In the hallway outside of San Diego State’s football locker room, a number of players walked past linebacker Jack Eaton.
“Hey Jack,” one said. “Make sure you get my name in the paper.”
“OK,” Eaton responded. “I’ll tell people that Steve Svitenko is a great linebacker.”
The dialogue was repeated with several other players. Everybody, it appeared, wanted to make certain that Eaton got their name in the paper.
As Eaton reflects on his football career, it seems like he has always been trying to make a name for somebody. He helped Fallbrook High School make a name for itself, and now he’s attempting to help San Diego State gain headlines.
It has been a long--and sometimes painful--process.
Each season at San Diego State, Eaton has been slowed by injuries. The pain has been increased by watching a program go through growing pains of its own.
In 1981, Eaton was among a handful of freshmen in Coach Doug Scovil’s first recruiting class. Their job was to help the Aztecs become a big-time football team again.
The Aztecs were 6-5 and 7-5 the first two years, but have since slipped to 2-9-1 and 4-7-1. Experience has been the difference. Whereas junior college transfers dominated the roster for two years, freshmen recruits from the Scovil era have been most prevalent thereafter.
“We had a lot of older people the first couple of years,” Eaton said. “Since then, we have had the younger guys Coach Scovil brought in. The last couple of years, it has come down to a lack of experience. We had a lot of close games last year that could have gone either way. With the experience and strength we have this year, it should make a difference.”
Eaton remembers when experience was a factor. In his first road game with the Aztecs in 1982, they upset heavily favored Oklahoma State, 23-16, with a lineup of primarily junior college transfers.
Yet as Eaton surveys last year, inexperience showed in two particularly frustrating losses. The Aztecs missed a last-minute field goal in losing to UCLA, 18-15, after twice losing fumbles in Bruin territory late in the game. And a last-minute fumble on the two-yard line cost the Aztecs a loss to Oklahoma State, 19-16.
“It helps to know you can hang in with teams that are supposed to be so much better than you,” Eaton said. “It proves we have athletes who can play with them. It helps our confidence.”
Eaton has confidence in his ability to do well. However, those nagging injuries have held him back since Day One of his Aztec career.
He was unable to practice for much of his freshman redshirt year in 1981 because of an appendectomy. He was slowed by hip and ankle problems in 1982 and arthroscopic knee surgery in 1983 and 1984.
Before last year’s injury, which sidelined Eaton for six midseason games, he was considered to be playing the best football of his San Diego State career.
“When an injury first happens, you get very depressed,” Eaton said. “I was doing well and having a good time before I got hurt last year. I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to keep going. It’s just one of those things. I told myself that I had one more year to go and would give it another try. You can’t dwell on the injuries.”
Eaton has been in other situations where it was debatable whether playing football was worth the time and effort. Before his senior season at Fallbrook in 1980, the team had suffered through a decade of disappointment. Eaton decided to stick with the program, and Fallbrook had its best season in years with a 4-5 record.
Since Eaton left Fallbrook, the school has been building a football reputation. Fallbrook has advanced to the San Diego Section playoffs three of the last four years.
“We always refer to Jack Eaton with the kids,” Fallbrook Coach Tom Pack said. “We tell them if they work like Jack Eaton did, they can achieve what Jack Eaton did.”
Eaton’s major achievement was earning a football scholarship to San Diego State. Fallbrook players before Eaton had been overlooked because of the school’s lack of reputation, but they have been getting plenty of recognition since. Five Warriors have advanced to major-college football programs in the after Eaton era.
While at Fallbrook, Eaton was recruited by the Naval and Air Force academies. He also had a scholarship offer from Princeton of the Ivy League.
Why San Diego State?
“I wanted to stay close to home where my parents could watch me play,” he said. “I didn’t want Princeton because it was too far from home. I would have been homesick. And I wasn’t ready for the commitment you have to make after four years at the academies.”
Scovil, an assistant coach at Navy when Roger Staubach played for the Midshipmen, understands why the academies recruited Eaton.
“Some players have good football sense but aren’t good in the classroom,” Scovil said. “Jack is good both places. That’s what everybody is looking for. That’s how the academies keep it going so well. They don’t make many mistakes.”
In the classroom, Eaton makes few mistakes. He has a 3.2 GPA as a business major and was named to the Western Athletic Conference all-academic team in 1984. When his football career ends, he would like to pursue systems analysis in the computer field.
According to linebacker coach Mike Smith, Eaton often watches game films for an hour then stays in the film room to study for a classroom test. Smith often speaks of Eaton’s “potential” because of his physical and mental capabilities.
“Ability-wise, not many players on our team compare with Jack,” Smith said. “He can be as good as James Johnson, a linebacker we had last year who was drafted in the third round by the Detroit Lions. If Jack stays injury-free, his potential is unlimited.”
After 1985, Eaton thinks he will have fulfilled his football commitment.
“I’m an adequate player, not a great player,” he said. “I’m done with football after this year. I won’t feel the pressure after this year.”
Running back Casey Brown, once a roommate of Eaton, described Eaton as easy-going and reliable. According to Brown, Eaton keeps football to himself while in the classroom.
“He’s big, so people know he might be playing ball,” Brown said. “I think that because he’s successful in all he does, he doesn’t have to carry a cocky attitude. When he’s in school, he shows himself through good grades. When he’s on the field, he shows himself through good games.”
Aztec Notes Cornerback Mario Mitchell is the only freshman listed as a starter for Saturday night’s season opener against Cal State Long Beach at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. However, junior David Price has been challenging for the position. Clarence Nunn, who started as a freshman cornerback in 1983, missed last season with torn knee ligaments and still isn’t 100% fit. Senior LeRoy Wardell is a returning starter at the other cornerback. . . . Sophomore quarterback Todd Santos passed for 2,063 yards last year and is already 12th on San Diego State’s all-time passing list. At last year’s pace, Santos would break Brian Sipe’s school record of 5,707 yards in his junior season. Sipe established his record in two years. . . . Casey Brown has scored 15 touchdowns in 88 rushing attempts the last two years. Thus, he is averaging more than one point a carry (90 points in 88 carries). . . . Aztec players have selected tackle Dan Knight and Brown as offensive captains. The defensive captains are linemen Levi Esene and Mike Stevens and Wardell. . . . The Aztec boosters will have a luncheon at noon today at the Aspen Mine Company on El Cajon Blvd. Doug Scovil and two players will attend.
‘I’m an adequate player, not a great player. I’m done with football after this year. I won’t feel the pressure after this year.’