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Jeff Blatnick Is Fighting for His Life Again : Grim Foe Has a New Grip on Gold-Medal Wrestler

May 07, 1986|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. — Jeff (One Happy Dude) Blatnick sits back in a small office some friends have allowed him and holds his large head.

Bad shape. He's in real bad shape. And the occasional firecracker from outside the office, where supposedly grown and responsible men are monitoring investments of $1 million and more, does not help.

"Beer," he says, explaining his condition. "Bachelor party. Best friend. Lots of beer."

Another firecracker explodes and he winces. "I think it's supposed to be a release of tension, after handling all that money." He shrugs. "Or they're just crazy."

He withdraws from his own desk a box of cigar loads. He has plans for them, and the partners of Cowan & Co., his generous sponsors in things financial and even spiritual, have a tension release coming up.

In the meantime, there is his head. Of course, being a wrestler, he's had bigger hurts put on him and, anyway, the beauty of a hangover, which he is mostly exaggerating, is that it gets better, sooner or later.

So he's cheerful despite it all. He knows he'll never feel worse than he does at this particular moment. To his way of thinking, in fact, it's not entirely unlike cancer, which is 0-1 with the big man and well behind in the rematch. He knows he'll get better. So he's cheerful.

But what else would he be? This is the same outrageously buoyant Jeff Blatnick who illuminated the 1984 Olympics with his own emotional fireworks, a relief of tension so mighty that grown men cried.

It wasn't enough that the super-heavyweight had won a gold medal; he had conquered Hodgkin's disease as well, believed to be a formidable opponent.

There are some moments in sports you will never forget, and if you saw his 248 pounds sink to the floor, if you saw his tears, if you heard him say, "I'm one happy dude"--well, you've got yourself a lifelong memory, don't you?

Blatnick leans forward on his small desk, his bulk exaggerated by the down-scaled furniture. "I beat cancer, I win a gold medal, I live happily ever after," he says, ticking off the developments.

You know the next plot turn; it was in all the papers. "I get cancer again."

At the time, he was indeed living happily ever after, making uplifting speeches at corporate gatherings--for as much as $4,500 a pop, if you can believe that--and doing charity work for both the good it did leukemia sufferers and the good it did his conscience.

After eight years of training for Olympic competition, during which he never made more than $5,000, he was suddenly living a good life. Traveling 150,000 miles a year, doing about 25 corporate gigs, enjoying himself and his celebrity and feeling a wee bit guilty about his good fortune. He actually apologizes for buying a new car.

Then, after hobnobbing with some IBM execs last summer, he experienced stomach cramps. Then, still later, he felt a twinge in his groin. Then, he reached down. He felt a lump. "I went cold all over," he says. Because, after all, he'd gone that route before.

Blatnick took the call at his parents' home near Schenectady, N.Y., where he still lives. The biopsy, as he had feared it would, tested malignant.

The big man admits that there were some tears, but the overwhelming emotion was rage. He drove the 20 minutes to the home of his sponsor, Spike Lanides, firecracking investment counselor, and the sweat poured off him all the way. He was actually boiling over.

"I was not a happy dude," he says, life-ever-after suddenly in jeopardy, never mind the happily-ever-after angle. "I was upset and angry. But it only lasted as long as it took to get to Spike's house. OK, I thought, back to Square 1."

Wrestlers have long known that it takes a lot to get a good man down, and Blatnick, perhaps not the most gifted Greco-Roman wrestler, was nevertheless almost always a good man. Still is, in the respect that it takes a lot to get him down. Oh, there were some bad moments; he is human. There was a little "why me?" and a little fear.

When the cancer was discovered the first time, back in 1982, radiation was the ticket home. Blatnick makes it sound like a day at the beach. In fact, the only side-effect seemed to be a sunburn.

This time, he'd have to take chemotherapy, 28 assaults on the body, 28 sessions when the powerful medicine indiscriminately looted the cells, looking for cancer but not being any too particular. Nobody's day at the beach.

"It was my only other bad moment," he says. The day before his first treatment last September he visited the grave of his older brother, David, killed in a motorcycle accident nine years ago and the source of much of his inspiration ever since.

He wondered how he would react to the treatments. Would he throw up? Would he lose his hair? Would he be confined with terminal lassitude?

He would live every day as he had, continuing to go to workouts when he could, continuing to deliver his corporate speeches. He was never sick, he never lost his hair and certainly not his hope.

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