Navy’s Peter Steele Blair: Tough & Intimidating (2009 Hall of Fame Inductee)

By Roger Moore

STILLWATER, Okla. – On the mat Peter Steele Blair was as tough and intimidating as anybody who’s ever put on a wrestling singlet.

Off the mat he put forth the same effort in regards to his fellow man and service to his country.

Blair, who died June 29, 1994, after a short bout with cancer, will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum next June as part of the Class of 2009’s Distinguished Members.

Joe Gattuso, a two-time All-American, was a teammate of Blair from 1951-55 at the Naval Academy. Midshipmen head coach Ray Swartz tabbed Gattuso, a 167-pounder, and Blair, a 177-pounder, the “Goldust Twins.”

“I don’t really remember why, they just called us that because we were special at the time,” said Gattuso, who was also fullback for Navy’s 1954 Sugar Bowl-winning team. “We worked with each other quite a bit. He was absolutely as tough as anybody I wrestled.”

“The thing about him was that he could go forever, his endurance was pretty incredible.”

While at the Naval Academy, Blair compiled a 57-5 record “he did not lose a match as a junior and senior “and won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956.

Swartz, a 1990 inductee into the NWHOF called Blair “the greatest I ever coached.”

“He’s a true champion, capable of turning his nervous system off or on almost at will,” said Swartz in an article for All Hands in July of 1956. “Before a match, Pete will fool most people with his apparent disinterest. But when the match begins, he’s as crafty and dangerous as a stalking tiger. He’s a terrific competitor.”

Were it not for a growth spurt, Blair may have never made it to the mat.

At just 5-foot-6 as a high school senior at Granby High School, Blair was not part of Billy Martin’s first wrestling team in 1949 “Ed Eichelberger, also part of the Class of 2009, was Martin’s first star at Granby, winning three state titles.

Blair enlisted in the Navy at the age of 16, and during his recruit training grew an amazing 6 inches. By the time his two years at Bainbridge Prep Academy were done that total was 7.5 inches.

“Martin started varsity wrestling at Granby when I was a senior,” said Blair in a 1978 story for the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star. “He picked his team from an intramural tournament. When I got to Annapolis I told them I was from Granby and they thought I was already an established wrestler.”

In Blair’s final collegiate match he pinned Ken Leuer of the University of Iowa in the 1956 NCAA finals. Leuer would win the 1957 NCAA championship at 191.

“He was an individual who certainly understood what he was doing on the mat,” said Leuer, elected to the NWHOF as an Outstanding American in 2002. “He was well-conditioned and very strong. I remember that match very well because it was the last match I lost in college.”

“I also remember (Blair) as being a complete gentleman as well.”

Dan Muthler, a champion in 1973, is the only other Navy wrestler to win an NCAA title.

Blair’s post-college career was short, although very successful.

Soon after winning the 1956 NCAA title, Blair pinned five opponents in winning a National AAU title. Two weeks later he was the Olympic Trials champion at 192 pounds and would be elected team captain by his freestyle teammates.

In Melbourne at the 1956 Olympics, Blair would earn a bronze medal, finishing behind Iran’s Gholamreza Takhiti and the Soviet Union’s Boris Kulaev.

“It was a great honor to participate in the Olympics,” said Blair in 1978. “I won a bronze medal. I think I could have probably done better, but nervousness detracted from my efficiency. Four years later they invited me back, to try out for the Olympic team, but I rejected it.”

Academy graduates were expected to be officers in their respective fields. Unlike today, competitive careers in athletics were not the norm.

An officer in the Navy from 1955 until his retirement in 1974, Blair served on ships and submarines and taught at the Academy.

He returned to Annapolis in the summer of 1966 for a 3-year tour as an instructor in the Physics Department. He served as Officer Representative for the Midshipmen wrestling team coached by Ed Peery, a member of the Class of 1980’s Distinguished Members.

“The thing I remember about Pete Blair more than anything was the strength he had,” Peery said. “He had incredible hand strength. Danny Hodge got a lot more attention, but Pete was right there. He’d been off the mat for awhile when he came back (in 1966) but he still crushed everybody in the room.”

“As tough as Pete was as a wrestler, he was just a real salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.”

The son of Rear Admiral Leon N. Blair, Peter Steele Blair married his wife Margot in June of 1955. They have seven children “Barbara, Peter, Lynn, Sarah, Elaine, Mary and John.

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