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Iconic Ripon coach passes away at 85
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It’s been nearly 50 years since Jim Stuart and the late Manuel Abeyta walked off the football field together, the glow of victory painted across their faces.

Back then, Stuart was a fourth-year for the Ripon High Indians.

Abeyta was the hard-nosed football and track coach who seemed to love the expression, “Take another lap.”

The glow was produced by a 20-0 victory over Escalon.

Stuart still keeps a photo of that moment – as a reminder of their triumph that night and the softer side of “Coach” very few ever got to see.

“It’s my senior year and we’re walking off the field together. We beat Escalon that night. It’s always big when you beat your rival,” Stuart said proudly.

“The whole team is out there and you can barely make out some of the faces, but Coach has got this big ol’ smile.”

Abeyta passed away Sunday at a senior living home surrounded by family, according to friend Joe O’Leary and a statement released by Ripon High.

“The guy was an icon. Anybody who went to Ripon High between 1960 and 1995, however long he was there, could tell you something about Coach,” said Ripon athletic director Chris Johnson, also a former student.  “The guy was a character.”

Abeyta died at the age of 85, but remains forever young in the still frames and memories of his former students, colleagues and neighbors.

He lived out his final years at Prestige Senior Living in northeast Manteca.

“I always had a lot of respect for him. He got a lot of kids to come out and play,” Stuart said. “He was the PE teacher, so he had everybody … even the knuckleheads. He worked on you to get you to come out and play football.”

Abeyta’s passion for sports wasn’t contained solely to the gridiron. The PE teacher also coached track, cross country, junior varsity basketball and golf.

The old gymnasium is partially named in his honor.

His coaching career enjoyed a full-circle moment in the early 1990s when he coached Stuart’s daughters, Sara and Wendy, in cross country and golf, respectively.

Wendy would eventually turn that tutelage into a career as a golf professional.

Ever the proud papa, Stuart keeps that photo close, too; the one of the four of them together – he, Coach and his daughters.

“One thing that was amazing about him was that he coached two of my daughters. Here’s a man that stuck around long enough to do that,” Stuart said. “He coached me in the mid-60s. He coached my oldest daughter (Sara) in cross country in 1990, and then he coached my other daughter (Wendy) in golf in 1992-93.”

Abeyta graduated from Idaho State and was a member of the university’s boxing team. He was hired to teach PE and coach football at Ripon High in 1961, and would maintain the PE Department until his retirement in 1993.

Abeyta is often described as a gruff, no-nonsense teacher and coach.

“He was very smiley and had a real twinkle in his eye. He enjoyed a good laugh,” said O’Leary, who was hired as Ripon’s principal in 1962 and retired alongside Abeyta 31 years later.

“When he was in the classroom, it was ‘This is my turf and I’m the drill sergeant and you are the recruits.’ He was very military in that respect.”

During his retirement roast, hosted by John Franscella and the Ripon Quarterback Club, one crowd member playfully razzed Abeyta and his rigid classroom demeanor.

“This one guy gets up towards the end. ‘You know I’ve been sitting here listening to everything about Coach Abeyta. You almost had me in tears, but let’s be honest, there’s not one person in this building tonight who didn’t think at one point or another this is the biggest a--hole whoever lived on this earth,’ ” Franscella recalled. “Everyone started clapping. It was the funniest thing.”

Even Coach chuckled.

Yet, he had a heart of gold – and it showed itself when you least expected it.

Johnson moved to Ripon in 1983 from Pocatello, Idaho. He was the new kid with no link to the community or his classmates.

Abeyta took him under his wing. The two became quick friends because of Abeyta’s college ties to Idaho State (in Pocatello) and his passion for boxing.

“He was the first guy to make me feel welcomed,” Johnson said.

“His bald head and serious demeanor camouflaged a heart of gold,” he later wrote in a statement released Monday night.

Abeyta also looked out for the underprivileged student. During his classes, he often passed around a rice bowl and a proposition: If his students filled the bowl with money, he would grant them a free-play day.

“At the time, we thought it was Coach’s slush fund. We assumed coach was just extorting us,” Johnson quipped. “But what he did, he had good intentions behind it. Over the years, I’m sure he collected thousands and it all went to a good cause. He was doing it for the kids that couldn’t afford stuff.”

Franscella wouldn’t see that side of Abeyta until long after high school. He was, according to Abeyta, the only student to flunk his class.

“Me and Coach,” Franscella started, “during my high school years, we weren’t exactly on the same mailing list.”

The two would strike up a friendship in the oddest of places – a tavern high in the Sierra during separate vacations in the 1970s.

“We sat there that night and got our whistles wet and talked about things,” Franscella said. “We bonded that weekend.

“Coach would say, ‘Franscella, you’re the only guy I think I flunked in PE and you know what, you turned out pretty well.’ We had a different kind of relationship.

“What I realized from Coach, to do what he did for all those years, in getting all of us, he really loved the kids and he loved his job.”