By: Director of Athletic Communications & Public Relations Kevin Ruple
BEREA, Ohio – For virtually his entire life, "duces have been wild" for Michael "Mike" Blackburn. And, this fall, the 2020 and two-time Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) Division II State Wrestling Coach of the Year will return to his alma mater, Baldwin Wallace University, to be inducted into its Alumni Athletic Association Hall of Fame fittingly for being a two-sport Division III standout in football and wrestling.
But that is just a small part of Blackburn's story.
His First Priority is His Family and his son Braden
Blackburn and his 14-year-old son, Braden, live with he and his girlfriend, Kristi [Gotschall], and her son, Harley, in Wintersville, OH. Mike and Braden live every day with the challenges of autism. It is a blessing and also constantly demanding.
Blackburn, who has a long beard and teaches and coaches football and wrestling in nearby Steubenville, gives a smile and said, "I am blessed and challenged every day and I love Braden. I love Harley for making him one of the boys.
"When Braden accomplishes a goal it's a wonderful thing to see," continued Blackburn. "He is the sweetest person you could ever meet, and Kristi keeps me grounded through all of this. Thank God for her and her love for both of us. Autism is a big part of our lives every day, but Braden is not treated differently than any other teenager.
"We recently lost my father, and that was hard on him to lose his grandfather," said Blackburn. "Braden realizes that his pap is not around, and he doesn't understand he's not with us anymore. Braden is dealing with this loss with such maturity, and I'm so proud of him."
Blackburn's Roots Began in Football and Wrestling
Blackburn's burning love and desire for the sports of football and wrestling made him a legend Wintersville and at Indian Creek High School and then at BW and now as a coach for The Big Red at Steubenville Senior High School.
At Indian Creek in football, he was an All-Ohio Valley Conference, an All-River Valley, an Eastern District and an All-Ohio selection. He also was the I.C.H.S. Most Valuable Lineman. In wrestling, Blackburn was its Most Valuable Wrestler, a District champion, an OHSAA State Tournament place-winner and compiled a 98-37-1 record.
He Wasn't Supposed to Play Football at BW
When Blackburn was looking at colleges and universities, he was strictly looking at schools to wrestle and was all set to attend another school, which sponsored wrestling at that time. But BW Hall of Fame Wrestling Coach Rich Fleming (1988-2011), Hall of Fame Football Coach Bob Packard '65 (1980-2001) and Hall of Fame football player and wrestler Tony Cipollone '93, who was Fleming and Packard's assistant coach at the time, all talked him into coming to Berea to play football and wrestle.
"I was all set to go to another school," said Blackburn, "but then Coach Fleming kept calling. And, Coach Packard started calling. And, Cip [Cipollone's nickname] began to call, and we really developed a bond. And, that did it. It made a difference, and I'm glad they did. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life.
"I got to BW and I met my second family," said Blackburn. "Coach Packard and Coach Demmerle [Hall of Fame Coach Dave Demmerle] were awesome and my Offensive Tackles Coach Mike Kelly '80 was the best-ever football coach. He really made me work hard and taught me how to play tackle in the OAC. He played on BW's National Championship team, so he knew how to win.
"And my teammates on the offensive line were unbelievable," said Blackburn. "Guys like Fred Saylor '99 (Canton), who was one, if not the best guard in the country; our center JoJo Saccoccia '99 (Steubenville) , who I coach with today at Steubenville; our quarterback and Hall of Famer Geoff Helmlinger '99 (Medina) and Dan Fessler '99 (North Olmsted); were my best friends and still are today. I coach with JoJo now at Steubenville where his Dad has been the head coach for a long, long time and is a legend."
Blackburn went on to play four years of football and start at right tackle for three seasons. He helped the Yellow Jackets compile a 27-13 mark and individually earned Division III All-America honors. The game he remembers most was a 38-35 overtime victory against Ohio Northern University at The George Finnie Stadium when Helmlinger led the Jackets on a drive in O.T. that culminated in a game-winning field goal by All-American placekicker Chris Kondik ''98.
"A few years later, I played in the pro arena league with ONU's Shane Franzer," said Blackburn. "It was fun reminiscing and teasing him about BW winning that game.
Wrestling was and still is Blackburn's first love.
"I grew up as a wrestler," said Blackburn. "It was my first love and it will always be my first love. Now that I am coaching it, I love it even more. I love first coach who was my Dad and all of my coaches, both in high school and Coach Fleming even more now that I am coaching the sport.
And, how could you not like Coach Fleming," continued Blackburn. "He was so much more than a coach. He was a father-figure. He cared about his wrestlers and treated us like his family in so many ways. He was just so much more than just my college wrestling coach.
Coach Fleming developed our team into a family, and we had a family bond as teammates and best friends," said Blackburn. "Guys like Bobby Bollas (Perry)'98, Kevin Atkins '00 (Olmsted Falls/ HOF '18), Tony Marcellino (North Olmsted) '99 were outstanding wrestlers and my best friends."
At BW, Blackburn had a 75-50 record and ranks 29th on the all-time victory list, but the talent at the 285-pound level that he had to compete against at that time is second to none. Twice he advanced to the Ohio Athletic Conference Championship match and lost to a competitor that either won an NCAA Division III national title or lost in the Div. III national title match. As a sophomore, Blackburn had his best season with a 25-15 record, lost in overtime in the OAC Championship match and lost inn O.T. in the eighth-ninth place match for All-America honors.
Building Winners and Leaving a Legacy of Success at Steubenville
Since graduating from Baldwin Wallace in the spring of 1999, Blackburn played professional football in the arena league and has returned to his roots in the Steubenville area as a teacher and coach. His 15 years of coaching success has culminated with being named as the OHSAA Div. II Wrestling Coach of the Year in both 2012 and 2020.
In addition, Blackburn has been named as the OVAC 4A Coach of the Year five times, serves as the Eastern District Coaches Representative, the OHSAA Coaches Committee and the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) National Representative for the State of Ohio.
Blackburn's teams have compiled a 255-58 dual match record and a 268-64 career record. During the last eight seasons, six of his teams have placed in the Top-10 at the HSAA State Tournament in Div. II, including in each of the past five seasons. His teams also have won eight 4A and 5A Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Dual Meet Championships, five 4A OVAC Championships, one OVAC overall, seven OHSAA Sectional and two OHSAA District titles. In 2016, he led Steubenville to the Div. II Ohio Dual Regional title and to the OHSAA State Semi-finals.
Individually, Blackburn has coached 23 OVAC champions, 61 OHSAA Sectional champions, 21 OHSAA District champions, 30 OHSAA State Tournament place-winners and seven OHSAA State Tournament runner-up.