideline doing homework instead of practicing that day,” Gwiazdowski said in a phone interview on the day Bena died. “Luckily, I was never one of them.
“Well, maybe there was one time.”
Bena didn’t doggedly monitor his wrestlers’ academic work for the selfish purpose of keeping them eligible. It was just more illustration of his involvement in their lives for their sake.
A great natural athlete, Bena showed his natural coaching prowess at an early age, too.
“When I was playing high school football, Joe came to all my games. Wait a minute. Did he come to those games to watch me, or . . . that cheerleader named Lois,” his brother David said, drawing laughter from the crowded church.
“After a few games, in a very kind way, he said, ‘You know, I notice when you go through the line with the ball, you just keep on going. I suggest, when you get through the line, lift up your head and look where the other players are and slip off to the outside.’ My first words were, ‘You haven’t played football.’
“The next thing I said was, ‘You know what, that makes sense.’ ”
“He never made me feel like I let him down,” John Bena said. “[He had] perseverance, integrity, honesty, humility, fairness, enthusiasm, acceptance and passion for life.”
That passion included cars.
Joe Bena owned a 1960 Triumph and a 1959 Morgan, as well as a green Chevy van nicknamed “The Green Latrine,” Aimee’s husband Charlie French said during the service.
French wrestled for Bena and was a student in his shop class. After he and Aimee were married, he and Bena would take the Green Latrine on six-hour drives to Pennsylvania for car shows.
They’d talk about every subject under the sun, and occasionally, during introspective moments, Bena would open up about the challenges of being a high school coach.
A wrestler wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do.
Parents were on his case.
An opposing coach or an official was getting under his skin.
It was all a big puzzle with multiple moving parts, a car engine that sometimes clunked and sputtered. But it always ran, because one part was always in perfect condition:
“Through all those years,” French said, pausing while he choked with emotion, “he never said a kid was a bad kid.
“He believed they were doing their best. He was just trying to figure out what to do to make them better.”