Historic Match Opponents Meet Again
Gene McNeil and Rick Brzozinski were relaxed and smiling when they shook hands and renewed acquaintances at this year’s Suffolk Wrestling Championships at Hofstra University. But, nearly a quarter-of-a-century earlier they were anything but calm and collected as the two prepared to do battle with each other in one of the most dramatic wrestling matches in county history.
The pair has long passed into mat history, but their accomplishments still jump off the page. Each won two state titles and both were among the elite wrestlers in the country during their era. Today, McNeil, a 1986 Huntington High School graduate and Brzozinski a 1986 West Islip grad, see other each infrequently, but are genuinely happy when their paths do cross.
McNeil and Brzozinski squared off against one another in the finals of the Suffolk tournament in February 1985. That titanic match played out at Walt Whitman High School, which played host to the county tournament with Brzozinski winning a thrilling 5-4 decision and the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award. The match remains the only time two defending state champions met in a state sectional final.
That fateful night, McNeil, one of the greatest wrestlers in Huntington history, opened a four point lead when he scored a first period takedown and second period reversal. But, Brzozinski rallied with a five-point move in the third period to eke out a one point victory.
“Of course I remember it,” McNeil snapped just prior to this year’s county finals when asked if the memory of that famous night has faded. He chatted with former opponents, teammates and coaches from his front row seat in the Blue Devil section of the bleachers.
Still proud of his high school career and the adulation he earned along the way, McNeil said of Brzozinski and the memorable match: “He got lucky.” He was only half-joking. McNeil was known for his quickness and explosive style and a virtually unstoppable high crotch takedown.
McNeil, who today works at All-Weather Tire in Huntington Station, compiled a career Blue Devil mark of 117-4, winning four league titles and Suffolk and state crowns in 1984 and 1986. He finished third in the county as a freshman and was second to Brzozinski as a junior. After graduating from Huntington, McNeil went on to win the junior college national championship at Nassau Community College and was placed second in his other year of eligibility. He later attended SUNY College at Brockport.
Brzozinski, who is now a social studies teacher and assistant wrestling coach at Central Islip High School, completed his high school career with a 117-6-1 record, four league titles, three Suffolk championships and state titles in 1984 and 1986. He earned All-County honors four times and later went on to a fine mat career at the University of Virginia.
After Brzozinski topped McNeil, he appeared headed to a second consecutive state title when a legendary malfunction in the match clock during the finals led to complete pandemonium in the Syracuse War Memorial.
Brzozinski was leading by a point when he went out of bounds with his opponent, Doug Keys of Port Jervis. When the bout resumed, the clock failed to start, but the ref didn’t realize it. When the crowd of more than 6,000 finally got the attention of officials, the match was stopped and 20 seconds were put back on the clock, despite protestations from the West Islip coaches. Brozozinki ended up losing by one point, 6-5, when Keys scored with a reversal with two seconds remaining. The result remains extremely controversial to this day.
Brzozinski and McNeil were all smiles during their recent 10 minute chat. But, 24 years earlier almost to the day, the two went after each other with a vengeance in one of the most sensational matches in the history of Suffolk wrestling.