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No ordinary Joe: Former EKU coach dies at 79

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.

Several years ago, Joe Blankenship began sending out text messages each morning with a Bible verse attached to a group of people who received a scripture almost daily. I looked forward to those texts and they helped me immensely.

I considered myself blessed to be a part of his daily devotional, considering the hundreds of young men Joe coached during his long coaching career that spanned nearly two decades at Eastern Kentucky University.

Joe passed away last Friday at age 79 following a lengthy battle with cancer and, just as he played and coached, Blankenship worked until the end and didn’t give up without a fight, because that’s what coaches do, even in retirement.

Blankenship was part of two national championships as an assistant coach under Roy Kidd at Eastern in 1979 and 1982 and remained on Kidd’s staff until he retired in 1995. Unlike coaches of this era, Blankenship remained a loyal Colonel and remained a faithful follower after turning in his whistle and clipboard. He later served as president of the Colonel Club from 1998-99 and could be seen at most football games at Roy Kidd Stadium years after retirement.

It was at the end of his coaching career that I forged a friendship with Joe. I even did the story announcing his retirement. It was a newspaper clipping, which to this day remains a family treasure. His son Troy said the article remains a family favorite, for which I am thankful.

Although Joe spent his life playing and coaching the game of football, his faith certainly stood out above all. I experienced that first-hand when I played a round of golf with Joe and his wife Brenda in the Colonel Club Classic. I don’t remember the score we posted that day or even what year it was exactly, but I do recall the conversations we had about our faith and how it played a role in each of our lives.

Much like his coaching career, Blankenship was an influence at First Baptist Church in Richmond, where he served as a deacon and was a trustee. Much like myself, Bill Fort came to know Joe when he was called to serve as pastor at First Baptist.

“We absolutely clicked,” Fort said. “We’ve had countless lunches, have been together in more meetings than I can count, and have played numerous rounds of golf. My life has been better and my ministry has been stronger because of my journey with Joe.”

Through his faith and simply just his nature, Joe made you feel loved and appreciated. Fort said he will “smile every time I think of him” for the rest of his life.

“His sayings will reverberate in my heart,” Fort said. “After every lunch, he would say, ‘Bill, when it comes to eating, you’re first team.’ When I would hit a good golf shot, he would say, ‘You’re stronger than eight rows of onions.’”

In retirement Joe and Brenda were able to spend time with their children and grandchildren and like Pastor Fort and myself, they got to know the kind of man Joe truly was.

“Joe was one of a kind, and I am abundantly grateful that God gave me the privilege of sharing the journey with him,” Fort said.

My moments on that journey with Joe will never be forgotten.

KEITH TAYLOR is sports editor of Kentucky Today.