Six inductees enter Hall
Tom Wilt and Jason Kutz made their marks in sometimes brutal sports born out of combat, boxing and wrestling.
However, on Saturday night at the Blair County Convention Center, they showed a lighter side. Wilt hit the crowd hard with humor. Kutz locked it up with levity.
And there was plenty of heart and joy, too.
Wilt’s and Kutz’s speeches were among the highlights of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame’s 16th induction dinner. Kutz and Wilt were among five new members to the hall, bringing its membership to 85.
The group showed the diversity of the county’s athletic success. In addition to Golden Gloves titlist boxer Wilt and world gold medalist wrestler Kutz, the class included basketball and baseball standout Len Zandy, 16-time U.S. Tennis Association champ Karen Gallagher, three-time Boston Marathon top-25 finisher Dave Patterson and the 1966-67 Bishop Guilfoyle state championship boys basketball team.
In addition, the selection committee honored Bellwood Youth Football League founder Harold “Bud” Grazier posthumously for his community service, and presented multi-sport stars Emily Nagle of Bellwood-Antis and Joel Reighard of Altoona Area with its scholarship awards.
New Penn State football coach James Franklin was the guest speaker.
“Thank you, committee, for once again bringing together such an eclectic and inclusive group of people,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher delivered an erudite speech mixed of sentiment mixed with a few jokes, while Patterson and Patty Zandy – who accepted for her late husband – spoke with emotion and came close to breaking down on a couple of occasions.
Wilt and Kutz, meanwhile, broke the crowd up more than once with their jokes and stories. Wilt started off by speaking over his presentation video, then thanking new hall president Neil Rudel but also saying in jest they might have to square off if Rudel tried to limit his time.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve been hit in the head a lot, so bear with me. OK?” Wilt said.
It was the first of many laughs Wilt drew, including one for his story of how he got into boxing with a friend because of an altercation with one of John Robertson’s Altoona Boxing Club fighters while rollerskating one night when he was 19.
“I ended up sparring this kid. He had a couple of fights. He was pretty good. He laid a whooping on me,” Wilt said. “I said, ‘I’m not quitting until I beat that kid.'”
Wilt lost his train of thought while talking about fighting with Brian Hallinan, then poked fun at Franklin by pointing out to him that Penn State had boxing, too. Rudel waved a towel at Wilt to cool him down when the boxer told him not to call him out, and Wilt asked committee member Steve Sheetz if he could borrow his glasses to read the last of his notes.
“Some people are jealous of me. Others are envious of me,” Wilt said to another outburst of laughs just before he concluded his speech with “Hey, Mom, look. I did it. I love you,” to which master of ceremonies Stan Savran responded by quoting Rocky Balboa’s famous line “Yo, Adrienne. I did it.”
The laughs for Kutz’s induction started when he was inducted by his brother, one-time Altoona High football standout John Kutz, who said “We tried football, but he was too small, basketball, but he was too short, and cross country, but he was too slow,” in his family’s efforts to find a sport for his younger sibling before they managed after several attempts to coax him on the mat. The younger Kutz pretended to shrink behind the dais as he remarked about his brother’s comments.
But Jason Kutz also gave them some validity, talking about how he cried the first time he went to wrestling practice and how his first success came by accident.
“There’s limbs flailing, nobody knows what they’re doing,” Kutz said. “Suddenly, there’s a head underneath my arm, so I grabbed it. Then there was a leg [underneath the other arm], so I grabbed it. I didn’t know what to do next, so I squeezed them. Then I looked back, and the kid was on his back, which apparently was right.
“My uncle came by and asked, ‘Who showed you that move?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, man, is it right?’ He said, ‘It’s absolutely right. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ From that moment on, I thought, ‘Man, I must be gooooood. I can invent moves.'”
That confidence came in handy many years later when Kutz, coaching at Lehigh University at that point, found he and his family in some tough financial situations, and his father, instead of giving him the $200 he needed to pay the latest bills, told him he needed to get a second and maybe a third job to make ends meet.
“I thought, ‘Man, couldn’t he just give me 200 bucks?'” Kutz said. “Then it hit me, I had forgotten for a second, ‘You can’t beat me.’ And I said, ‘You’re damn right, Dad. You’re damn right.’ I sold my car and started riding my bike to work, and by bike, I mean bicycle.”
Kutz thanked a number of people, including his coach at Altoona, Marty Rusnak.
“He taught me more about being a family guy,” Kutz said, taking a few moments to compose himself, “than he ever taught me on the mat.”
Kutz wasn’t the only inductee to bring up Rusnak’s name. Patterson also was a wrestler as well as a cross country runner at Altoona, and he praised Rusnak as well as Angie Gioiosa for giving him the foundation to climb to the podium on Saturday night.
“I was fortunate to grow up in Altoona and spend my formative years here,” Patterson said.
Patterson became choked up on a couple of occasions, including recollections of Tom Clapper talking him into going to college and his daughter, Jillian, who was born with Down syndrome and passed away at the age of 28.
“She was a real inspiration to me, because she accomplished so much with so little,” Patterson said. “I know she’s here in spirit. I want to thank her and tell her that I love her and I miss her.”
Patty Zandy was clearly touched, too, as she spoke of her husband, who went from Bishop Guilfoyle to play college basketball at Fordham and be drafted by the Kansas City A’s.
“Most of all, I would like to thank Leonard’s family for supporting him and giving him such a good foundation in life,” Zandy’s wife, Patty, said. “He would be so humbled.”
While most of Saturday’s inductees got to where they were because of their accomplishments in individual sports, they all credited mentors, teammates and the Blair County community.
“I like coming here because I always get such a tremendous sense of community,” Savran said. “Each of these inductees had someone help them along the way.”
Grazier served as a symbol of that. Grazier coached football for more than 30 years in the Bellwood youth ranks, even though he was paralyzed in a swimming accident at the age of 22.
“He never let his paralysis come between him and what he wanted to do, which was to coach football,” said his granddaughter, Courtney Hammaker, who accepted for him. “He was able to teach kids to look past disabilities. He sent the message that, no matter what, you can do what you set your mind to.”
Gallagher seemed to be somewhat overwhelmed by it all before she received her silver induction plate.
“I feel like I am serving for championship points,” Gallagher said. “You know? Heavy arms?”