Cabalka calls it a career

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By: 
Rob Reischel
After coaching football at Middleton for 45 years, defensive coordinator Tom Cabalka recently announced his retirement./Photo submitted

Tom Cabalka’s path to becoming a coaching legend was highly unorthodox.

And it’s certainly not recommended at home.

In the fall of 1971, Cabalka was a junior tight end at the University of Iowa and was off to a terrific start. In just the fourth week of the season, though, Cabalka suffered a broken neck.

Cabalka missed the rest of the 1971 season, then redshirted in 1972 when he also helped the Iowa coaches. It was then that the 21-year-old Cabalka could see his future.

“Even though I couldn’t play, I had a lot of fun coaching that year,” said Cabalka, who returned to the field in 1973 and regained his starting tight end job. “That’s kind of when I knew my future was going to be coaching at the college level or to get teaching job and coach high school football.”

Luckily for the folks at Middleton High School, it was option No. 2.

Cabalka was hired into the Middleton-Cross Plains School District in 1974 and joined the Cardinals’ sophomore staff. By 1975, Cabalka was named Middleton’s defensive coordinator, a position he’s held ever since.

After 45 years of coaching, though, the 67-year-old Cabalka — a living legend in the coaching world — decided it was time to step away. And Cabalka recently announced his retirement from football.

Cabalka, who is also Middleton’s head boys golf coach, will remain in that role.

“The decision to get out certainly is a tough one,” Cabalka said. “But hey, you’ve got to make that decision at some point. I know the staff is in a good position and I think (new head coach) Jason (Pertzborn) is going to do a great job. The timing was right.”

As word of Cabalka’s decision spread, the tribute’s poured in.

“Tom Cabalka was the heartbeat of the Middleton defense for 40-plus seasons,” said Bennett Goff, a 2012 MHS graduate who played collegiately at Dartmouth. “In my opinion he was definitely the strongest defensive coach in the state. It was truly a privilege to develop and play under him. He brought incredible enthusiasm and passion every day to the field, preaching toughness and responsibility.”

Garrett Graf, a 2016 MHS graduate playing at UW-La Crosse today, agreed with Goff.

“Growing up in Middleton, I always heard about how great of a coach he was and how he led some really great defenses,” Graf said. “It was something growing up that I wanted to be a part of. When I got to high school I could quickly see why Middleton was always so successful on the defensive side of the ball.

“Coach ‘C’ was a tough coach at times, but he was tough for a reason. He really pushed all of his players and wanted nothing but everyone's best. He really stressed the importance of the mental aspect of the game.

“He made sure that the guys playing on Friday nights were prepared to see anything and this really helped guys be successful on the field. No matter what year it was or who was playing, Middleton would always have a good defense because of him.”

 

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Cabalka was a three-sport standout at Edina, Minn., where he was part of a Hornets’ basketball program that won 69 straight games and three straight state titles. But Cabalka’s best sport was football and he eventually became a Hawkeye.

Cabalka played tight end as a freshman, was a starting linebacker as a sophomore, then moved back to tight end as a junior when Iowa had a coaching change. That was also the year when Cabalka broke his neck and many thought his football days were over.

Instead, they were just beginning.

“The doctor told me my fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae were severed,” Cabalka said. “I had to wear a neck brace for quite a while, but after 18 months of healing, they gave me the go ahead again.”

After Cabalka’s senior season, he knew he wanted to coach. The question was where?

Cabalka’s college roommate at Iowa was Dave Simms, whose father Leo just happened to be the head football coach and athletic director at Middleton. Cabalka, a physical education major, interviewed for a P.E. job that split time between Elm Lawn and Kromrey.

Little did Cabalka know that not only would he land that job, he’d also teach in the district through the 2012 school year and coach football through 2018.

He would also marry his college sweetheart, Carol, and the couple would have three children: Jeremy, a son, and daughters Taylor and Megan. Tom and Carol currently have three grandchildren, as well.

“I had opportunities to stay with the Iowa staff as a graduate assistant or to move on,” Cabalka said. “But I knew Middleton. I had visited a few times in college with Dave (Simms) and I really liked it. It worked out really well for us.”

 

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Thigs certainly worked out well for Middleton’s football program, too.

Leo Simms, Earl Lochner, Kurt Gundlach and Tim Simon have been Middleton’s head football coaches since 1974. Pertzborn shared the job with Simon in 2018 and will take over the program in 2019.

The one constant in that time, though, was Cabalka, who coordinated one of the state’s top defenses year-in and year-out.

When Cabalka began coaching in the mid-1970s, you could count on one hand the number of passes many teams would attempt on a given Friday night. Eventually, though, spread offenses and vertical attacks became vogue.

Really, Cabalka didn't care. His defenses were always ready.

“The offense will always dictate what a defensive coach needs to do,” Cabalka said. “But we were usually prepared.”

Oh, were the Cardinals ever prepared.

During the 1972 season when Cabalka helped the Iowa staff, one of his jobs was to drive to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sit in the airport and pick up 16 mm film. It was during that time that Cabalka developed a love for watching film, something that grew to epic proportions at Middleton.

Before school. After school. And into the wee hours of the night.

It would be tough to find a high school coach that watched more film than Cabalka — especially after he retired from teaching.

“I just always felt I better put my time in or I won’t be successful,” said Cabalka, who also coached freshmen baseball and freshmen basketball earlier in his career. “The players won’t be successful. I loved watching film. I knew it would make us better.”

The Cardinals were almost always successful under Cabalka.

Middleton won WIAA Division 2 state titles in 1983 and 1987, when Gundlach was the head coach. The Cardinals won nine conference titles — Badger and Big Eight — during Cabalka’s time.
And in 2011, Cabalka was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame as an assistant coach.

“I couldn’t begin to list all of the things I’ve learned from Tom,” Simon said of Cabalka. “He’s seen everything there is to see on and off the field.

“He’s kind of a sage, someone that everybody on the staff felt comfortable going to at any point in time. And he liked that role of being an older brother or a wise uncle.”

Cabalka also didn’t lose anything off his fastball through the years.

Middleton’s defense was always relentless, typically had terrific speed and often played at a dominant level. In 2018, in what proved to be his final season, Cabalka was named the WBCA’s Assistant Coach of the Year.

“The thing I enjoyed most was working with football players, knowing they wanted to be there,” Cabalka said. “It was their decision to be there and you always saw it in their eyes, a hungriness to get better. That was exciting to me. We always wanted to be the most prepared team and give them the greatest opportunity to make plays.”

 

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Cabalka admits he’s not sure what he’ll do now when football season rolls around.

While Cabalka says, “I won’t avoid going to games,” he’s also not wired to sit in the bleachers next to the know-it-all who wonders why the head coach called a pass play instead of a run.

What Cabalka does know is that while walking away is tough, the time is right.

“The tough part is the relationships you lose with the kids and fellow coaches that you have so much confidence in,” Cabalka said. “It was a tough decision to make, but it’s time to pass the baton on to someone else.

“There are good young coaches that are ready for bigger roles and they’re going to do great things. The program is in great shape.”

Thanks in no small part to Cabalka’s remarkable run.

 

 

 

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