Former drill partner inspires Tallmadge graduate Jesse Kanatzar to excel on both the mats and the gridiron

Jesse Kanatzar

They adore each other with all of their hearts.

Except when they get on the mats, of course.

“We probably got into a fight every week,” 2020 Tallmadge graduate Jesse Kanatzar said.

The former Blue Devils standout wrestler and football player is referring to his former teammate, Richie Eyre, a 2019 Tallmadge graduate who is now serving his country at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Kanatzar and Eyre were former drill partners on the Tallmadge wrestling team. Usually, they were quite chummy with each other. However, their affectionate behavior quickly dissipated when the two proud warriors took the mats.

Let’s be honest here: Wrestling isn’t the type of sport that requires you to be chummy with your opponent, right?

Jason Shaw certainly doesn’t think so.

“They were the two best workout partners I’ve ever seen,” the former Blue Devils head wrestling coach and assistant football coach said. “They didn’t back down. Their goal was to make each other better.”

Forgive Kanatzar if he believes his pal may have been too aggressive at times. At the same time, though, Kanatzar knows being a gentleman isn’t exactly the proper approach when your opponent is attempting to pummel you.

“Every day was a battle,” Kanatzar said. “Richie helped me every single day. He really got me to embrace the warrior mentality.”

Interestingly enough, one could make a very strong argument that the two former Tallmadge standouts are interchangeable.

Eyre lined up as the running back for the football team. So did Kanatzar.

On the mats, Eyre had the unfortunate label of being the best wrestler to never reach the state tournament. That is, until he smashed that not-too-flattering description to pieces when he qualified as a senior.

Kanatzar can relate. Although he was very successful throughout his career, Kanatzar, like his honorable comrade, dealt with much disappointment before he was able to break down a rather formidable barrier.

The 182-pound Kanatzar advanced to the Division II state competition during the winter.

“From top to bottom, you can take Richie’s name out and put Jesse’s name in there,” said Shaw, who is Kanatzar’s uncle. “When Jesse saw what Richie did, he just exploded. The kid has a motor that doesn’t quit. No bad practice is a bad practice for him.”

Kanatzar will continue to keep practicing. He’ll do lots and lots of it too.

Kanatzar recently decided to continue his academic, wrestling and football careers at John Carroll University in University Heights.

Kanatzar, who is undecided about his major, drew interest from other schools as well. In the end, the private Jesuit university, which competes in the Ohio Athletic Conference, was far too difficult for the two-sport standout to pass up.

“There were other schools that were in the mix, but I think ever since I went up to John Carroll, I knew it was the right fit for me,” Kanatzar said.

Kanatzar saw his close friend wrestle at the state tournament last year in Columbus. Sadly, Kanatzar never got a chance to compete on the sport’s finest stage.

Thanks to a deadly respiratory tract infection known as the coronavirus, the state wrestling tournament was canceled.

“I broke down,” Kanatzar said. “All that hard work felt like it was for nothing. It was probably the worst feeling I’ve ever had.

“It still hurts now. I think it always will. I know I would have been on the podium.”

Tallmadge assistant wrestling coach Gary Kanaga, who previously spent time as the Blue Devils’ assistant football coach, cherished every moment he spent with Kanatzar. For the longtime coach, extremely driven teenagers like Kanatzar come around once every 50 years.

“He’s a kid you dream about coaching,” Kanaga said. “He works hard and stays late. You talk about a handful of kids, he’s one of those handfuls of kids. He gives 110 percent and has a lot of heart.”

Kanatzar tied a school record when he won 46 matches during the winter. And who shares this prestigious mark with the accomplished teenager?

You guessed it — Eyre.

“Richie and Jesse had the same mentality in football and wrestling,” Kanaga said. “Richie wouldn’t get taken down by anyone. If Jesse got close, Richie would hammer him. If Richie was close to taking Jesse down, Jesse would hammer him.”

John Carroll placed fifth at the NCAA Division III Central Regional Championships during the winter. The Blue Streaks finished 12-4 overall and 5-2 in the OAC.

Kanatzar doesn’t expect to sit and watch when he wrestles for John Carroll next winter. Not only does he think he can compete as a freshman, but Kanatzar also believes he can be among the elite when it’s all said and done.

“I plan on being the guy at 197 right away,” Kanatzar said. “I have big goals — bigger goals than I did in high school. You’ll see me on the NCAA podium in the future.”

Due to Eyre’s departure, Kanatzar’s workload increased significantly on the football field. Unfortunately, his grand finale on the gridiron didn’t go as planned. The Blue Devils finished 1-9 in 2019.

“The year didn’t go how I wanted it, but I still cherish the memories I’ve made throughout high school football,” Kanatzar said. “I love football. Others might dread practice, but I look forward to it.”

Kanatzar will get plenty of chances. He’ll be playing for a winner, too.

John Carroll finished 9-1 overall and 8-1 in the OAC. Since he’ll be quite busy during the fall and winter when he makes his new home in Cuyahoga County, juggling two sports, along with academics, could be a tricky proposition.

Kanatzar’s response? Talk to the hand. He isn’t the least bit worried.

“It will be a challenge, but I know I can get the job done,” Kanatzar said. “I love both sports so much, I can’t give them up now. I’m not done yet. I know there is more to come.”

Although Eyre graduated the previous year, Kanatzar found a near clone of his former drill partner during the winter. Ben Blankenship, a 2020 Tallmadge graduate, gladly took the role of being Kanatzar’s frenemy during practice.

“Ben really helped me to get to where I am,” Kanatzar said. “When Ben and I were in the room going at it, it was like Richie never left.”

It’s a safe bet Eyre never left in the first place. Kanatzar has kept in touch with his boon companion since Eyre’s graduation and will continue to do so as long as possible.

They don’t get into fights anymore either. Nevertheless, if they had a chance to go at each other’s throats one more time, it’s a safe bet both Kanatzar and Eyre would happily oblige.

After all, boys will be boys, right?

“When practice is over, we were brothers,” Kanatzar said. “We laugh about it now.”

Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, or @Faceto_Gannett.