Seeing is believing

varsity state football championships

December 06, 2008|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,rick.maese@baltsun.com

He knew. Never had a doubt, in fact.

Coach would come home and tell his wife all about the kid. There was no reason to predict greatness. The kid was too small, got lost in the grass blades, smothered by his own shoulder pads.

But he knew.

"Like a diamond in the rough," says the coach's wife. "Everyone else thought he was too little. But Ben kept saying there was something special about him. He knew you don't get an athlete like that all the time. He'd come home, and the way he talked about him ... no, Ben wouldn't be surprised in the least."

More than four years later, Tavon Austin, still small and still special, will take the field today wearing a Dunbar jersey for a final time. The Poets face Fort Hill at noon at M&T Bank Stadium, seeking their third straight Class 1A state championship.

Fifteen months after Ben Eaton died of a heart attack, it's still very much his football team. Dunbar has carved a legacy as one of Maryland's most dominant programs largely because Eaton's prophecy was spot on.

Austin, generously listed at 5 feet 9, 170 pounds, is the state's all-time leading rusher and scorer. He'll go down, in fact, as one of the best high school players this state has seen.

As various YouTube highlight videos will attest, Dunbar's talented Poet really is poetry in motion. He's drawn to holes like a fridge magnet. He accelerates like a sports car. And he has this stutter step that buckles defenders' knees - it's like someone above is holding a remote control, quickly tapping the pause and play buttons.

For his part, Austin is matter-of-fact about his accomplishments, spreading the credit to almost everyone but himself. He readily acknowledges he ran harder as a junior, which implies that his dominance during his senior campaign was almost effortless.

Austin's emotion comes out when he talks about two subjects: Eaton and his time at Dunbar.

Fifteen months have passed since Eaton died at age 58. While players say they still feel him watching over this team, this year's run for a state title has been a bit different from the past couple of seasons.

"We're still doing it for Coach," Austin says, "but we're also doing it for ourselves, for our coaches here and for our school."

He has been more reflective than usual this week. In fact, at times, he has been overwhelmed by the prospect of playing his final game. Before last week's game, there was a nagging fear his high school career could end in the state semifinals. The result? Austin ran for four touchdowns and 213 yards on 17 carries, and Dunbar beat Catoctin, 48-12.

This week has been different. He knows, win or lose, today marks the end. And he can't help but look back and see his entire high school career in brief, brilliant flashes. The freshman learning the offense. The sophomore coming into his own. The junior leading the way. And the senior who demands that every eye in the stadium stay focused on him from the opening kickoff until the final seconds tick off the clock.

On Tuesday, Austin couldn't go to practice. Just couldn't do it, he says. He and some fellow seniors called their coaches and said they really needed the time to one another other. So as most of the team went to the practice field, the small group gathered in the last place you would expect to find football players on championship week - the school library.

They laughed. Talked about how little they knew as freshmen. How far they've come since. And, of course, they talked about Eaton.

"All year, we'd said to each other: 'This is it. Last year to do it,' " Austin says. "But then all of a sudden, it just hit us. This is it. This is our last chance."

Austin will play more games. He's hotly recruited by college coaches. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen landed a helicopter at a football field to watch him play earlier this year. After today's game, Austin will play in an all-star game and then spend January visiting colleges. He plans official visits to Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina.

But a part of him knows it won't be the same. Austin and his teammates have done something special at Dunbar. In the past three years, their only loss was this year's season opener to Gwynn Park.

They bonded as freshmen, and Eaton knew right away that the future was bright. His wife says he had been talking about hanging up his whistle after Austin's class graduated. A part of him knew that this would be as good as it gets, that Austin would be as good as it gets.

"He watched these guys play rec ball, Pop Warner," Sandra Eaton says. "They came in as freshmen, and he told them, 'You stick together, you do what you're supposed to do and we could have a good four-year run here.' "

She paused briefly. Sandra will be at M&T Bank Stadium today. The Poets are convinced her late husband will be there, too. Another trophy is on the line. But Sandra delivered something much bigger, much more meaningful:

"Coach would be so proud of them," she said.

result, schedule

Yesterday

Class 4A: Sherwood 21, Linganore 3

Today

Class 1A: Dunbar vs. Fort Hill, noon

Class 2A: River Hill vs East. Tech, 3:30 p.m.

Both games at M&T Bank Stadium

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