The local wrestling community lost one of its biggest supporters on Tuesday.
Emil Branas of Portage passed away at age 77.
While his name might not be familiar to some, rest assured, he had a huge impact on the sport over the past 40 or more years. He worked behind the scenes, doing the types of jobs that aren't glamorous and don't get much notice but that are vital to the sport we love. He served as a volunteer scorekeeper and timekeeper at tournaments around the state, whether at the elementary, high school or college level. He was even honored as Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling's man of the year in 2002 for his service.
Mr. Branas was a former coal miner and Marine who served in the Korea and Vietnam eras in the Asian Pacific Theater. And, as the saying goes, once a Marine, always a Marine. He wasn't one for political correctness or to mince words. Whether it was referring to himself as “that old cripple from Portage” – a mining accident confined him to wheelchair for years, though he later was able walk with crutches and leg braces – or letting local media members know what he thought of their sometimes sparse wrestling coverage, he always spoke his mind.
When I saw Mr. Branas' obituary and mentioned it in the newsroom, the name immediately resonated, even with those who had not covered wrestling in decades.
Luckily, I was on Mr. Branas' good side from the start. He and my father had become friends years earlier with the shared experience of thousands of hours sitting in stuffy gymnasiums as their sons and grandsons wrestled across the state and country.
It's quite possible that I met Mr. Branas when I was in high school – if I did, I no longer remember it – but I will never forget the first time I heard his voice in The Tribune-Democrat newsroom. I was working on the copy desk, a position where I didn't do any writing, the first winter after having left the Daily American. The late Mike Elswick, who was the TD sports editor at the time, called me over to the answering machine to listen to a message. “This is Emil Branas of Portage,” his recorded voice boomed through the still quiet afternoon newsroom. “I don't understand why you guys don't cover more wrestling. You've got a guy there who can do a great job with it in Eric Knopsnyder, and you don't even have him working in sports!”
I had to ask around to find out who he was and how he knew about me, but I never forgot him after that moment. Through the years, I got the chance to talk with him quite often when I did work in sports and cover wrestle for The Tribune-Democrat. I would see him almost every year at the District 6 tournament in Altoona and I'd chat with his daughter, Susan Lucas, who worked at the newspaper and was raised in wrestling-mad family just like mine. He'd always ask about my family and fill me in on his.
The impact that Mr. Branas and, by extension his family, had on wrestling stretched from Portage to North Carolina. His sons have coached and worked with many young wrestlers over the years to spread their love for and knowledge of the sport.
Wrestling was far from Mr. Branas' only interest – he also worked with a number of veterans organizations and made more than 600 platelet donations – so I'm sure that there are thousands of others who have been touched by his contributions. His death is a loss for their communities as well as ours, but the impact that he had will most certainly carry on for years to come.
Friends will be received from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Serenko-Claar Funeral Home in Portage with a Funeral Mass at St. Bartholomew Church in Wilmore at 11 a.m. Friday.