Dave Boling: Gonzaga’s Jeremy Eaton remembered for a larger than life cowboy persona and an unending love for his son Sy
April 22, 2022 Updated Sat., April 23, 2022 at 6:07 p.m.
(Photos courtesy of GU athletics, Eaton family)
Everybody had stories: Jeremy Eaton, oh, man, what a character. Larger than life. So darn funny, talking trash to everybody. An old-time tough cowboy, roping steers or swapping elbows under the basket, or organizing the guys for some memorable good times.
Yeah, Jeremy, one of a kind. The old friends and Gonzaga basketball teammates laughed at the retelling of their Eaton memories Friday. What a great teammate, such an amazing father, too.
At about that point, each person interviewed for this story fell silent. Each breathed deeply and sniffed, choked up by the inconceivable news of Eaton’s death by cancer Thursday night at age 45.
With their tearful, wordless pauses, his friends fashioned the perfect requiem for a cowboy.
The 6-foot-11 Eaton was a key component of Gonzaga’s 1999 Elite Eight team that first lifted the Zags into the national consciousness. He played professionally in international leagues for a number of years afterward and ended up in Nampa, Idaho, feeding his competitive nature with the roping competitions he’d done since he was young.
He resurfaced in the media in January 2021 when he reported his recent diagnosis of cancer, by then progressed to stage 4. How did he spend the time in the span between diagnosis and death? Fighting it with everything he had, cherishing the time with his son, Sy, and continuing to ride tall in the saddle at top-level rodeo competitions.
Yes. Still competing in rodeos. Up until just a few weeks ago.
Ever-optimistic, Eaton had a party scheduled for May 7, his “First Annual Above the Dirt Celebration” to mark having made it past his predicted survival prognosis.
“The last conversation I had with him, he was so happy and excited; he was on cloud nine,” said Zag teammate Mike Leasure, now assistant chief of the Portland (Ore.) Police Department. “He was one of 50 patients selected for an experimental treatment and he was scheduled to start that once he got back from the Vegas roping trip.”
His teammates said that Eaton’s optimistic approach to his cancer diagnosis and treatment – with a party also on tap – was very on-brand for him.
Scott Snider, a Zag player when Eaton was recruited and who was later on the coaching staff in 1999, was one of the first to get a look at Eaton, hosting his recruiting visit to campus.
“He visited the weekend of Midnight Madness, and mostly he wanted to party and have a good time,” Snider said. “I still had practice to get to the next morning.”
Snider said the social network of former Zags was “hit hard by (Eaton’s death); he was tough and ornery, in a good way, and he never wanted to lose. He was a real competitor.”
Matt Santangelo imagined a scenario in which Eaton was “raising hell in heaven – he’ll have the whole place ready for the rest of us when we get there.”
Eaton kept practice light and loose and had running gags with everybody on the team, including standing directly under the basket when Santangelo was shooting because, he joked, it was the safest place on the court.
“He was a country boy, a cowboy, and that persona, that bravado, served him well. He never stopped fighting after his diagnosis. Tough and fearless, getting along with everyone. I was a little quiet, so I just had to follow him around and usually you’d get into some pretty fun stuff.”
Leasure had stayed in close contact with Eaton, being seniors together on the ’99 team. When Eaton received the terminal diagnosis, he called Leasure for a long talk. “There really was no talk about him, just about his son; it was his freshman year in college,” Leasure said. “Jeremy was a single father, was never married, and raised Sy on his own, with the help of his mom and dad and sister. That’s something people don’t know about Jeremy, and he did it 100 miles an hour. Everything he did revolved around Sy.”
Leasure’s composure was tested when asked to describe the depth of his decades-long friendship with Eaton.
“One of the biggest honors for me was when Sy texted me when (Jeremy) passed. He said, ‘Hey, Mike, I just wanted to let you know that my dad loved you like a brother.’ (Pause) I’m honored that he felt that way and I’m honored he communicated that to his son because that’s surely how I felt about him.”
Leasure stressed that if readers needed to know anything about Eaton, it was the depth of his “undying love for his son, Sy was his life. I want Sy to know just how much Jeremy loved his boy.”
Former Zag guard Geoff Goss, also was astonished by Eaton’s sudden hospitalization. As an attorney in Boise, Goss stayed in touch with Eaton, who lived in nearby Nampa.
“Even a month ago he was doing wonderful,” Goss said. “We had a long conversation and he said, ‘hey, I’m great, I’m headed to Vegas and then Arizona for a few roping competitions.’ I was like ‘my gosh, he must be back to normal.’ ”
Goss heard of Eaton’s impending party. “It was going to be a typical Eaton-type situation, a lot of people, a lot of fun, a lot of beer. He was just so upbeat.”
Goss visited Eaton at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center on Tuesday. And he was there Thursday evening shortly before Eaton passed. Eaton’s parents and his son were with him in his final hours.
“He was such a tough competitor and he fought and fought and fought through this horrible cancer thing,” Goss said. He said one last thing to Jeremy when he was leaving Tuesday.
“I just said, ‘hey, hang in there, everyone’s thinking about you, you’re going to make it,’ ” Goss said. “He looked at me and smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.”
Goss stopped talking and swallowed hard.
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