Joliet Junior College wrestler Anthony Bendy may have only three wins in his college career, but he is undefeated in both of his matches against cancer.
Bendy, a 2015 Lincoln-Way West graduate, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in the summer of 2016, shortly after his freshman year at Illinois State University. He underwent five rounds of chemo in the fall, then headed back to Normal for the spring 2017 semester, taking classes at Heartland Community College.
He re-enrolled at ISU for the fall 2017 semester, but was re-diagnosed in October. His cancer was caught early, and he was able to finish the semester and defer treatment until after the holidays and his January birthday.
Bendy, who had wrestled in high school, enrolled at JJC for the spring 2018 semester and approached Head Wrestling Coach A.J. Blahut about joining the team in February, but with only a few weeks left in the season, Coach Blahut encouraged him to come out the following season.
In the meantime, Bendy underwent treatment – a stem cell transplant, but with his own stem cells which were harvested early on. He then endured a very intense week of chemo, with sessions several times per day every day. With his immune system severely compromised by the powerful treatment, he was hospitalized for a month at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, then quarantined to his house for three months after being released. As soon as he was able, he began conditioning and pre-season workouts with the Wolves wresting team.
“JJC is local since I’m from New Lenox, and it probably would have been my choice for while I was home either way, but wrestling is definitely why I’m still here,” said Bendy, now in his second year with the Wolves. “Coming here gave me the opportunity to refocus on what I wanted to do, but it also gave me the opportunity to wrestle again and compete and feel normal at a time when I didn’t really feel normal.”
“There have been hard times, but wrestling has definitely helped with my strength, and after being on my own for so long in the hospital and at home, it was nice to be part of team again,” reflected Bendy. “Coach Blahut could have just said no from the start. I was already kind of older and I was still going through treatment so I didn’t necessarily bring a lot to the team. But he didn’t.”
“Wrestling is more of a personal challenge for a lot of athletes and sometimes I think they’re trying to work out their inner demons and compete against themselves to see where their limits are,” said Coach Blahut. “I think Anthony is making sure that he’s fighting every day, and he’s going to continue to fight regardless of what’s thrown at him, so who am I to take that away? If students have the heart and dedication – those characteristics that are needed not only to be a successful wrestler but also successful in life – you have to let them make their own decision.”
Bendy wrestled during the 2018-19 season, but earned only one win.
“Last year was pretty tough because I was still finishing treatment. My body wasn’t really ready, but I was mentally ready. I got a win, but it was a tough year overall,” said Bendy.
“He definitely took some lumps,” added Coach Blahut. “But he battled every match. You could see he never gave up. He constantly fought. He didn’t put his head down. We told him it would just take some time for him to get better.”
“This year, he looks a lot healthier, and he’s already won a couple of matches,” continued Blahut. “You could see the smile on his face after he won that first match in November, and then that same day he won another match. It was an emotional day for him, but it was good to see.”
“I’m definitely feeling better, and seeing my progression from last year to now is probably the best part of it all,” said Bendy, who will turn 23 in January. “Once I’m done wrestling, I’ll probably be much better off with my body than if I had not wrestled again.”
Bendy, who is taking business classes at JJC, will earn his associate degree in May. Although unsure of his career path, he plans to transfer to Governor’s State University in the fall. He also thinks about coaching wrestling, something Blahut thinks he could be good at.
“He’s been great to have in the room, helping to mentor some of his younger teammates,” said Coach Blahut. “At the beginning of the year, he shared his story with the freshmen who didn’t know him from last year, but he also told them not to waste their opportunities. You only get to be an athlete for so long in your college career and you have to take advantage of it and be willing to live the life, and I think that’s something he’s trying to pass along to his younger teammates.”
The Wolves host their only home dual meet of the season this Thursday, Dec. 19. JJC will take on Fontbonne University at 5 p.m. and Ancilla College at 6 p.m.