AMES — Palm fronds waved and turquoise waters beckoned.
But all Matt Eaton could think about was the next workout. And the one after that. And the many more that followed.
Spending three years living in tropical, but isolated Guam — a U.S. island territory some 3,300 miles west of Hawaii and 1,500 miles east of the Philippines — taught Iowa State’s highly-touted JUCO transfer wide receiver how to narrow his focus and maximize his effort, not loll around on the beach.
“For myself, being over there and not getting recruited at a younger age definitely led me into being a very hard worker on my own, whether that was working out in the field, lifting weights on my own, running,” said Eaton, a mid-year signee who’s been in Ames for about a month. “That really showed me that I have to work hard to get what I want.”
Eaton, a 6-4, 205-pound standout, is adept at adapting since he’s spent his entire life on the move in a Navy family. He lived in Virginia through the seventh grade and, after Guam, finished up high school in Mississippi before committing to Temple in 2014.
That didn’t work out, so Eaton returned to the South and starred for Pearl River Community College, where he caught 37 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Eaton also caught the eye of Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, who took a keen interest in the well-traveled and athletic receiver yearning for another shot at Division I football.
“(He) was, in my opinion, as big of a get offensively as anybody we’ve got and I know we’ve got some important pieces,” Campbell said last week when unveiling his full Class of 2017. ‘Matt’s one of those guys that his film jumped off at us and I think Alex (Golesh) went down initially to see him and coach (Bryan) Gasser went down to see him and both of their responses were, ‘This guy’s a complete difference-maker.’ And, you know, obviously if you know coach Gasser, he doesn’t say nice things about anybody, so Alex, he’s a little bit nicer, but Bryan doesn’t. So when I knew that and I watched the film and then you knew about his background. Matt’s a kid that comes from an incredible family. He’s a kid that grew up in Guam and his dad was in the Navy, just retired a couple months ago, and you talk about this kid’s passion to be elite, and passion to be great, that’s what struck us right away.”
Eaton noticed the same thing, in reverse. It’s why he chose to commit and remain steadfastly confident in his decision through his signing day in December — and now has been on campus for a month, turning heads once again.
“The best thing about Matt is he’s been here maybe four weeks and I don’t know if there’s been a night, or a day, that I haven’t seen Matt Eaton out there throwing the ball, catching the ball, working on the JUGS (machine),” Campbell said. “He’s driven to be elite and that’s what you want.”
The journey through Pearl River helped sharpen Eaton’s resolve. He’s a playmaker, but he’s also contemplative. At Temple, he quickly became an English major and his still-existing Owls bio notes that he “likes poetry.” That may be an understatement.
“Writing, for me, I can do that anywhere,” said Eaton, who plans to eventually perform in stand-up poetry slam competitions and counts the great Langston Hughes as one of his favorite non-contemporary poets. “I love to do it on my phone. It can be at the most random time. I could be in the bathroom. I could be on the bus going to class, sitting down. I just write anytime.”
That’s when he’s not catching footballs. Eaton quickly formed a relationship with ISU’s starting quarterback, Jacob Park, and it’s been developing ever since he first punched that entry code into the keypad at “the Berg.”
“I’ve just been trying to pride myself on preparing as well as I can for spring ball to come around and then fall camp,” said Eaton, who joins a talented receiving corps headlined by All-Big 12 senior Allen Lazard, sophomore Deshaunte Jones and senior Trever Ryen. “Trying to get the timing down with Jacob. He’s a great quarterback, great arm, so I’m just trying to get that down.”
Campbell said Eaton could provide the Cyclones with another “No. 1 receiver type” on the outside.
“Now all of a sudden, where are you going to spin the coverage?” Campbell said. “How are you going to go? Here’s a guy that can beat man. He’s a guy that’s got what we want to have — size and length on the outside and he can really run. I think it just gives us another dynamic and goes back to exactly what do we want to be. We want great competition. We want the best players and we want guys that, now when we go to practice, you’ve got to work to get the football.”
Park, Eaton said, has been eager to incorporate him into the already-talented fold.
“From day one, he took me under his wing,” said Eaton, who chose ISU over West Virginia and Auburn, among others. “(We) have actually been able to get a lot of extra work in together, getting the timing down and getting that chemistry together. He has a very strong arm and he’s an incredible football player. I’m just excited to be able to play alongside him, so we’ve been spending quite a bunch of time together.”
So as the snowflakes occasionally swirl and the sky stubbornly refuses to shift from slate gray to blue, Eaton settles into his long-standing routine. Work today. Work tomorrow. Work until the dream becomes real and winter rolls toward spring, summer, and finally, fall’s spotlight.
“Coach Campbell as well as the rest of the coaching staff did a tremendous job of recruiting me,” Eaton said. “Since day one they (created) a strong foundation for our relationship and ever since being here, none of that has changed. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity.”