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Dedication to players made Eaton a winner

The Baltimore Sun

The first day of a school year is supposed to be a day for catching up on the summer's activities, checking out the shortest route from the locker to homeroom and getting a feel for a new situation.

For Dunbar's football team, yesterday will always be the day the players lost their father.

Technically, Ben Eaton Sr. was the father of only one child, but any of his Poets players will likely tell you that he was as much a father to them as any man in their lives.

That's the way it is for football coaches at inner-city high schools. They may arrive in the office intending only to teach blocking schemes, cover-2 defenses and an effective seven-step drop, but with crime, single parenthood and the rest of society's ills all around, today's coach at a predominantly African-American school is so much more.

For African-American school coaches, making sure your players make it to school can be as much a victory as any achieved on the scoreboard. Sometimes, keeping your players alive from week to week is the biggest win.

That's why Eaton, a Douglass and Morgan State graduate, didn't waste a lot of time bemoaning the paltry facilities he had relative to suburban public schools or the private schools in the city that often made off with talent that he could have molded. He was too busy doing the best he could with what he had.

Two years ago, as the Poets were making a late-season run to the state playoffs, the players and some coaches had to shoo off their field a man who was interrupting practice.

The man returned a short time later with a handgun, and while the matter concluded with nobody getting hurt, Eaton conducted practice for the rest of the season in the school's gym, to further ensure the players' safety, just as a father would do.

Eaton wouldn't talk about the incident, in part out of concern for his players, but also so as not to draw attention to himself.

"He was a man of integrity," said Bob Wade, the city school system's coordinator of athletics. "He believed in a coach's credibility and a coach's integrity."

Wade, more than many, knew the juggling act Eaton had to perform all too well from personal experience, having served as boys basketball coach at Dunbar for a good chunk of the 1970s and 1980s.

For all of the national championship banners he hung in the Poets' gym, Wade was prouder of his role of helping shape the lives of his players, and he knew Eaton was similarly pleased to have done the same with his players.

"He was well liked and well respected throughout Maryland," Wade said. "He was probably one of the top high school coaches in our area, and he loved those kids."

It surely didn't hurt that Eaton guided Dunbar to two of the school's four state football championships, but he didn't have to win to be an effective teacher and role model.

Eaton wasn't old enough to be my father, but at 58, he reminded me of what my father was like when he was 58 and I was 15, the age many of Dunbar's players are today.

My dad, who died a year ago yesterday, was, like Eaton, a man of faith and conviction, a humble man who loved to laugh and who loved his family, a number he considered to be far larger than the six of us at the dinner table.

The last time I saw Eaton was five months ago, when he was presented a special achievement award by the greater Baltimore chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame for leading the Poets to the Class 1A title last December.

As he accepted the award, Eaton turned to the Rev. Raymond Banks and thanked him for sharing his father, legendary former Morgan State football coach Earl Banks, a man who shaped Eaton's life.

Wade said yesterday when he called Raymond Banks to tell him of Eaton's death, the pastor said, "He's with Daddy now. And he doesn't have to thank me for sharing him."

In years to come, some of Eaton's players at Dunbar will no doubt thank his son for sharing his father with them.


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