“Sodbuster” Kenny Jay, who has died at the age of 85, is proof that you don’t you have to be a winner in the ring to be fondly remembered.
He was one most memorable figures in the history of the American Wrestling Association.
Ed Wiskoski, who wrestled in the AWA as Colonel DeBeers, recalled being out in the woods in the Dakotas, hunting with Wahoo McDaniel and Greg Gagne. When they met fans, there were questions. “A lot of people that I ran into, it wasn’t, ‘Hey, where’s the Bruiser at? Where’s the Crusher at? What’s this guy doing now? Hey, what’s that guy doing?’ It was all about, ‘Whatever happened to Kenny Jay? Did he starve to death? He never won. Just wondering what happened to him.'”
So goes the legacy of the man born Kenny John Benkowski, but who made his way into hearts as Kenny Jay — a name suggested by his sister.
He certainly had no problem with being on the losing end on television. “I struggled. I took the beating and kept on ticking,” Jay told this writer. “I always, always gave wrestling my 110%, no matter who I was with or against. It wasn’t that I was scared of anybody.”
Or, here’s another way of putting it: “They would book me with Mad Dog [Vachon]; I didn’t have a prayer.”
Benkowski was born on March 27, 1937, in Holdingford, Minnesota, to John and Francis Benkowski, on a dairy farm. He roughhoused with his siblings, learning to take down calves. A guard and tackle on the Holdingford High School football team, the young Kenny was more of a manager on the other teams, like basketball and baseball. There was no television around, and he had no idea what professional wrestling was until he graduated and was in Milwaukee, working at a machine shop.
“I saw an ad in the paper for someone who was looking to train people for professional wrestling,” Kenny Jay told Scott Teal’s Whatever Happened To …? newsletter. “I didn’t have anything else to do, so I answered it.” He trained with Bob Hokinson for about three months and then learned more on Chief Little Wolf’s carnival shows, where they took on all comers.
Even during a two-year stint in the US Army Jay took bookings, whether while on leave at home, or in Europe — Minneapolis promoter Wally Karbo had provided him with contacts abroad.
After his honorable discharge, Jay went into the landscaping business with his brother. “We did mostly sod work and rocks. That’s how I got the nickname ‘Sodbuster,'” Jay told Teal. “Wally Karbo stuck that on me. Then Al DeRusha, the announcer, came up with the name of the ‘Very Capable Kenny Jay.'”
The work ethic that Jay learned on the farm and then landscaping shone through. “If I had to go to a little town to wrestle, I’d leave at 1 or 2 o’clock and go wrestle,” he recalled. Then he’d drive back home, wake up early, and lay sod. The wrestling might bring him an extra $20 … for a couple of minutes of work.
He turned down opportunities to go elsewhere. “Wally [Karbo] wanted to send me to Omaha because they needed some wrestlers there, for six months, and I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ I didn’t want to leave my family,” Jay said.
The hustle earned him respect.
“Kenny was a great guy and he gave to wrestling,” said “The Big K” Stan Kowalski in 2011. “He was wrestling guys that outweighed him by 50, 60 pounds, and he kept coming and he never complained. He didn’t bitch about this or that. He was just one swell guy. He always did the best he could in the ring, and that’s all anybody ever asked — do the best you can.”
A villain only at the very beginning of his career, Kenny Jay grew into a fan favorite and never stopped being loved. The wrestlers and promoters appreciated him as well, and could put him in trusted spots — like facing Muhammad Ali in 1975.
That came out of the blue. Karbo called Jay early in the morning and asked him to get to Chicago that night to face the boxing star. Jay recalled the experience to Teal:
I couldn’t talk. I lost my voice. [Karbo] said, “Well, at least I didn’t give you a week’s time to get nervous.” They flew me to Chicago later in the morning, we wrestled in the Chicago Amphitheatre, and they flew me back. Everything was paid for and they gave me a thousand dollars. It was a great experience.
Other times, Jay was figured into some major storylines.
There was the time Verne Gagne and The Crusher chose Kenny Jay as a partner to face — and defeat — the team of Larry Hennig, Harley Race and Chris Markoff. Jay was often a foil to manager Bobby Heenan. And there were plenty of times he was put in there to have a competitive match against one of the other enhancement talents, like Kenny Yates. “Sometimes we had a whole half-hour match and we went to a draw,” recalled Jay.
AWA fans often bring up the epic battle between George “Scrap Iron” Gadaski; for that matter, so do the wrestlers.
“Verne [Gagne] and Wally [Karbo] came with the idea, you know the guys that come in to do the TVs, and they’re smashed down every week, they don’t wrestle every day, they aren’t in real good shape most of the time, they’re smaller guys — they do a great job of making all the stars look great. They came up with the idea of a loser’s match, and whoever won that match got a belt and all that stuff,” explained Baron von Raschke in 2013. “It was two guys, Kenny Jay and George Gadaski.”
The Baron continued: “They built that match up and The Crusher was wrestling and they made it seem like he needed a partner, and there’s this clinking, clanking under the ring, and he jumped out of the ring and he pulls this guy out, and it’s George ‘Scrap Iron’ Gadaski. He throws him in the ring and he says, ‘You’re going to be my partner tonight!’ He was taking on Mad Dog and somebody else, I don’t know who. From there, they build up a match between George ‘Scrap Iron’ Gadaski and Kenny Jay, a loser’s league match, and it sold out everywhere, that match.”
Jay, interviewed for The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Storytellers book, loved to talk about wrestling the other carpenters — especially the feud with Gadaski. “We went from town to town, from state to state even, Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver, and Omaha and Fargo. It was nice. I won half of them and he won half, or I won three-quarters — I can’t remember.”
Kenny married his wife, Diane, on February 8, 1964. In 1984, Jay slowed down his in-ring work, his arthritis being an issue. He worked as a “Sodbuster” for 35 years and then worked with his son, Tim, in lawn maintenance.
He was a popular figured at various events, whether it was the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion — which honored him with a Men’s Wrestling Award in 2005 — or in various fundraisers in and around his home in Minnesota. Jay was always lively and friendly, and quick with a quip. At the CAC, he recalled facing Nick Bockwinkel: “To put him over I almost had to lay him down and put him on top of me,” and Butcher Vachon: “You gave me everything except your jock strap. It wouldn’t have fit anyway.”
Further details of his passing on February 2, 2023, are not known at this time. His death was confirmed by his family.
As The Rock always preached, Jay knew his role: “You had to have somebody on the opening bouts. … so they got this going, and it got over real good. The houses were packed, because they had good main events. It wasn’t only with Scrap Iron, but it was with Ken Yates. We had a deal going just with the guys that are on the bottom. It gave us work and we loved it.”
— with files from Steve Johnson
ADDENDUM: The Celebration of Life for Kenny Jay will be held Sunday, February 26th from 4-8 pm at American Legion Post 643 in Savage, Minnesota.