WILBERFORCE — Even the wildest imaginations of some folks in Xenia can’t quite match the reality.
They see the big, muscle-bound guy with the black T-shirt, tattooed forearms, ever-present wrap-around shades and that buzzed haircut walk into his apartment complex or sit down to eat at Smokin’ Aces BBQ or Nick’s Restaurant and they make an assumption.
“They either think I’m some kind of Ultimate Fighter or some kind of Harley Davidson guy,” Chad Eaton said with a laugh. “Actually, they’re probably not sure just what to make of me.”
They don’t know he spent 10 years in the NFL, where — at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds — he forged a reputation as a solid player with a crazy attitude that showed itself in everything from his often-bloodied knuckles to his once silver-painted hair.
Nor do the Xenia folks know that he was a Seattle TV and radio personality or that he now is the defensive line coach at nearby Central State University, where he has become a focal point, as well.
Obviously he stands out at CSU because he’s a white guy coaching at a historically black school. Then there’s his style, which in practice can be loud and animated and sometimes indelicate.
Most of all, though, there are his results.
“He has been just great for our kids, our program and our school,” said CSU defensive coordinator Darrel Suber.
Although the under-funded, under-manned Marauders have struggled this season — they are 1-8 going into Saturday’s game at Austin Peay — the defensive line has been a strong suit.
“Our sacks have gone from just eight last year to 20-something this season,” said head coach E,J. Junior, himself a veteran of 13 NFL seasons. “A lot of this improvement is due to Coach Eaton.
The kids respond to him.”
None more so than Jordan Paige, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound freshman from Buffalo, N.Y. After trying out as a receiver and getting cut before the season began, he met with Suber, convinced him to give him a shot on defense and was put under the wing of Eaton.
“The first game I kept him on the bench,” Eaton said. “But the next week we’re playing in Cleveland and we’re down almost 40, so I said, ‘Jordan, get your helmet.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘I won’t let you down,’ and sure enough, the first play he almost gets a sack, the second play he does and the third play he knocks the quarterback down. He’s been a starter ever since.
“According to my stats, he’s getting almost 2 ½ sacks a game now. The key is that he listens to everything you tell him.”
Then again, that’s no wonder.
When the 39-year-old Eaton is doing the telling, it’s quite a story to hear.
A Belichick favorite
Eaton had to prove himself in his career, as well. He came into Washington State from his Seattle high school as a Prop 48 athlete — meaning he had to sit out a season to get his academics in order — and he went on to become the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.
Taken in the seventh round of the 1995 NFL draft by Arizona, he said he lasted just long enough for coach Buddy Ryan to say two words.
He said ‘hi’ and “bye,’ ” Eaton said with a grin. “That first season I was cut by three teams (the Jets and Ravens, too) and finally ended up on Cleveland’s practice squad.”
His grit and energy caught the interest of head coach Bill Belichick and they forged a pact.
“If practice was going slow, he’d look at me and just say, ‘It’s time,’ ” Eaton said. “He wanted me to get on somebody’s (case) and start a little fight. I was known for that and it paid off on Fridays. There’d always be some extra money in my locker. Practice players don’t make much, so I really appreciated it.”
The following season he was picked up by New England, which is where he teamed with Ben Coates, the Pats’ standout tight end who is now the CSU offensive coordinator.
He became popular with Patriots fans because of his blue-collar play and colorful ways.
“I had gotten all the tattoos and did the wild stuff on the field because I thought it made people think I was a tough guy and crazy, so don’t mess with me,” Eaton said. “Then I realized I was tough enough and didn’t need all that.”
He had some highlight games with the Pats — he sacked Kordell Stewart three times in one game, blocked two Buffalo field goals in another, returned a fumble 23 yards for a score against Baltimore — then became an unrestricted free agent in 2001 and went back home to Seattle, where he signed a four-year deal worth $10.7 million.
After starting two years, he missed the entire 2003 season with four knee surgeries.
Because of salary cap issues, the Seahawks parted ways with him before the 2004 season and Dallas’ Bill Parcells — who had coached him in New England — signed him to the Cowboys as a run stopper.
Eaton’s knee was shot again by season’s end — he said he now needs two knee replacements — so his pro football career ended.
By then, he and his now ex-wife had three children. He dabbled in real estate and did sports on TV and radio before finishing his degree at WSU while beginning a coaching career.
He worked the past two seasons there as a student coach, then a grad assistant, but found he needed more meat on his resume when he went looking for a full-time coaching job at a Division I college.
That’s when he contacted Coates and former CSU coach Larry Moore, who had played with him in Seattle.
Adapting to CSU
“I heard about Chad through them,” Junior said. “I want to build our program and in the process I always want to help a former (NFL) player get his foot in the door and move up the coaching ranks.
“I talked to Chad and he was really fired up. Not every guy who played in the league can adjust to coaching. They don’t realize the work it entails, the time and the sacrifices you have to make — especially in a situation like we have. But he was sincere.”
Eaton, though, admits it took him a little while to adapt:
“At first I just noticed what we didn’t have. I saw the blocking sleds were broken down, so I got my tools and went to the hardware store for parts. I noticed the parts of the ceiling that hung down in the stairwell, the water that dripped down in my office when it rained and the heat that came on when it wasn’t supposed to.
“But after a while I didn’t focus on that. I got to see the program through Coach Suber’s eyes. I saw what Coach Junior and Ben Coates did. I saw the only thing that mattered, and that’s the kids.
“And I fell in love with this place.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve learned more in three months here than I learned in 10 years in the NFL and in my coaching at Washington State.”
And some of the best lessons, he said, aren’t really about football at all:
“I don’t see color out here any more — I’m not thinking that the kids are black and I’m white — but at different games this season I have seen other people who did see color.”
He’s comfortable enough that he’s even made Suber laugh when the two of them have been on the head phones at games.
“There’ll be a bad call and I’ll go, ‘They’re doing this to us because we’re black, I know it,’ ” Eaton smiled. “Coach Suber will be laughing and I’ll go, ‘No, the man is holding us down.’ I might say it in jest, but there is some relevancy to it. I’ve witnessed it.
“Best of all, I think the kids have gotten used to me, too. Having the experiences I’ve had in the NFL and then relating them out here on the field, I might be a little breath of fresh air to our guys. They might still be figuring out just what I am, but I think they do know I’m not the typical white dude.”
That’s what some folks in Xenia are thinking, too.