BLAST FROM THE PAST: A look back at two collegiate decathletes in Holinka and FestFULDA — When I was a junior high school student at the Heron Lake Public School in the 1960s, I became intrigued with track and field.
By: Les Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
FULDA — When I was a junior high school student at the Heron Lake Public School in the 1960s, I became intrigued with track and field.
I looked at, checked out and read many books — about my new-found favorite sport — from the school library on the southwest end of second floor.
While some of these books were “teaching” texts, detailing technique and training tips, lots of them were biographies about track and field stars of the past, such as Jim Thorpe, Bob Richards, Bobby Morrow, Glenn Cunningham and Herb Elliot.
But my favorite book was “The Bob Mathias Story.”
Only 17 years old and having recently graduated from Tulare (California) High School as an outstanding all-around athlete, Mathias — competing in just his third ever decathlon — reached the pinnacle of success by winning the 10-event track and field test at the 1948 London Olympics.
After setting a couple of world decathlon records and playing fullback for Stanford in the 1952 Rose Bowl (following the ’51 season) and running a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, Mathias became a two-time Olympic decathlon champion when he won big at Helsinki, Finland in 1952.
I have written about Mathias in this column a couple of times in the past.
Needless to say, he was a childhood hero of mine and an inspiration to spark my interest in track and field.
While I became a moderately versatile “trackster” at Windom High School (we moved to a different farm) by the end of the ‘60s —competing in the pole vault and running middle distance races (440s and 880s, yards in those days) — I never became good enough to compete in a decathlon.
Two area athletes did.
Both while participating in track and field — a decade apart — at the junior college level.
Brad Holinka scores 5,935 points at 1977 NJCAA meet in Texas
Fulda’s Brad Holinka was a three-sport star for the Raiders in the mid-70s, playing football and basketball, while also having outstanding success in track and field.
A starting guard on Fulda’s remarkable 1975 basketball team — which won District 8 and Region 2 titles before finishing third at the Class A (two-classes) state tournament — Holinka has fond memories of the Raiders’ regional victories over Mankato Wilson and Fairmont to qualify for the school’s first trip to the prestigious state boys’ basketball tournament since 1920.
“We had a good, all-around team,” recalled Holinka, who played one season of basketball for Arlo Mogck at Worthington Community College, while also competing in both football and track for the Bluejays. “Winning that game against Mankato Wilson was a classic battle and so much fun. Then we played very well in the finals, scoring lots of points off our fast break.”
Fellow seniors Tim Dirks and Arvid Kramer, along with juniors Kevin Fury and Tom Pittman and sophomore Brian Bunkers joined Holinka in the top six on that stellar FHS team, which finished with a 23-3 overall record.
In the spring, Holinka enjoyed track and field.
A versatile, all-around athlete, Holinka learned well from Fulda throwing coach Verne Olson and placed three straight years at the Class B state meet in the discus, improving from sixth to fourth to second over his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
Although much smaller than most throwers, the 5-11, 172-pound Holinka had a best high school discus throw of 157 feet.
“Coach Olson taught us well,” recalled Holinka of his high school success in the discus ring. “John Bunkers (the Raiders’ head football and track coach) had quite a program going and just about every Fulda athlete went out for track.”
As a senior in the spring of ’75, Holinka was a dual Region 2 champion, winning both the 100-yard dash and the discus.
“I got a great start in the 100,” Holinka remembered. “I had the lead right away, but I know that Harvey Roker (Mankato Wilson, who also played basketball for Wilson) was gaining on me by the finish.”
Holinka qualified to compete in three events at the ’75 state meet — the last of the three years that the Minnesota State High School League
(MSHSL) divided the meet into three classes (AA, A, B) — as he also "kicked off" the Raiders' mile relay team, which finished a close second to eventual state champion Hills-Beaver Creek.
Phil Holinka, Brad’s younger brother, ran the second leg, followed by Brian Bunkers and Steve Verdugt.
“Steve was our fastest guy,” Holinka said of the Raiders’ anchor runner. “He could run the quarter close to 50 seconds flat, while the rest of us ran high 52s or low 53s.”
Fulda finished right behind the Patriots in the District 8 meet, the Region 2 meet and the ’75 Class B state meet, taking second place each time.
“Those were great races,” summed up Holinka. “I always raced against Danny Deragisch on the leadoff leg and Steve was usually chasing Kelly Demuth on the anchor. You could hear Hugo (Goehle, H-BC’s legendary long-time basketball and track coach) from way on the other side, yelling:
“Bring it on home, Kelly,”
The Patriots clocked a winning time of 3:28.2 at the state meet at St. Cloud Apollo, with Verdugt and the Raiders crossing next, timed at 3:28.9.
“I had the chance to compete in three events at the state meet my senior year,” summed up Holinka. “We finished second in the mile relay, I placed second in the discus and competed in the prelims of the 100-yard dash, but I didn’t make the finals.”
Holinka’s fourth high school event was the 440-yard relay.
“That’s what I did,” he recalled. “Ran the 100 open, threw the discus and ran on both the 440 and mile relays.”
Holinka’s best 100-yard dash time was a 10.1, which would be equivalent to an 11.1 100-meter time today.
Wacker encourages Holinka to try the decathlon for the Bluejays
Ty Wacker, who had coached high school track at Gaylord in the early 1970s, was Holinka’s football coach at WCC and became the Bluejays’ track and field coach (after coaching baseball for three seasons) in the spring of ’77.
“I remember Coach Wacker encouraged me to try the decathlon,” recalled Holinka, who had done several of the 10 events over his career.
“The 16-pound shot was big and the college high hurdles were high,” remembered Holinka about the 42-inch barriers. “I couldn’t five step ‘em and I couldn’t alternate, so I five-stepped them, but did OK.”
Here is a quick decathlon lesson.
The 10 events are spread over two days. Points are rewarded according to a performance table for each event.
A near perfect score — close to the existing world record — in an event is 1,000 points.
No one has ever scored 10,000 points in a decathlon, but Olympic champions usually score over 7,000 points.
Bryan Clay, who won the 2008 Olympic decathlon title in Beijing, has an all-time best score of 8,882 points.
Mathias, who won his second gold medal in ’52 by an amazing 912 points, scored 7,887 points at Helsinki — after scoring 7,139 to win a close battle at London in ’48.
The scoring tables have been adjusted several times between the decathlons of Mathias and Clay. So, Clay’s actual point spread over Mathias is wider than those point totals indicate.
On the first day, the athletes compete in the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter dash.
The second day, the decathletes finish by competing in the 110-meter high hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run.
“Brad was better on the second day,” recalled Wacker about his Bluejay track and field star. “He was so strong and athletic. He did very well at both the discus and javelin and worked hard to make himself a pole vaulter and a miler.”
Holinka competed in a pair of decathlons in the spring of ’77, winning the event at the Anoka-Ramsey Invitational in late April.
Teammate Larry Schmidt, from Ceylon, finished fifth in the A-R decathlon, giving Holinka some good competition and camaraderie within the team.
“Larry was a very good athlete, too,” recalled Wacker. “His sons, Adam and Alex, play amateur baseball for the Fairmont Martins.”
Holinka also competed in a larger decathlon at South Dakota State in Brookings before entering the Region 13 meet at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Scoring 5,883 points, Holinka won the regional title and qualified to compete in the NJCAA National Meet in Pasadena, Texas on May 17-18.
“Holinka is region champion” ran a headline on the Monday, May 7, 1977 Daily Globe sports’ pages.
Fellow sophomore Pat Kemp placed second in the triple jump and also qualified for the national meet.
Flying down to Texas, Holinka competed well in the national meet, improving his point total to 5,935 and finishing 14th in a field of about 30 national qualifiers.
“It was quite an experience,” he summed up. “I was not fantastic at anything — just a little bit above average at most of the 10 events, which allowed me to score fairly well.”
Holinka’s speed certainly helped him in both the 100 and 400, as well as the hurdles.
“I learned the javelin and it probably became my best event,” he recalled. “I had a lot of experience with the discus and had put in a lot of miles to get better at the 1,500. The high jump was probably my weakest event, only going about 5-4.”
But the regional championship and trip to Texas to compete against other great all-around athletes put the capper on a fine two-year WCC career for Holinka, who Wacker says he “didn’t use enough” in football.
“Brad was such a good athlete,” Wacker said. “I should have utilized him more. He should have played quarterback where he could have touched the ball on every play and been so much more involved in our offense.”
After completing his two years at WCC, Holinka went on to play two years of football — as a running back — at Mankato State.
“I tried to do track, too, but it was just too much,” he concluded. “Football really took a lot of my time at Mankato, but I did get to run the ball a lot”
Fest runs 400-meter hurdles at Odessa, Texas in 1988 NJCAA meet
Heron Lake’s Mark Fest — who like Holinka — was a three-sport standout (football, basketball and track) for Heron Lake-Okabena before graduating in 1986, also competed in several decathlons during his first two years of college.
Fest played quarterback for the Waseca Rams, a two-year agricultural school — the University of Minnesota at Waseca — during the autumns of 1986 and 1987.
Fest played well at Waseca, having one of his best games in pouring rain and wind at home in a victory over WCC, during his freshman season, as he ran for two touchdowns and passed for another.
“Wayne (Heisinger, his high school football and track coach) was there,” recalled Fest, who broke his collar bone late in the first game of his senior year. “He thought I did pretty well, playing quarterback.”
Fest, in fact, later walked at the University of Minnesota and made the home-game squad in the fall of 1989.
Mark’s exploits with the Golden Gophers were featured in a “Blast-From-the-Past” on Dec. 22, 2006.
In the spring, Fest — a baseball player at heart, who still plays amateur ball with the Heron Lake Lakers — excelled in track and field for the Rams.
“I always did a lot of events and was willing to try just about anything,” Fest said of his quest to attempt the decathlon. “I think I did three each year. One of my first scores my freshman year was 4,377 points.
“I’m pretty sure I scored over 5,000 my second year.”
On May 10, 1988, Fest completed an amazing all-around day at the Region 13 meet on the home track at Waseca.
Here’s what he did.
Fest won the 400-meter intermediate hurdles (56.2) and qualified to run the event at the NJCAA national meet in Odessa, Texas.
He also finished second in the decathlon (doing the first five events the previous day), placed fourth in the 110-meter high hurdles and added a sixth-place performance in the javelin.
So, he actually competed in 13 events over the two days — the 10 events of the decathlon, plus competing indivually in the high hurdles, intermediate hurdles and the javelin.
“I probably liked the javelin best,”Fest concluded. “It was similar to throwing a football or a baseball. I liked the hurdles, too. I couldn’t three-step the highs, but I was able to alternate legs, so I four-stepped them and it was one of my better events.”
Fest, like Holinka, is an example of an athlete who loved the challenge of competition and tried the decathlon as a means to test their overall athletic ability while competing in junior college track and field — many years ago.
The decathlon competition will be part of the Olympics in the coming week — hopefully NBC will show lots of it.