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Bob Lind, Published October 20 2012

Lind: Bison rarely leave mind of former NDSU wrestler

You don’t want to wrestle with this guy, folks, especially if you aren’t a North Dakota State Bison fan. He’d probably whomp you.

He’s John Kucenic. OK, call him Johnny; everyone else did, when he was on the Bison wrestling team.

He now lives in South Park, Pa., but the Bison rarely leave his mind. Or if they do, “The Wall” brings them back.

A brother act

It was then-new Bison wrestling coach Bucky Maughan who brought him to NDSU. But it wasn’t, Johnny says, because he was such a great athlete.

Bucky had recruited one of Johnny’s high school teammates who was a Pennsylvania state champion. “Bucky was a smart recruiter,” Johnny writes Neighbors. “He just wanted the state champ, and he brought me along so the stud would not quit and go back to Pennsylvania.”

Johnny and his buddy arrived in Fargo in August 1965. So far so good. But later that year, the area was hit by a blizzard. That did it for Johnny’s pal. The next spring, he hitched a ride out of Fargo and went home.

“The funny thing is,” Johnny says, “no one knew he was gone for over a week, except me. It was a more honest and safe time in our society.”

The bottom line, anyhow, Johnny says, was that “Bucky got stuck with me.”

So Johnny wrestled for Bucky. Two years later, his brother Sam also came to NDSU and joined the team, becoming the first three-time conference champion for the Bison.

Spuds and Subs

Both Sam and Johnny graduated from NDSU, Sam in 1971, Johnny in 1973 after serving two tours in Vietnam, where he received two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

Johnny set up an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh. But he missed Fargo. So he returned, this time with a wife, Mary Ann, and their baby Sara, because he felt Fargo was a great place to raise a child.

He hoped to teach, but unable to land a teaching job, he opened Johnny K’s Stuffed Spuds and Subs in 1983 near the NDSU campus. It was a café that had about as many Bison items on its walls as it had spuds and subs in its kitchen.

Johnny put in a good 100 hours a week at the café, while Mary Ann worked both there and as nursing supervisor of internal medicine at the Dakota Clinic, Fargo.

The café didn’t make it. “It was ahead of its time.” Johnny says. “But we gave it a try, learned a lesson or two, and most of all met a lot of great folks with that endeavor – priceless.”

So he joined the NDSU athletic staff, working mainly with the football program, and holding down a variety of jobs.

A deep concern

In the late 1980s, the Kucenics returned to the Pittsburgh area to be closer to their family.

Johnny now is retired from the Pittsburgh division of the U.S. Postal Service after 25 years as a manager of stations and branches. He and Mary Ann split their time between South Park and Fort Myers, Fla., where their daughter, Sara, and her two boys live.

The Kucenics’ other child, David, is attending the California University of Pennsylvania, where he is on the baseball team. After he graduates, Johnny says he and Mary Ann will relocate permanently in Fort Meyers, where they watch the Minnesota Twins play during spring training and where the Twins’ minor league team is located. “Baseball is one of our hobbies and passions,” Johnny says.

His brother Sam died in 2004 from cancer. Johnny accepted his brother’s posthumous induction into the Bison Hall of Fame in 2006.

Sam battled alcoholism for a decade, Johnny says, and he suffered from depression and bipolar disease.

The Forum sports department did a series on sports-caused head concussions this summer.

Johnny no doubt would concur with those articles’ warnings about concussions because he says it has been determined that Sam “received dozens of concussions during his decade of wrestling and while playing football in middle school. It probably played a factor in his illness and depression,” he says.

“We are learning more each day about concussions and the long-term damage they cause,” he says.

“Studies are showing that it is not just football that causes repeated undetected concussions,” Johnny says; “soccer (headers) wrestling (head butts) and hockey (head blows, fights) are culprits, too. It is more serious in sports than we realize, and we must address it ASAP.”

Another matter: The sexual abuses of children by a Penn State coach.

“My thoughts on the Penn State tragedy are sadness for all the victims,” Johnny says. “There can be no sanctions or punishment severe enough for that institution and all of the so-called leaders.”

Yes, these matters are downers. But on the up side, Johnny has many delights: his kids and grandkids, baseball and, for sure, “The Wall.”

That’s a wall in his garage that is covered with items relating to (you guessed it) the Bison.

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If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com