Dunbar High School's football team marched with cleats tapping in unison on the sun-soaked sidewalk of Central Avenue, turning the corner onto Monument Street to make its way to the practice field.
It was four days before the season opener, and practice began with the usual after-school chatter and horseplay before the players formed a broad circle around their four captains to stretch.
But this wasn't a normal practice. Ben Eaton wasn't there teaching, motivating and giving out hugs.
Dunbar lost its football coach, father figure and mentor when Eaton, 58, died of an apparent pulmonary embolism Aug. 27 while exercising.
" 'No one person stops the show' is what Ben said the last time he met with us," said Dunbar assistant coach Anderson Powell, who coached with Eaton for 30 years.
That's why the Poets hit the practice field the day after Eaton died and did not cancel a scrimmage the following day after a team vote. It's why the defending Class 1A state champions will take the field against Gwynn Park of Prince George's County tomorrow with a renewed sense of purpose despite their heavy hearts.
It's what their coach would have wanted.
Eaton's widow, Sandra, and son, Ben Jr., a star linebacker at Gilman last season now playing at Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy, visited the team the day after he died and told the players and coaches to go forward.
"I told them that Coach had trained them well and to carry on his work," said Sandra Eaton, who wore a Dunbar state championship T-shirt from last season and her husband's floppy safari hat to the practice that day. "I gave them each bearhugs and told them to carry on, which is what Ben would have wanted. Ben will be watching over them."
Still, moving forward without Eaton hasn't been easy for the Dunbar players and coaches.
After the team's first scrimmage, days before Eaton died, senior right tackle-defensive end Matthew Odezugo injured his hip. That night, Eaton called to check on his team co-captain.
"He asked how I was doing and just told me to ice up," Odezugo said. "And the last words I said to him was, 'I love you, Coach,' and he said he loved me back. Coach Eaton was more than a coach to us. Without him, none of this would have been possible for me. I don't even think I would still be in school right now if it wasn't for Coach Eaton."
Many of the players had similar stories about Eaton.
'He'd be there'
Junior running back Tavon Austin, The Sun's All-Metro Offensive Player of the Year last season, said: "If I ever needed him, I would always call him on the phone and he'd be there. I had a relationship with him and his wife, Miss Sandy, so I looked at them as my second parents."
Eaton, who went 77-30 in nine seasons and led Dunbar to state titles in 2004 and last year, was a disciplinarian, and yet he had a penchant for hugging players and friends. Eaton hugged Austin at his last practice. "That felt good that I got that hug in because the next thing we knew, we heard he passed," Austin said.
"I knew he was out there trying to help people, but I never knew how many lives he touched," said Sandra Eaton, who planned to visit the Dunbar practice today with Ben Jr. "It's been overwhelming and amazing the number of calls from former players and people who knew him when he coached at Virginia State and Fayetteville calling to say how he taught them to be good men and good fathers."
Now it's up to interim coach Lawrence Smith to not only lead the team on the field, but to be there for his players off it.
"It's a big responsibility following the legacy of Ben Eaton," Smith said. "The family atmosphere will always be at Dunbar, without a doubt. ... My responsibility is to carry over the tradition in his honor and keep him proud of the program."
Smith and the coaching staff are confident that the system in place - which Eaton called "Benny Ball" - will remain.
"Everything he brought was instilled in me, instilled in the offensive coordinator, instilled in the defensive coordinator - everyone - because what we have here is a system," Smith said.
'Fight to the end'
Added Powell: "A tight 360 is what we have, and it's what the kids have. That means we're going to form a tight 360, a tight circle that no matter what goes on, we're going to fight to the end."
The school is planning to honor Eaton Oct. 12 when the team hosts Lake Clifton, and the Poets have dedicated every game they play this season to him.
"We play not just for him, but to make the city better and our school," running back Kenyon Kinard said. "Coach Eaton was all about heart. He touched us in such a way that he was like a father to us. We're playing for him now."
There are no plans, however, to wear armbands or stitch Eaton's initials on the team's jerseys this season. The players believe they can better honor Eaton through their actions rather than symbolic gestures.
"Coach Eaton wasn't a showoff-type coach," Odezugo said. "He was all about old-fashioned, hard-nosed football. We're going to show our respect and appreciation by just going out there, playing hard and giving 100 percent."
Said senior fullback-linebacker Keon Redhead: "He always related the game to life because this game can turn you into young men. We want to make him proud when we go on the field [tomorrow]."