SAN DIEGO — 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."