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"We're All in This Together"

"We're All in This Together"

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – There are days that are still a challenge, days where he still feels tested.

But in so many ways, Jeff Eaton is beyond grateful for all of it, through the highs and the lows.

He is a father to two young children. A husband. A brother. An uncle.

He’s also an assistant strength and conditioning coordinator for the football team at the University of Miami, where he is charged with helping the Hurricanes be at their very best so they can compete at the highest level.

The hours are long. The work can be grueling. But there is a sense of purpose every day, both at home and inside the Miami weight room.

“You never really think that you’re going to make it this far. You have the goals, the aspirations, the dreams to be at the highest level of whatever it is you’re trying to do, but I never in a million years would [have thought] I’d actually be at the University of Miami,” Eaton said. “I know [it’s] through all the hard work that I’ve been able to do and the people that have helped me get to where I’m at now. There’s no way I’d be here without them.”

Eaton doesn’t take that work or those people for granted, not when he considers the journey that brought him to Miami and to this point in his life.

It is a journey that has featured a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression after losing his mother as a young child and then later, enduring the pain of both physical and sexual abuse.

It is a journey that included running from his pain, seeking refuge in exercise and denying his need for a more substantial kind of help, even as friends urged him to seek it out.

And it is a journey that nearly ended in 2008 when, in his off-campus apartment, Eaton – a popular defensive lineman at Lock Haven University in his native Pennsylvania – attempted suicide.

Before his attempt, though, he sent a series of text messages to a handful of close friends who knew he’d been struggling.

One of those friends, Eaton says, saved his life that day.

“I just got to the lowest point in my life. I was [at] rock bottom,” Eaton said. “I had lost all hope, even though I had my friends telling me, ‘Hey, go get help, go get help, go get help. You’ve got to take care of yourself.’ I had just lost all reality, so to speak and that was tough. Really tough.”

Eaton finally did seek help, choosing to admit himself to a mental health facility after his attempt.

His family and friends continued to provide support as best they could, as did his school, which granted him a medical waiver that Eaton described as “the greatest thing they could have ever done” given his needs at the time.

Today, Eaton is on a mission to try and ensure no student-athlete he coaches, no person he encounters finds themselves in the place he was that day.

It’s an effort he knows is critically important.

In recent months, at least five NCAA student-athletes have died by suicide, according to reporting from The Washington Post. And mental health experts across the country have acknowledged that millions of Americans – including countless children and adolescents – are struggling with anxiety and depression, among other mental health disorders.

All of that has hit home for Eaton – particularly when it comes to student-athletes.

“It absolutely crushes my heart because I see myself in them,” Eaton said. “Obviously, in my situation as a former student-athlete, I didn’t play at the Division I level. But anxiety, depression, suicide doesn’t care where you’re at. Doesn’t care your gender. Doesn’t care your race. Doesn’t care your socio-economic status. It’s prevalent in a lot of people and seeing those young individuals that made a choice to end their lives because of all the pressure and whatever it is they were dealing with angers me, but also really breaks my heart…”

He continued, “It’s time for us to truthfully wake up and start looking at the person first and not looking at the performance, so to speak, or the outcome. It’s not always about wins and losses. It’s about us shaping and mentoring young student-athletes that decide to come to whatever university it is because they see the support system around them. That’s why they decide where they go. It’s time for all of us to make an initiative and stand up for those that are truthfully struggling. It’s super important.”

That’s why when he’s in the weight room or on the practice field with the Hurricanes, Eaton isn’t content to merely count the reps his players can execute or simply measure their gains in strength and velocity – though Aaron Feld, Miami’s strength and conditioning coordinator, notes Eaton does all of that incredibly well.

But Eaton feels called to look for more in the weight room and on the field.

To do that, he tries to gauge which player might be struggling on any given day. He tries to assess if any player seems more reserved than usual or might be behaving uncharacteristically.

He knows everyone weathers their share of tough days, but more than most, he knows those days can sometimes stretch into weeks or months. So Eaton tries to offer his ear as often as possible and tries to look for the symptoms he ignored in himself for so long.

Student-athletes at some of his previous stops, including Oregon, noticed his focus and before long, started good-naturedly calling Eaton their locker room’s “mental health guy.”

It’s a label he is proud to wear, one he embraces.

And both Feld and Hurricanes head coach Mario Cristobal have offered Eaton their support with his efforts. Among those efforts? Eaton started Highest Level, a mental health awareness organization. He’s raised money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness through the annual NAMI fundraising walks. And he is working on establishing 4EVER35, a children’s health and wellness foundation in honor of his late brother, Tony, who passed away in 2017.

“Coach Eaton is one of the strongest human beings I’ve ever met,” Feld said. “The social norm is to show no signs of weakness, [to] hide your vulnerabilities and be the toughest guy in the room. That’s what everybody’s attempting to be and he’s done an amazing job of stepping outside of that. In a room full of people that don’t even know there is another side to that, he’s been vulnerable and talked about the things that he’s dealt with and shared his story…

“He’s willing to openly discuss that with people and let them know ‘Hey, you’re not weird for feeling this way. And you’re not different because this happened to you. And you’re not weak because of the circumstances you were placed in as a child.’…There’s a lot of people on this team that need to hear that and hear there’s nothing wrong with them. One of the things he and I say to each other and to everyone is it’s completely okay to not be okay.”

While today he feels called to share his journey with others, Eaton concedes it still isn’t something that’s always easy to do. And for years, only those closest to him knew all he’d endured.

But in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Eaton began wondering if detailing his experience could help others. He wondered if it could help him continue to process his feelings, too.

Friends, family and his therapist encouraged him to give it a try.

He started Highest Level and with help from a producer in Oregon – where he was working at the time – Eaton made a short video where he told part of his story.

Along with the hope of helping himself and others, Eaton felt he needed to set an example for his children, Eva and Titus.

“For me, the biggest issue was I had two small kids. I have a wife. And I want my kids to understand that whatever they go through in life, yes it’s going to affect you, yes it’s going to push you, it’s going to shape you, it’s going to grow you, but don’t ever quit,” Eaton said. “Use me as the catalyst. Use me as the example that there’s nothing you can’t overcome. If I didn’t get my story out and if I wasn’t able to identify those areas that were literally troubling me, then I wouldn’t be serving my purpose and I wouldn’t be serving a purpose as a father to my kids. It’s the most important duty that I have on earth, to be able to protect them.”

But as much progress as he’s made, as many student-athletes as he’s hoped to have helped through his work, Eaton knows and understands there are moments he still needs help, too.

That’s when he connects with the therapist he still works with on a regular basis. It’s when he opens up to his wife, Beth. It’s when he turns to his brother and his circle of friends.

He still fights the urge to internalize his feelings at times, but Eaton says he feels more prepared to handle those moments now than he has in the past.

All of that, Beth Eaton said, has made a difference, for her husband, for their family and for the student-athletes Eaton works with every day.

“He’s not just a strength and reps coach. He might be a father figure to one of the athletes that doesn’t have that at home. He might be a father figure to an athlete who literally doesn’t have a father figure or even students that are away from their parents. He’s their shoulder to lean on,” Beth Eaton said. “I think he does a really good job connecting with them. He has an amazing way with words and makes them feel important. It doesn’t matter if you have the biggest problem or the smallest problem, he’s going to make you feel loved and he’s going to try and help you feel better.”

And as a strength and conditioning coach, Feld says Eaton’s work speaks for itself.

Before Eaton joined the staff at Oregon, he worked at Purdue, UNLV, Morgan State, Baylor, Missouri and San Diego State, honing his craft at every stop. At Oregon, Eaton was part of the staff that helped guide the Ducks to three straight Pac-12 Championship Game appearances.

Now, he’s brought that success to Miami where Feld says he’s an integral part of preparing the Hurricanes for the season that awaits.

“As good as Coach Eaton is at mental health awareness and being open and being vulnerable, he’s one of the most intelligent, highest-level strength and conditioning coaches I’ve ever been around,” Feld said. “He has every single intangible and tangible quality ever possibly needed to be a top-tier, top-level strength coach.”

It has been 14 years since Eaton found himself at his darkest, most difficult moment.

At that point, he never imagined he’d be working at a major college football program. Never imagined himself building a home and a life with his wife and children. He never imagined turning his most personal pain into a purpose.

Now, though, he can’t imagine doing anything else and his hope is that in the coming weeks, months and years at Miami, he’ll be able to be there not just for the student-athletes playing football, but for any of the Hurricanes who may need someone to help guide them through a difficult moment.

As to what he’d say to those student-athletes or coaches who may need that guidance, Eaton speaks from the heart.

“First and foremost, I’m here for you. I understand you. I hear you. It’s okay to not be okay. I support you 100 percent and if you need anything, if you need to talk, if you want to DM me, if you want to write me an email, if you want to call me, please let me know,” he said. “At the end of the day, I will go to the ends of the earth to make sure that you don’t do what I did…There are people out there that care about you 100 percent and there are people out there that want to see you succeed and need you here on this earth. We truthfully need you here…

“Don’t let yourself get to that point where there’s a point of no return because I can tell you, the best thing that ever happened to me was obviously, I [was] saved and now I’m able to be here, to be able to help other people. You never know who you’re going to impact. And so many people want you here. It’s important for you to be here. We love you. I love you, even though I don’t know you…We’re all in this together.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or text HOME to 741741.

 For more information on Highest Level, visit www.highestlevelllc.com.

 For more information on the National Alliance on Mental Illness, visit www.nami.org.