Thole: Tales of the tape — Bealka was a treasure

Stillwater good guy Gene “Taco” Bealka passed away last week at the age of 89. He served as trainer for the Ponies for three decades and was adored by coaches and players alike. Taco, left, is shown helping former quarterback Jeff Zignego off the field in 1989 when the Ponies were the state runner-up.
Stillwater good guy Gene “Taco” Bealka passed away last week at the age of 89. He served as trainer for the Ponies for three decades and was adored by coaches and players alike. Taco, left, is shown helping former quarterback Jeff Zignego off the field in 1989 when the Ponies were the state runner-up.

I met Gene Bealka when I was taking graduate classes at the University of Minnesota in 1968-69 when he was employed at the Minnesota State Department of Education.

It was a few years before running into him again in Stillwater — but I’m sure glad that it happened.

In 1971, I was hired to be the head football coach at SAHS and our athletic director at that time C.J. Knoche could see the value of having a trainer to free up the coaching staffs on game night.

Taco also served on the Stillwater City Council and always active in the community.
Taco also served on the Stillwater City Council and always active in the community.

Bealka was soon hired and was a fixture on our sideline for 29 action-packed seasons. This guy could tape ankles and knees with the best of them and he had more to offer the Big Red than the job required.

We became fast friends when I coached the South All-Stars in 1976 and Bealka was the trainer, a position that he held for 10 years. In those days, the Shrine prep all-state camp was a full two weeks at Macalester and the game was played at Met Stadium. Bealka and I got to know and understand each other.

Gene was an outstanding trainer who picked up the “Taco” moniker when PA man Jim Ratte called him Ricardo Montalban because of his mustache. I don’t know why, but Taco evolved from that day forward.

Taco left us on Dec. 19 at the age of 89.

I think most of us remember that the man called Taco was a former member of the Stillwater City Council for eight years, SAHS trainer for 30, a bail bondsman, an athletic equipment refurbisher and he also served on Washington County commissions, drove school bus and was a substitute teacher in ISD 834.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that he was a WWII vet, started the hockey program at Osseo High School and later served as athletic director at that very school. I almost forgot that he developed youth sports programs that evolved into the Brooklyn Park Athletic Association.

I have so many fond memories of my dear friend that it would contain more words than “Gone With the Wind”. I’ll never forget the look on Taco’s face when during a game at Anoka he suggested a play he wanted Jerry Foley and moi to call. Foley shot back: “Will you go back and tend to the sick and the lame.”

In 1993 at the age of 70, he received his private pilot license to fly single engine aircraft and offered to fly to football games at North Dakota State University. I always balked at the idea, especially after he turned 80.

Foley chronicled in our book “From Veer to Eternity — Coaching a Football Dynasty” the time-honored Taco-isms:


Geno and Taco-isms —Gene Bealka, the athletic trainer at Stillwater High School over a span of three decades, was a mainstay of the sideline of every Pony football game. Besides tending to the sick and wounded, Taco, as he was affectionately called, was somewhat of a big brother, father figure to the athletes. Players not only admired and respected him, but were able to confide in him as well. Along with his adeptness at treating and preventing injuries and getting injured players healed and back into action as soon as possible, Geno was a bit of a philosopher. Thole, recognizing his impact on the team, had him make a regular appearance at the pregame preparations held the evening before the game. When finished with his instructions on diet, bed rest, water intake and sideline procedures, Taco always finished up with some words of wisdom for the team. These messages, eventually called “Taco-isms”, became a ritual that players always looked forward to. An example of one of his pearls to live by was: “Some people see giants as too big to hit, while others see them as too big to miss.” The pregame routine was never complete without a Taco-ism.


A dozen former Ponies playing college hoops

No less than 12 former Ponies girls’ basketball players are cavorting on college hardwood floors this winter. I already mentioned Taylor Stippel, a star junior forward at Michigan Tech, a few weeks back. Another junior is Tess Lueders, a guard at UW-River Falls, and forward Megan Meads at Carleton.

There are a pair of seniors in forward Alyssa Van Klei at Minnesota State-Mankato and guard Whitney Novak at Gustavus. Sophomores include point guard Abbie Geraci at Presentation College and guard Kristin Sahr at UW-Eau Claire.

Freshmen are abundant with forward/center Savannah Handevidt at Minnesota State-Moorhead, guard Anne Boldt at Grinnell, forward Kyli Van Klei at St. Cloud State, guard Alex Hein at Luther and forward Alex Fosse at UW-Stout.

Former Ponies girls’ coaches George Hoeppner and Don Gettinger believe this is a record number of college players at one time.


In the huddle

Junior midfielder Leah Nitardy was named Most Valuable Player by the girls’ soccer squad after the team’s 12-5-2 season. Nitardy was named to the all-conference team along with midfielder Maddie Schaak, junior defenseman Natalie Johnson and defender Allie Boucher. Schaak was an honorable mention all-state player and listed as honorable mention all-conference were Megan Holthaus, Hannah Okerstrom, Jaime Purdie and Shelby Litchy. Nitardy and Johnson will serve as co-captains next fall…. For the record, the top five Ponies all-around gymnastics scores belong to Caroline Hilpisch ’06 (38.825), Alyssa Fedor ’08 (38.25), Karina Schaub ’08 (37.725), Kelsey Reinke ’08 (37.70) and Danielle Sneden (37.55)…. The Stillwater girls’ Nordic ski team has won nine state titles since 1982 and have crowned five individual state champions, starting with Ann Jones in 1983. Ponies head coach Kris Hansen won in 1985 and again in 1986, Shelby Strong won the classical title in 1998 and Jessie Diggins took the hat trick (if there is such a thing) in 2007, 2008 and 2010 before Nora Gilbertson joined the state champion club last year. Gilbertson is currently skiing for St. Olaf. Hansen is in her 12th year coaching the Big Red and shares the head coaching duties with Torry Kraftson (sixth year) and the godfather Bill Simpson (35 years). Five girls share the captain chairs in the persons of Vessa Pearsall, Shelby Ahrendt, Haley Beech, Sammi Potts and Clara Wicklund. Look for the Ponies to battle Roseville and Forest Lake for conference honors…. Former Ponies swimming ace Adam Rosell is captain of the team at Gustavus that is expected to make a run at the MIAC gold while freshmen Paul Knaak and Evan Maxwell are freshman swimmers on the team at St. John’s…. Former Chevals standout Becky (Rosenbush) Christensen is a lawyer and resides in New Prague with her husband Tyler Christensen and children Alexandra, 7, Regan, 5, and Avery, 1…. My advice to all athletes and coaches is that if you want to be a champion, then get to work…. Don’t tread on me, because it hurts…. finis


Today’s rumination #598

Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

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George Thole retired as head football coach at Stillwater after the 1999 season. He ranks among Minnesota’s top coaches in history with a 285-69-2 record (.805 winning percentage), including four state titles and two state runner-up finishes among 22 championship seasons. He co-authored (with Jerry Foley) “Coaching the Veer Offense,” second edition. His column appears Thursdays in the Gazette. To contact the hall of fame coach e-mail: [email protected]