Small Colorado town has 3 players in NFL
Fort Collins Coloradoan
Harvested fields of corn surround the town.
Downtown is a stretch of two blocks just west of the former Western Sugar factory whose giant towers now hold fine silica sand used in the region’s rapidly growing hydraulic fracking industry.
Children ride bicycles after school down the middle of the wide, tree-lined streets. The wood and brick houses in the older parts of town are now surrounded by new subdivisions cropping up between cornfields.
Welcome to Eaton, home to a population of 5,224 and one operational stoplight.
The town, 20 miles east of Fort Collins, is known for baseball, with the high school claiming 11 state titles. That only adds to the irony that the town is home to three current NFL players — Mitch Unrein, a defensive tackle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Austin Ekeler, a running back for the Los Angeles Chargers; and Trent Sieg, the long-snapper for the Oakland Raiders.
“From a little public school out in the middle of Colorado, you’d never expect it,” Ekeler said. “There aren’t a lot of high recruits coming out of Colorado in general.”
There are just 14 active NFL players from Colorado, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including four from Denver (population 704,621) and three from Colorado Springs (population 464,474).
“You watch on Sundays, and you see them having the success that they do in the NFL. Those guys from a small town like Eaton, it’s crazy,” said Henry Fritzler, a junior offensive and defensive lineman on Eaton High School’s football team.
Sieg’s father, Tim, an independent insurance agent, jokes it must be something in the town’s water.
Others, including Ekeler’s mother, Suzanne, a math teacher at Roosevelt High School in Johnstown, credits the blue-collar work ethic that permeates the community. There’s nothing flashy about Eaton, and those who find success there have to earn it, she said.
Unrein, 6-foot-4 and 301 pounds, and Trent Sieg, 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, both began their college football careers as walk-ons, at Wyoming and Colorado State University, respectively. Ekeler, 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, played at NCAA Division II Western Colorado in Gunnison.
“It’s something that this community really takes pride in,” said Zac Lemon, Eaton High’s football coach. “It’s not a goal to be an NFL factory; it’s just a product of what goes on here.”
Unrein, who spent four years with the Denver Broncos, one with the San Diego Chargers and three with the Chicago Bears, is currently on injured reserve and on the league’s concussion protocol, a team spokesman said, which prohibited making him available for an interview.
Ekeler is in his second season with the Chargers and is the team’s second-leading rusher, with 305 yards on 53 carries, and fourth-leading receiver, with 19 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns.
Sieg, a rookie, was signed a week into the season by the Raiders. His first NFL game was in Denver against the Broncos, and three weeks later, he was facing Ekeler, his best friend growing up, in a game in Los Angeles.
“We were talking before the game, just how far we’ve come and how far Eaton has come for us,” Sieg said. “That’s pretty special coming out of that school, just to be on the same field in an NFL game from a small town in the same class.”
It’s pretty special for the entire community, several longtime residents said.
The discussion among a half-dozen local men over coffee at McDonald’s on Monday morning centered around the Eaton School District’s upcoming school bond vote, but usually they’re talking about what Eaton’s NFL players did in games that weekend or how the high school team is doing.
Many have subscribed to DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package to make sure they can watch all three players.
“It’s insane, but it’s a good goal for all of us to look up to and rise to the occasion,” said Ty Garnhart, a senior running back and linebacker for the Fighting Reds. “Hard work, discipline and never say die; the whole atmosphere of Eaton is never say die.”
The high school, the only one in the Eaton School District, is known for its athletics teams, with 90 percent of students participating in extra-curricular activities, said Rick Kaufman, the school’s activities director for the past 14 years.
Eaton teams have won 35 state championships and finished among the top four in the state in various activities 95 times. The 130 banners from those top-four finishes cover the north wall in the school’s gymnasium, which still has fold-down, individual wooden seats instead of bleachers.
Eleven of those state titles were won in baseball, from 1987 to 2015, when coach Jim Danley had his pitchers befuddling opponents with the knuckle curveball. Yet no baseball player from Eaton has ever made it beyond the Class Triple-A level as a professional. Eaton has won only one state title in football, the Class 2A crown in 2000.
“I do think Eaton’s kind of a special little town and, regardless of what sport it is, I think we take a great deal of pride in how we perform,” said Sieg, who was CSU’s long-snapper from 2014 to 2017.
Ekeler, Sieg and a half-dozen others who formed a tight bond growing up in Eaton played all the sports as kids, whether it was youth football in Greeley’s recreational program in the fall, Gold Crown League basketball in the winter or youth baseball in the summer.
That’s just what kids in small towns do, Sieg and Ekeler said.
They all played multiple sports in high school too, advancing to the final four of the Class 2A state basketball tournament as juniors. Ekeler played a key role on that team, while Sieg served as a student manager while recovering from shoulder surgery.
In football, the pair never lost more than one or two games a season. Yet even with Ekeler running for 2,398 yards and 39 touchdowns as a senior and Sieg starring at tight end and linebacker, they never made it past the first or second round of the football playoffs.
Like Unrein before them, Ekeler and Sieg each took their game to another level in college. They knew how to make the most of what their coaches were teaching them and put in the work they needed to improve.
NFL scouts started coming by Western State’s practices to see Ekeler his junior season. Sieg, then a sophomore after redshirting his first season at CSU, was told by CSU’s special teams coaches that he had a shot at playing in the NFL.
Now, the dreams of a couple kids growing up together in Eaton have become reality.
“I’m just a guy that keeps my nose to the grindstone and tries not to get too caught up in everything,” Sieg said. “But every now and then, I’ll just be sitting ‘round the locker room, and I’ll look over, and that’s Jared Cook and Derek Carr over there and Marshawn Lynch. Every once in a while, I’ll have to force myself to think about it so that I can appreciate where I’m at.”
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