It is with a tear in my eye, a lump in my throat and a heavy heart that I write today’s Extra Points column remembering Blair River, one of our community’s favorite sons.
Blair died from complications of the flu at 29 years of age on Feb. 28 in a Valley-area hospital.
All who knew Blair have their own favorite memories of him, especially those of us who had the privilege of teaching and coaching him during his years as a student at Rim Country Middle and Payson High Schools.
As a former teacher and middle school football coach of Blair, I hold precious the fond memories of him struggling through algebra lessons, attempting to maintain a straight face when one of his classroom buddies was caught clowning around, and of him chugging wind sprints up and down the football field.
Most who taught and coached Blair acknowledge him as “a really good kid” which is, for certain, high praise coming from hard-nosed, old-school educators.
In public education, teachers do not “play favorites,” but they do have favorites, whether or not they want to admit it.
In my classroom in 1994-95 and on the football field, Blair was one of my favorites among a group of what I affectionately call “knot heads.”
He was an unpretentious teenager who treated others as they would like to be treated and respected the rights and opinions of others.
He was never a discipline problem and actually seemed to be comfortable in almost every setting, whether it was with fellow students, teachers, coaches or younger pupils.
I remember coaches and teachers of Blair’s visiting in the break room about what a great job his parents, Robert and Kathy, had done in raising such a fine boy.
It seemed to us that Blair was the exact opposite of the smart-mouthed, disrespectful, know-it-all teenagers that give young people such a bad name.
You know the kind — the ones that roll their eyes, make snide remarks and answer back to their parents and teachers.
Blair was none of those and despite his intimidating size, which led most to believe he could crush mere mortals with a single blow from his huge fist, he was a joy to have in the classroom and in sports.
In hindsight, it’s obvious he was a good friend to classmates and was personable, confident and empathetic.
His younger brother, Bryce, says Blair was a role model who he looked up to, respected and wanted to emulate.
In athletics, Blair showed a propensity, beginning in middle school, to excel in football and wrestling.
By the time he graduated from PHS in 1999, he had anchored the Longhorn football team to an undefeated season and the 3A state championship. In wrestling, he accomplished his long-time dream of winning a state championship, both individually and with his team.
In football, Blair anchored the state title team at the nose guard position, where he wreaked havoc all season long on opposing offenses.
At 6 foot, 4 inches and more than 300 pounds, he was an immovable force who seemed to thrive on the credo that he personally owned all the property between the offensive guards.
Believe me, that’s a great attitude for a nose guard.
All season long, opposing coaches scrambled to wield blocking schemes that would at least partially negate Blair’s presence, but none worked.
In the championship game vs. Blue Ridge, he was rock solid in the middle, refusing to allow the Yellow Jackets to dominate the line of scrimmage as they most often did.
I believe in that game he played with more intensity than I had ever seen in him. Probably because he knew how important that championship was to his teammates and his hometown.
In wrestling as a senior, Blair opened on an auspicious note more than 25 pounds over the 275-pound maximum for his weight class.
After sitting out the first few matches of the season, he finally tipped the scales at less than 275, which allowed him to begin participation.
I remember the elation of the day he made weight — Blair was proud and justifiably so.
“A lot of running and not much food,” he gave as reasons for his weight loss.
Blair went on to win the Central Division championship and advance to state where he won two opening-round matches pancaking opponents into easy pins.
In the semifinals, however, he found himself paired against Safford’s B.J. Nelson, who was widely regarded as the finest heavyweight in the state and a big-time stud.
Prior to the match, Blair admitted Nelson was very, very good, but said he was determined to win the state crown.
What resulted was the mother of all mat wars that those who witnessed will never forget.
The first period ended in a 2-2 tie as Blair battled with all the fight of a junkyard dog.
In the second period, Blair scored on an escape and a takedown to take a 5-3 lead into the crucial final minutes.
Calling upon every bit of strength, grit and resolve he could muster, Blair scored a takedown and near fall for a 9-4 win.
The debate over who was the best heavyweight in the state was over — the finest was Blair, hands down.
The following championship round was almost anticlimactic as Blair steamrolled to a 7-3 win over a San Manuel wrestler.
What rendered the state win extra special is that during Blair’s first three years in the sport, he had come up short of a state championship and he was obviously disappointed. But in his last gasp attempt at the gold, his determination, resolve and courage finally led him to wrestling’s promised land.
Following the state tournament, then coach Dennis Pirch said of Blair, “He just had the weekend of his life.”
While all who crossed paths with Blair will miss him greatly, we know among the gifts he’s left is a legacy of hard work, compassion, understanding and character.
Hey Blair, thanks for the memories — we will always cherish them.
Services will be at 11 a.m., Saturday, March 5 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 913 S. Ponderosa St., Payson. There will be a viewing at 10 a.m., prior to the service.