Albuquerque’s prep baseball community, and Sandia High School in particular, was reeling Wednesday over the news that Matadors baseball coach Chris Eaton had died.
Eaton died Monday. He was 35 years old.
“He lost his battle against mental illness,” his younger brother Michael told the Journal on Wednesday. “We really want to get it across that this is a serious problem and it is more widespread than (people) think.”
Eaton coached the Matadors since May 2017. Last season, he guided Sandia into the Class 5A state championship game, where it lost to Carlsbad. Leading Sandia to a state title was one of Eaton’s major professional ambitions.
“It’s pretty hard to separate Chris from coaching and baseball,” Michael Eaton said. “That was his passion. He understood the game so well, and he did a masterful job of teaching kids about competition, about failure, about how to become a man. And he stressed academics more than anything.”
Eaton — who played in high school at Sandia Prep and Cibola, and collegiately at Eastern New Mexico — was friendly and outgoing, inquisitive and driven. And he was quite a fly fisherman, his family said. Those who knew him celebrated his life contributions on Wednesday.
“He was a heck of a competitor,” his father Scott Eaton said. “He believed it was healthy and important and useful for young people today to do things in a respectful way, following the rules. … Whatever he took on, he always took it on 100 percent.”
Eaton, who usually was a bundle of positive energy, was enormously popular among players and peers. He also taught physical education at Sandia.
“It’s a big loss for Sandia, their players, their family, their community, but also for New Mexico baseball,” said longtime Rio Rancho High baseball coach Ron Murphy. “I admired Chris. He wanted that program to be the best in the state, and he wanted to win a state championship. He was a phenomenal person.”
Said his father: “Chris was a smart guy and he paid attention to the world. He wasn’t just a PE teacher and baseball coach.”
Eaton was born and raised in Albuquerque, and baseball was woven into his fabric. In the last meeting he had with now-late Sandia coach John Gunther, Gunther, who was dying at the time, had told Eaton this, according to Eaton’s brother:
“He said, ‘I’m gonna be looking down on you guys when you win a state title.’ And Chris took that to heart. He went out to the field every day with that on his mind.”
Any number of schools around the state expressed their condolences via social media. Several of Eaton’s former players took to Twitter to express their anguish over their coach’s death.
“I’ll miss all the hours (he) spent trying to help me and other NM athletes be a better version of themselves athletically and as a person. Rest easy Coach, you’re in a better place,” wrote Adrien Martin.
I’ll miss all the hours spent trying to help me and other NM athletes be a better version of themselves athletically and as a person. Rest easy Coach, you’re in a better place.🕊️ https://t.co/5l5jRloPww
— Adrien Martin (@adrien5martin) November 23, 2022
“A great mentor and someone who believed in me since day 1 of playing at Sandia. rest easy coach,” write Matt Romero on Twitter.
Wrote Aiden May, another former Matador player: “Truly horrible news, you will be missed Chris. Rest easy.”
Eaton also spent a few years as a college assistant coach in the region (West Texas A&M, New Mexico Highlands, Colorado School of Mines, Texas A&M at Texarkana) before he segued to high school, and he once was a graduate assistant coach to Ray Birmingham at the University of New Mexico.
Eaton also was a former assistant coach at Sandia Prep, where he played before transferring to Cibola. Occasionally, he worked as a broadcast analyst, both for UNM baseball games and for the Connie Mack World Series in Farmington.
Funeral services are pending; Scott Eaton said the family would like to arrange a memorial service for the public sometime in December.
“He was such a selfless, passionate, curious, determined, courageous competitor,” Michael Eaton said, adding, “He was such a beautiful human being.”