On Oct. 15, 2004, a junior running back from Bend's Mountain View High School named Ashton Eaton ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns while nursing a sore ankle in a 37-0 win against Crook County.
Covering that Friday night football game in Prineville for The Bulletin, I approached Eaton afterward for a quick interview.
“Once the adrenaline kicked in, I just went for it," Eaton told me. “It felt natural."
It was my first interview with Ashton Eaton. Little did I know then that many more were to come in an entirely different sport.
I have covered his rise as a decathlete in the eight years since, attending one of his three NCAA championship victories for the University of Oregon, in 2010, his victory at the USA national championships in 2011, and the past two U.S. Olympic trials.
Being there in person to watch him break the decathlon world record at the trials in Eugene this past June was a moment I will never forget. But seeing him win an Olympic gold medal Thursday — live on the big screen at the Tower Theatre in downtown Bend — was otherworldly.
I'm sure winning the gold medal “felt natural" to Eaton, in much the same way he carried the football on that autumn night in Central Oregon years ago.
Sports journalism has a rigid rule: No cheering in the press box.
Well, my press box Thursday was the Tower Theatre, and I was cheering.
Even if I had been in the press box at Olympic Stadium in London to witness Eaton's performance, I would have stood up and yelled. How could I not?
The newly crowned world's greatest athlete — at least as measured in the disciplines of running, jumping and throwing — was born in Portland and currently lives in Eugene, but he grew up in Central Oregon. He did not move here to train like so many other athletes. He's FROM here.
Eaton ran cross-country as a fifth-grader in La Pine. He and his mother, Roslyn Eaton, moved to Bend when Ashton was in sixth grade. He competed in track and field at Pilot Butte Middle School, then went on to win high school state titles in the 400 meters and the long jump for Mountain View. And yes, he led the Cougar football team in rushing yards as a senior.
In spring 2006, I went to the Mountain View track to interview Eaton for a preview of the upcoming state meet at Eugene's Hayward Field. The photo of Eaton that ran with the story in The Bulletin shows a young, skinny kid with a shy smile. I like to compare that photo with what he looks like today, which is about what you would expect the world's best decathlete to look like — the embodiment of fitness, strength, athleticism and confidence.
Eaton worked at the Nike Factory Store in Bend in summer 2006, just before his freshman year at the University of Oregon. I asked Ashton earlier this year, in jest, about the raise he has received from Nike since then.
“Let's just say I don't have to wait three months for my free shoe allotment anymore," he joked.
While Eugene has become his new home, his ties to Central Oregon remain unquestionably strong. Eaton was raised by a single mother in La Pine and Bend. Roslyn Eaton, who still lives in Bend, depended on coaches and teachers in the Central Oregon community to serve as role models for her son.
I'm sure Ashton would want them to know they are all part of his gold medal — and I'm sure they feel like they are.
This was not just gold for Ashton Eaton. It was gold for Central Oregon.