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Joe Rychnovsky could tell a tale, but his story was best

07/23/2017, 12:51am EDT
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Creativity, enthusiasm were characteristics of Toledo sportscaster, who died Thursday at the age of 49


Sportscaster Joe Rychnovsky was known for his field work, here talking with Kent Smith while covering the 4th and Goal Bowl in November. THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT

If life is just a prolonged round of golf, then Joe Rychnovsky was one of those exceedingly rare individuals who always hit it straight down the middle. After you met Joe, your scorecard on humanity forever looked better.

When he came to the Toledo market, Joe was something we had never seen before — a sports broadcaster who could combine his skill and talent for the profession with a unique and folksy storytelling ability. He also loved golf and he was good at it, but fun was the most often used club in his bag.

RELATED: Toledo media figure Joe Rychnovsky dies at 49 | Rychnovsky fights cancer challenge (from November, 2016)

“Joe could take any mundane story and make it interesting with his creativity,” said Dan Cummins, sports director at WTOL, Channel 11, where Rychnovsky started his local career in 1999. “Once Joe’s style caught hold, people responded to him. People would tell him, ‘I don’t like sports, but I love what you do.’ ”

In the eyes of some, Joe played from the rough from a very early age, battling kidney disease as an infant. The illness progressed, and his kidneys shut down when Joe was a student at the University of Missouri, and he went on dialysis for nine months before he received a transplant.

VIDEO: A Look Back At Joe Rychnovsky's Legacy

Then there were the anti-rejection drugs so his body would accept the new kidney, severe arthritis, and finally the aggressive and vicious rare cancer that ultimately ended his life on Thursday at just 49 years of age.

But Joe, being Joe, never complained about the pin placement in his life, or the hand he was dealt. He was a purveyor of happy, with a golly-gee kind of charm, a disarming twinkle in his eye, and a laugh that sounded like a chuckle met a giggle and the two decided to get married.

In Joe’s 18 holes, it was all about the crowd, the fans, and the gallery. He was very professional, thoroughly prepared, and always engaging, but in his mind he was never the star. 

People found him refreshing, charismatic, and genuine in a business where sometimes that is less common than a birdie from the fairway trap. And he was comfortably off-beat. You could kid Joe that he was playing the game of life a mashie and a niblick short of a full set, and he would smile like he just won the club championship.

Jordan Strack, now the weekend sports anchor at WTOL-11, was baptized into the wonderful world of Joe as a championship-winning high school bowler.

“He was funny, sweet, and compassionate,” Strack recalled. “He was beyond gifted as a storyteller. His energy was contagious, and he had an uncanny ability to make everyone feel important.”

That was Joe. You duck-hook a shot into the trees, and he could make you feel like your next swing would produce something akin to Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle at the 1935 Masters.

Soon after his start at Channel 11, Rychnovsky rolled out his “Hey Joe, Try This!” segments that secured his niche with the viewing audience. If you were a duffer, he was a duffer. If you cut the greens or handled the Stimpmeter, then so did Joe. He made the volunteer picking up trash on Hole No. 6 feel as significant as the Farr champion.

“He had a joy and a passion for life that few people will ever know,” said Eric Haubert of BCSN, where Rychnovsky worked up until recently when his deteriorating health scratched him from the game. “In our business, you don’t often meet a guy everybody likes. Joe was that guy.”

Retired Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg remembered playfully sparring with Joe in the media tent at the LPGA event. 

Hack complimented Joe on his TV work, and Joe remarked how much fun those “Hey Joe” segments were to produce. Joe suggested doing a segment with Hack, and — in his trademark sarcasm — Hack said it could be naked chainsaw juggling, but Joe would have to go first. 

Joe said it was his show, so Hack had to go first. Hack said he came up with the challenge, so Joe had to go first. An Abbott and Costello moment ensued, followed by the laughter contagion that Joe made viral.

“He was unlike anyone who had ever worked in this market,” Hackenberg said. 

“He had a look that was anything but pretty-boy TV. He did off-beat features and his ‘Hey Joe’ segments, and I’m not sure people knew how to take him — until they met him. And sooner or later, everybody met him. And they realized he was genuine and without ego.”

That was Joe. 

He came to Toledo knowing no one, but he walked the fairways of the community every day and, within a year or so, he was a beloved member of our club.

In 2006, Joe upgraded his game considerably with the best shot any golfer could ever play — he married a pro.

Janet taught the game and the two were a match-play victory for everyone who knew them. And Janet pulled off the seemingly impossible shot — she made a very happy man even happier.

“I was living in Chicago at the time, and hadn’t planned on staying here,” said Janet, a Toledo native and Notre Dame Academy graduate. “But once I met Joe and we went out on a date to play golf and go to a Mud Hens game, my plans changed. He was so much fun to be around, and we were together from then on.”

When Joe got the cancer diagnosis last year, it was especially cruel. He had a nasty, aggressive, and particularly troublesome form of the disease, and because of his kidney transplant, the best treatment options were out of the question. 

But, in true Joe fashion, he told me he was mostly worried about Janet and his mom, because he didn’t want them burdened with worry. The guy played the utility club of selflessness that most of us will never grip.

“There was no one like Joe,” said Tom Cole, who worked with Rychnovsky at BCSN. “Everywhere he went, people loved the guy.”

Joe was a man of unwavering faith. He proudly displayed his Catholicism like a loud Titleist logo on the side of a golf bag. He said last fall that if God decided this was Joe’s time, then he would play it as it lies.

We’ve all complained about far more trivial matters than those things Joe faced in his brilliant, buoyant, but all too brief round of life. 

He played the game with kidney failure, dialysis, a transplant, severe arthritis, and finally cancer, and Joe never asked for a mulligan. And he wouldn’t have accepted one, if offered.

Joe’s round got cut short somewhere midway through the back nine, but what great joy he brought us all during the holes he played and the strokes he took. 

All we can say now is: “Hey God, get ready” because Joe is playing through.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

Tuesday visitation: Walker Funeral Home, 5155 W. Sylvania Ave., 2 p.m.-8 p.m. Holy Rosary recited at 7 p.m. with shared memories following.

Wednesday visitation: Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, 2255 Central Grove Ave., 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Funeral Mass at 11 a.m.

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