Only five guys at work appreciated the quality of knowing Jeff Blatnick when I was discussing how a contemporary had died, and I had to include Jeff’s Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestling gold medal in 1984 as the significant reference point first. You *have to*have to*have to watch the last minute of match (including sign of cross thanks) and interview with ABC to comprehend just how much he deflected credit to an unreal number of others.
http://wn.com/1984_olympic_greco_roman_wrestling_jeff_blatnick is World News bio that includes about 4 minutes of gasping, inspired, 100% sincere and articulate thanks. Physically and emotionally spent as he obviously was, sucking it up and laying the love on for all before finishing with “I’m one happy dude!” was an incredible reminder to watching that original grand moment–I was a bit stunned for forgetting so much of it.
I’ve known Jeff since Webelos in Schenectady, NY, and even to our most recent call my Dad still remembers him for always grabbing guys vs. working on knots. He’d become a major stud wrestling locally (through ’75) and at Springfield (D-2 champ) before I ran into him at the 1983 Empire State Games. I was just back in NY after two years writing for ITS SPORTS! in Tampa, Jeff’s singlet wasn’t hiding much of that classic railroad track scar from collarbone through his chest after treatment for Hodgkins, which he eventually wound up beating twice. Using that competition and recognizing that just 18 months after surgery he was back to top international level, its tough to imagine how impressive a feat that was.
‘Knowing’ Jeff from attending ‘hate ’em’ rival high schools meant he wasn’t as athletically interesting as the Long Island girls volleyball team I was tracking or a 15 y/old female javelin thrower whose toss in Scholastic Division would’ve won the Womens Open BY 3 METERS! I tracked the girl down mostly because I knew javelin wasn’t a high school sport in NY, so from whence came the awesomeness?
“Well, last year I won a gold for long jumping, but hurt my back not long before trials. I asked coach what I might do that didn’t include getting back jammed a lot, and he said maybe javelin.” Turns out she had all of two weeks training before qualifying first in Adirondack Region, then blowing everyone else up. I asked if anyone had talked to her about heptathalon, her demurral being “my 800m isn’t that great.” (Uhhh, in 3 weeks you’re throwing it further than grown women…you get big points for that in hep, and a slower 800 can be worked on) I recall she left immediately after picking up her medal because her birthday party was that night.
The last time I saw Jeff was probably 1993-4, just before he got involved with Ultimate Fighting Championship (1994-2001) as commentator and eventually commissioner. Between sales calls (scholastic fundraising) on a brisk and windy day in Albany, I wound up next to him on a corner and walked a couple blocks catching up, hoping he’d been able to parlay things announcing-wise, wanting to hear what was on the mind of an Olympic champion on a corner almost ten years after The Moment. Turned out the times I’d heard him during two Olympics was most of what ABC ever scheduled him for, and his focus on using his unique skills and tangible results probably benefitted something as edgy-different as UFC. I had no clue he’d authored Mixed Martial Arts Council Manual involved in development of modern rules of the sport.
When I mentioned one particular Russian I’d read about in Sports Illustrated being a terror, Jeff said yeah, guy was only one he’d ever really worried about his physical safety with. The Ruskies ‘move’ in a sport with no holds below the waist, was to elevate his opponents and then pile drive their heads into the mat. Being someone airborne means either risking spinal injury or protecting yourself during impact, and protecting wasn’t going to stop the guy from scoring points, which are at a premium in Greco.
Between Webelos and those Emipre State Games minutes chatting, I guess I recognize an ephemeral quality, not tight as classmates, frat bros or fellow wrestlers, more of passing decently close to someone/an athlete that actually surmounts big odds. I’ll only briefly include the fact that Russians and lot of Eastern block countries didn’t attend the ’84 Olympics in return for Jimmy Carter keeping US from ’80 Moscow Olympics (props to Frank Famiano, a Schenectady and Brockport guy, best in world at 126 who got screwed) as protest of 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. I’m keeping that video available though, because I haven’t heard a more sincere ‘I love you guys!’ in 30 years since.
And Jeff, I’m hoping there’s someone in your class to grapple with when you get to the next level.