By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
I had a tough day today. We lost our good friend Jeff Blatnick.
Jeff Blatnick was not just a good friend to me, but he was a good friend to wrestling and he was a good friend to the people who are in wrestling. It was not just about what he did. It was all about who he was.
Most people know the Jeff Blatnick story, at least some of it. Jeff was one of the few people in wrestling who transcended our sport and was important in the general public. Dan Gable transcended wrestling when he won his 1972 Olympic gold medal with dominance and the most amazing work ethic on earth. Rulon Gardner transcended wrestling when the Wyoming farm boy beat the unbeatable Olympic superstar Alexander Kareline and charmed the world. Jeff Blatnick transcended wrestling when he beat cancer, won an Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984, cried during his interview, carried the U.S. flag in the Closing Ceremonies and inspired everybody.
People my age remember watching Blatnick winning his Olympic title, and his interview with Russ Hellickson where he emotionally said “I’m a happy dude.” But after he was an Olympic champion, Jeff never left wrestling. He loved wrestling and wrestling people. He became a television commentator at the Olympics and at the NCAA Championships. He joined USA Wrestling, serving on its Board and taking the position as New York’s state chairperson. He stayed involved and continued to make a difference all the way until this morning when we lost him.
I was a bit shaken up at work today when the media started to call, and they asked me about a statement about Jeff from USA Wrestling. I told the reporters that I would talk about Jeff both personally and for the organization. I could not just give an official statement about Jeff. I had to tell about Jeff the person. I hope I did a good job.
I am OK with what I told the Saratogian, a newspaper in Jeff’s community in upstate New York. This is something that will be read by his friends and family back home. This is what they printed and I meant every word of it. “Jeff was a giant in wrestling and the Olympic family. For many people that knew Jeff, even beyond the work he put into wrestling, this is a sad day. We hope the world understands the massive contributions he made to society. He had something special about him. Part of that was god-given, but he had a wonderful heart and a love of life.” I stand by every word.
There are many people who may have known Jeff better than me, and longer than me. However, I shared a life journey with Jeff Blatnick for 33 years through wrestling. I feel comfortable sharing some stories about my friend.
I first met Jeff, probably in early 1979, when I was a freshman wrestler at Boston University and he was a senior wrestling at Springfield. At the time, Jeff Blatnick was the absolute best wrestler in New England college wrestling, regardless of what Division he wrestled in (Springfield was D-2 at the time). We always wrestled Springfield in a dual meet each year and saw them at many open tournaments.
I remember Jeff telling me that he was frustrated during his senior year. He said that the teams on Springfield’s schedule would not put their wrestler out to compete against him. It was always the last match and usually the meet was already determined, and they didn’t want their kid to get defeated badly. BU might have been one of those schools that threw in the towel against him. He was that good. Jeff was frustrated that he was not getting enough competition to get ready for the nationals. He did all right anyway, winning the Div. II meet for the second time and placing third in the 1979 NCAA Div. I National Championships. His only loss that year was to Doctor Death Steve Williams of Oklahoma, 6-5 in the quarterfinals. Jeff ended up wrestling back to third, and Williams ended up in sixth. We took pride in Jeff doing so well from a New England school, and I liked him from the time I met him and never looked back.
My professional career started with the magazine Wrestling Masters in 1983, so I was a journalist covering the sport when Jeff won his Olympic gold medal. I was not blessed to go to the LA Games, but watched every minute and covered his career throughout the process. I ran into Jeff often, and we talked a lot. We shared something, both being from New York and both being from a New England college.
Most people don’t know that Jeff beat cancer twice. After the 1984 Olympics, there was a time when Jeff’s cancer stopped being in remission and he got sick again. He went after it again with the same attitude and passion and got his health back. Jeff told me about it in person. Jeff made a comeback in wrestling, trying to make the 1988 Olympic team. His comeback fell short, but it was equally impressive to me in his desire to return and his attitude about life.
During his comeback, I was at the U.S. Greco-Roman Open, which was being held in his backyard. I can’t remember if it was in Albany or Schenectady, but it was in his home. During the tournament, I was in the middle of a conversation with Jeff Blatnick, when he stopped talking, bent over, and turned over a penny.
I asked Jeff what he was doing. I’ll never forget his answer. It went something like this. “When you pick up a penny that is heads up, it is good luck. When I see a penny and it’s heads, I pick it up. But if it is tails, I turn it over and leave it for the next guy.”
All I could think about was Jeff’s amazing approach about life. This is a man who beat cancer twice and he was looking out for other people. I’ll never forget that moment. I have never looked at a penny the same way since.
When I came to USA Wrestling in mid 1988, Jeff was already active with the organization. As a national television commentator, especially when it came to Olympic wrestling, we worked together often at events. I helped him with research materials and background on our sport and its athletes. Jeff also served on a USA Wrestling committee in which I was staff liaison, the Marketing Committee, and he was full of ideas on how to help the sport. Jeff was active in wrestling and I got to know him better and better over the years.
Jeff was one of the most human people I knew. He made mistakes, just like us all. Jeff took some flack within wrestling because he was not always completely accurate when he did his television commentary. Sure, Jeff made mistakes, but unlike you and me, his mistakes were on national television. Jeff wasn’t one of those slick people. He was straight forward, honest, sincere and caring. Jeff seemed to live life fully, and I appreciated that part about him.
Jeff wasn’t afraid to do new things. In the early years of mixed martial arts, Jeff was very active with the UFC, serving as an announcer and taking some major leadership roles. I asked him about it often, and he said it was more than just a job for him. He saw something special about that sport, way before the general public learned to enjoy MMA. He can go to heaven knowing that he was a pioneer in a new sport that became tremendously successful.
For many years, Jeff has been a commentator at the NCAA Championships. I have been to them all since 1983. For some reason, on the Tuesday or Wednesday before the NCAAs, usually at the host hotel or a nearby restaurant, I would run into Jeff, along with ESPN producer Jerry Daniels (a former Connecticut high school coach) and Jerry’s high school coach Dennis Siegman. They would always invite me to sit with them, and I always did. Sure, we talked some wrestling, but we also talked a lot about other things, catching up on family and life things. I always looked forward to seeing those guys, although I never planned to meet up with them in advance. It kind of just happened. When I am at the NCAA Championships this March, it will be very sad not to run into Jeff and his good friends.
Jeff affected more people than he even realized. One of them is my wife, who has gotten to know Jeff as a USA Wrestling state-level volunteer leader. Pat and Jeff would often discuss the important topics within USA Wrestling at the time, and the philosophy about how to better serve our members. Pat was amazed that such a famous person would listen and care that much and was open to discuss new ideas. Jeff approached Pat with respect and sincerity and they became friends. She always looked forward to running into him. Jeff was there every July, helping out in Fargo, doing whatever he could for the kids in the sport with a genuine giving spirit. It is a very sad night at my home right now.
USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender and I got an interesting email today from Mike Moran, who served for decades as the top public relations executive for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Mike was there with Jeff during his Olympic journey and he shared a memory with many of his friends in the Olympic family. You may know that Jeff was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team which could not compete in Moscow due to a U.S. government boycott. Apparently, Moran was there when they ran into former president Jimmy Carter, the man who decided to keep Team USA home. Moran introduced him as an Olympian and Carter asked him if he was on the 1980 Hockey Team. Jeff responded that he was a wrestler on the summer team. Moran reports that Carter said, “Oh, that was a bad decision, I’m sorry.” What an amazing story, especially with Blatnick involved.
I was at a USA Wrestling staff function at a restaurant this afternoon, and ESPN Sports Center was on the television near our tables. We saw on the story list on the left side that it said Jeff Blatnick 1957-2012. We asked the waitress to turn it up louder so we could hear it. In a positive way, the announcer gave information on his amazing life, showed video from his Olympic victory, and gave stats about his achievements in sports. When it was over, somebody raised a glass and everybody lifted whatever they had in front of them, toasting a true hero, Jeff Blatnick.
Let’s try to remember to celebrate Jeff’s life during this sad time. Jeff was my friend. He was a friend to wrestling. He was a friend to so many people who are involved in wrestling. That I will always remember.