EATON – 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 with wood and brick houses in the older parts of town surrounded by new subdivisions cropping up between cornfields.
Welcome to Eaton, Colorado, home to a population of 5,224 and one operational stoplight.
The town 20 miles east of Fort Collins is known for its baseball, with the high school claiming 11 state titles. That only adds to the surprise 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 supply.
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 Sieg, 6-4 and 229 pounds, both began their college football careers as walk-ons at Wyoming and Colorado State, respectively. Ekeler, 5-10 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.”
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