At age 93, Earl Blassingame was already struggling to keep up with the competition in the throwing events at the National Senior Games in St. Paul last month.
“These younger guys, the 85-to-89 group, I couldn’t compete with those people,” he recalled.
Then he stepped back from his third shot put throw, and his leg gave way.
The fall, during track and field competition at the University of St. Thomas, shattered his right elbow and broke his right hip. After nine decades that included four beach invasions in Italy in World War II, deployments to Korea and Vietnam, and wounds that earned him two Purple Hearts, Blassingame said it was some of the worst pain he ever felt.
“I’ll have to admit I was a little bit shook up,” he said. “I thought, ‘What have I done?’ ”
Fast forward a month, and Blassingame is looking forward to going home to McKinney, Texas. Regions Hospital expects to discharge him Wednesday after surgeries, physical therapy and support from a special program at the St. Paul hospital that identifies veterans and provides them with medical and other benefits.
In his sights: the Texas state qualifier in 2016 so he can compete in the javelin, discus, shot put and hammer throw in the National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala., in 2017.
“I just want to keep moving,” he said, “moving and grooving, that’s all.”
Blassingame was in his 80s when his oldest daughter encouraged him to get involved in track and field to stay healthy and fuel his competitive side. They reviewed a list of 20 senior sports for which the National Senior Games Association offered state qualifiers and national championships, and found track a better fit than archery or badminton.
“It’s never too late,” said his daughter, Carol Blassingame, a retired college physical education professor.
Blassingame has since earned 115 medals in throwing events, though a few too many were silver for his liking. A rival named Adolph Hoffman kept beating him.
Blassingame got the upper hand with better throws in a recent competition, but didn’t get the satisfaction of beating his friend in the standings. He had aged into the 90-plus category while Hoffman was still in his 80s.
The rivalry didn’t make its way to the Twin Cities for this summer’s senior nationals, because Hoffman had suffered a rib injury playing baseball. The two talked after Blassingame was also injured, and both hope to resume competition.
Needles and nurses
Blassingame was a high school football star in Slaton, Texas, before joining the Army and serving in World War II in the elite Darby’s Rangers. He still sheds tears when he remembers friends he lost in battle 70 years ago.
“The only real heroes are those guys that never came back,” said Blassingame, who retired as a master sergeant in the 1970s after a second tour in Vietnam.
Regions aided Blassingame through a year-old program called HeroCare, which identifies veterans upon admission and makes sure they are receiving benefits they’re entitled to. In Blassingame’s case, the charitable program funded lodging for his family during his recovery. “Makes me proud to be a veteran to know somebody like him,” said Christine Dawson, a HeroCare advocate at Regions and a Marine veteran.
Blassingame said he remembers listening to the radio as a teen as President Franklin Roosevelt declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The motto serves him well as he seeks to regain strength and reach the century mark in his life.
“The only thing I have to fear is needles, and people waking me up at 4 o’clock in the morning giving me pills,” he said. “That’s not too bad, comparatively.”