Dunbar football coach Ben Eaton - who guided the Poets to two state titles and whose gentle, soft-spoken manner and willingness to hug his players made him a widely revered figure in the community of Baltimore City athletics - died suddenly yesterday while exercising.
Eaton, 58, an imposing presence on the sideline and in the hallways thanks to his large frame, broad shoulders and closely shaved head, taught physical education at Dunbar and was an assistant athletic director. According to friends, Eaton underwent back surgery at Union Memorial Hospital earlier this month, but just a few days after the procedure, he saw visitors and seemed to be in good health and good spirits.
"He was joking and laughing," said Bob Wade, the Baltimore City coordinator of athletics and a friend and former teammate of Eaton's at Morgan State. "We told him to take his time getting back to coaching."
Wilde Lake football coach Doug DuVall, one of Eaton's closest friends, said he spoke to Eaton late Sunday night on the phone about his excitement over the coming season.
"The last thing he said to me was just classic Ben," DuVall said. "He said, 'I love ya, man.' Without even thinking, I said, 'I love you' back. I never thought that would be the last thing I'd ever say to him."
Eaton's wife, Sandra, called friends yesterday morning to tell them that Eaton collapsed while doing exercises for his back around 10 a.m., the victim of an apparent pulmonary embolism. He was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he died.
"He was such a good human being," said DuVall, who became friends with Eaton when the two coached together at an all-star game 15 years ago. "He was such a good example for kids - black kids, white kids, it didn't make a difference to him. He just wanted them to experience success. He wanted them to believe in character. ... It hurts so much to lose him."
A message left at the Eatons' home yesterday was not returned. Several friends said the family was traveling to Mercersburg Academy, a prep school in Pennsylvania, to bring home Ben Eaton Jr., Eaton's son, for the funeral.
Eaton Jr., a standout linebacker at Gilman and the Eatons' only child, was named The Sun's All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year last season.
"It's a tremendous loss to high school football," Wade said. "Ben was well-respected throughout the state of Maryland, not just by public school coaches, but by private school coaches, as well. More importantly, it's a big loss to family and to the Dunbar students. Ben was a centerpiece at Dunbar."
The high school canceled football practice yesterday and had crisis counselors on hand to meet with the team as a whole, and then with players individually.
Edmondson football coach Dante Jones, who was coached by Eaton when Eaton was an assistant at Dunbar, said he was devastated by the news and that it would take a long time for him to come to terms with Eaton's death. Jones said he considered Eaton a mentor and a friend, and that part of his own coaching style had come from watching Eaton.
"He wasn't the kind of coach who hollered much," Jones said. "He was a teacher, a true teacher of the game. He knew how to motivate you by getting inside your head, which was a lot more important for kids in the long run. No matter how old you were, he would give you a big smile and a big hug when he saw you. That was his style. I've probably known him 13 or 14 years, and I've maybe shook his hand twice. Handshakes were too distant to him. He wanted to give you a hug."
Said DuVall: "You had to brace yourself every time you saw Big Ben coming. Because you knew you were getting a huge bearhug."
Eaton, who graduated from Douglass and Morgan State, was hired at Dunbar in 1993 to coach the offensive line, and he helped the Poets win state titles in 1994 and 1995.
He became the school's head coach in 1998, succeeding Stanley Mitchell, and led the Poets to a 77-30 record over nine seasons and state titles in 2004 and 2006. Eaton was named The Sun's All-Metro Coach of the Year in 2004. The 2006 title, a 38-23 victory over Fort Hill, came on Eaton's 58th birthday.
"We lost a good human being and a strong father figure who raised kids and players to be respectful," said longtime Baltimore coach Pete Pompey, who had Eaton on his staff during his brief tenure at Dunbar. "Ben worked very, very hard to give the kids direction."
Along the way, Eaton also helped bolster Dunbar's reputation as a fearless program, one willing to challenge any team, no matter how big or how wealthy, anywhere in the state. Dunbar, despite a paucity of resources and depth, regularly scheduled games against large private schools as a way to measure itself against the best.
"We always kind of feel like it's the city vs. everyone else when it comes to Baltimore's reputation around the state, which is why I try to schedule tough teams every year," Eaton told The Sun in 2005. "We don't always have the best facilities around in the city, so it's like people think they're better than us. I hear it even more now because people don't think we can repeat. So we're like, 'Let's show them what we teach at this little school in Baltimore.'"
At the same time, Eaton was extremely popular with his fellow coaches, in part because he went out of his way to spread the seeds of his success. He made it a point to let other Baltimore City football teams use Dunbar's weight room during the summer, during the year, and even before games, when the Poets had one of the only weight rooms in the city.
"If I've got it, you've got it; that's what I'm all about," Eaton told The Sun in 2006.
DuVall said Eaton would be remembered as a father figure, a no-nonsense disciplinarian who molded young boys into men.
"He was the pied piper with those kids in Baltimore, because you knew whatever he said, it was him being honest. It was the truth," DuVall said. "It was never about Ben. It was always about those kids. ... He was a man's man, a John Wayne character who was as tough as can be, but he was good to everyone. I never heard him curse the entire time I knew him. God is getting a heck of a football coach."
Ben Eaton 1948-2007
• Most recent job: Dunbar football coach, assistant athletic director, physical education instructor
• Coaching record: 77-30 (.720), nine seasons
• State titles as head coach: 2004, 2006
• State titles as assistant coach: 1994, 1995, under Stanley Mitchell
• High school: Graduated from Douglass in 1966
• College: Graduated from Morgan State in 1974 as all-conference offensive lineman under coach Earl Banks; played at Morgan with future NFL players Bob Wade, Ray Chester and Frenchy Fuqua
• Family: Wife, Sandra, and son, Ben Eaton Jr., who graduated from Gilman last year as The Sun's All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year and now plays at Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy
kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.comSun reporter Pat O'Malley contributed to this article.