As each second passes, senior Matt VanEaton widens his smile and tightens his grip on a medieval death device.
Don’t be fooled. He’s not a serial killer. Far from it. VanEaton is mustering all his strength to launch a hammer into the air during a track meet.
VanEaton is grinning because he knows this hammer throw will be his best one yet. He is grinning because he is summoning his God-given strength to force the hammer into the atmosphere. More importantly, VanEaton is grinning because he knows how much he has progressed since his earlier injury-riddled years as a collegiate athlete.
The observant bystander wouldn’t know this is VanEaton’s first year on the track team. His thunderous throws disprove that notion. For the majority of VanEaton’s collegiate career, he has been a member of the Pacific Lutheran University football team.
While he did throw shot put in high school, and was quite fond of it, VanEaton hasn’t participated on the track and field team.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Upon entering PLU, VanEaton knew he wanted to play football at the collegiate level. VanEaton was a linebacker all four years at PLU and said he cherished every moment of it.
However, during his senior year, he said he knew he wanted to pursue another challenge — try something new. That something new was throwing the hammer. As daunting as the task seemed, VanEaton was ready for the test.
Making the transition from linebacker to hammer thrower seemed natural for VanEaton. During the winter of his senior year, he constantly trained and constantly strived for new goals.
He wanted to get stronger, faster, smarter and more agile. VanEaton prepared himself for the spring season and seems to be keeping up with the rest of the pack.
“He kind of helped me have a little more fun this year with his attitude of laughing, but still knows when to be serious,” senior Kyle Peart said.
Keeping pace with Peart is no ordinary task. Standing at 6 feet 6 inches, the mammoth man has solidified himself as one of the most accomplished throwers in the Northwest Conference.
Peart finished fifth in the shot put and 12th in the hammer throw at the NWC Championships in 2011. If that wasn’t enough, he placed first in the hammer throw at the NWC Championships in 2012 while earning second place in the shot put. That same year, Peart qualified for nationals in the hammer throw and shotput.
Every day, VanEaton attempts to best Peart, but it’s not easy — especially with all of the injuries VanEaton has suffered over the past three years.
In his sophomore year at PLU, VanEaton had a promising future in football. He was starting on third downs as a linebacker when the defensive coordinators implemented a new scheme. They wanted VanEaton to become a star as a pass rusher and a star on special teams.
RECEIVING THE NEWS
And then VanEaton received an injury diagnosis — he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and ripped open his meniscus in his right knee.
Having suffered one of the more serious injuries in the world of sports, VanEaton could only watch from the sidelines.
He was finished. His career as a collegiate athlete seemed to be coming to an abrupt end as a sophomore — much too early for anyone.
“That season was looking kind of bright for me, and then that injury came,” VanEaton said. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
Going through surgery, VanEaton said he was depressed. He was nervous he would never get to see the field again. His collegiate career had taken a terrible detour.
“I remember being like ‘I can’t be like this, I need to be positive. I can’t let this hold me down.’ I remember from that day forward, I’ve been different ever since,” VanEaton said. “I think I wouldn’t be the man I am today without my knee injury.”
VanEaton worked harder than before to recover from his devastating injury. He refused to let anything stand in his way. He refused to be content with ending his athletic career as a sophomore.
He wanted to make the most out of his time at PLU.
VanEaton returned to the field the following year ready for battle. Only this time, VanEaton was a changed man. He was constantly positive and enthusiastic.
He refused to focus on the troubling things in life, like suffering another demoralizing injury. Even though VanEaton finished his junior year unscathed, save for the occasional bruise, he wasn’t so lucky the next year.
During a football scrimmage as a senior, VanEaton burst forward and tackled a running back near the sidelines. VanEaton didn’t get up. He lay on the turf clutching his right knee, letting loose a horrific scream. The scream penetrated the cold air and traveled across the field.
VanEaton had torn his meniscus again.
To say that VanEaton was unlucky in the injury department while in college would be a severe understatement.
Nevertheless, VanEaton persevered through his most recent injury and battled through much hardship.
Fellow linebacker Ben Kaestner, a senior, persuaded VanEaton to join him in the gym while he was still on crutches. Kaestner said that VanEaton could still work on strengthening his upper body.
VanEaton was able to conquer any lingering knee issues after working out with Kaestner on a regular basis. Today, VanEaton attributes much of his athletic success to Kaestner.
After VanEaton had successfully recovered from his second knee injury, he finished his senior football season and played in nearly every game.
But that wasn’t enough. VanEaton wanted more. So he joined the track and field team as a hammer thrower. His fervent personality has transferred over to the throwing cage as well.
“Throwers are oftentimes kind of, I don’t want to say introverted, but for lack of a better word, they’re cerebral people,” head throwing coach Dan Haakenson said. “Matt [VanEaton] brings a kind of energy and a real positive outlook that I think is nice. It really does help out the team. A lot of the athletes can get very introspective and he kind of breaks that up and makes people laugh.”
Peart shared similar feelings concerning his energetic teammate.
“Definitely his happy attitude has worn off on us, and we can have more fun even on the bad days,” Peart said.
As VanEaton prepares to vault the hammer in the air, he grits his teeth. His eyes focus on the hammer. His hands release the object with authority, launching the hammer into the sky.
The hammer lands on the damp grass with a thud. VanEaton smiles. He is content. The throw has satisfied his standards.
After all these past years of overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, VanEaton can finally smile with confidence.