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Brent Eckley: The life of a football coach

Every Friday night in the fall for the past 23 years, one could find Brent Eckley on the sidelines of a high school football stadium in Missouri. For the past seven years, he has been in Jackson at The Pit.

The thought of becoming a football coach first crossed Eckley’s mind back in the 1980s when he attended Pekin High School in Iowa, where he was an all-state athlete in football and basketball.

“Sports and school were kind of a central, unifying force not only in my family but the community,” Eckley said. “Everybody had a lot of pride in everything that went on with the school.”

Eckley grew up on a farm in Iowa, and this is where he learned the lesson of doing a job no matter what it was. He said the kind of work he had to do on a farm was character building, and that it helped mold him into the person he is today.

Before reaching high school, Eckley watched his two older brothers Scott and Darwin play football and basketball at Pekin, which became motivation for him to carry on the tradition. Scott is six years older than Eckley while Darwin is only two years older, so Brent was able to play on the same football team with Darwin for two years and a few basketball games his sophomore year.

The 1980s was a difficult time for farmers in Iowa as several banks foreclosed on farms, while there were also issues with grain and livestock prices. This forced Eckley’s father to become an over the road truck driver from the time Brent was in middle school all the way until after he graduated from college at William Penn.

“There were a lot of times where he would go from Iowa to California or Iowa to Texas or Iowa to Atlanta,” Eckley said. “He’d be home for a day or two, and then he would be gone from four, five, six to seven days and then back home.”

During Eckley’s senior year, his father was only able to watch him play in one football game and just one or two basketball games. It was the same case when Eckley played college football.

Eckley’s mother, who owned her own hairstyling business for over 50 years, “didn’t miss anything I did,” Eckley said. One of the most important things Eckley learned from both of his parents is that if he was going to do something, he was going to finish it and do his best.

“My dad worked about everyday of his life including the day he passed away — he was on his way to work,” Eckley said. “He was 64 at the time, but he was going to work.”

What Eckley loves the most about sports is the competition it creates and the thought of doing whatever it took to for him to be better than the athlete across from him. Eckley credits his all-state accolades in high school to the great teams he was on and also had who he called, “a really, really good high school football coach.”

Eckley said when his father wasn’t there for him his football coach Tom Stone was there to give him day-to-day guidance and wisdom. Stone was inducted into the Iowa Football Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 1997 and won over 300 games as Pekin’s head coach along with winning four state titles.

“He just did so many things so well,” Eckley said. “I think one of the things I pulled from him was when I was still in school and it was January. Coach Stone is in the cafeteria and he said, ‘I think…,’ and he said one of my classmate’s names, ‘…could be a really good, quick guard for us.’ It’s January, and that’s where his mind was.”

Eckley identified with this type of passion because even before he became a head coach, he thought about offseason development and pictured the success his teams could have.

Eckley said Stone was the type of coach who had very high expectations for any player that came through the program, which is something Eckley knows has influenced him in his own coaching career.

Between Eckley’s junior and senior year of high school he tore his ACL playing summer league basketball, but he and his family decided not to have it operated on because then he would’ve missed playing any sport his final year at Pekin.

The sport Eckley loved first was basketball, and he said he actually only played football because his brothers did. Eckley didn’t want to let Coach Stone down and was also living by the expectation of, “if you start something, you have to finish it.”

After going through the injury, Eckley knew he almost lost football completely, which helped him realize how much he truly loved the game.

“I did everything I could my senior year — I pulled everything I could out of my senior season,” Eckley said. “I had no regrets.”

Following graduating from high school, it was time for Eckley to have his knee operated on, which during that time took at least a year to recover from. Eckley first attended community college where he didn’t play football, but he was able to get his Associate’s Degree before transferring to William Penn.

Eckley had yet to decide whether or not he was going to try to play football or basketball in college, but once he was around athletes again he knew what sport was best for him. Eckley said he was more drawn to the football players because they were more open about things.

During his time playing football for William Penn from 1991 to 1993, Eckley had three different head coaches. William Penn recorded an overall record of 3-26 in that span. This experience led Eckley to set one of his responsibilities as a coach – to make sure none of his players ever had to go through what he did in college.

Even after graduating from William Penn and being married with a child, Eckley said his confidence and self image were affected since his team finished 1-9 in his final season playing football.

“So now I think about a teenager going through a season and not winning a game, and being embarrassed in a sport that they’ve put time in,” Eckley said. “I feel a lot of personal responsibility to these kids. ‘We’re going to do everything we can to be as prepared as we possibly can.’ When kids have success in any area of their life, it feeds their confidence in other areas. I believe our football kids feel like they are good enough to do anything because of the wins they get on Friday nights.”

During Eckley’s second year at William Penn the team went 2-8, and this is where he picked up a philosophy he still uses today after their offense finished as one of the top five in the nation. The team ran the run and shoot offense but had little to no success in the run game, but the coaches were smart enough to not have the quarterback play under center and put him in the shotgun instead.

“What they figured out was if the offensive line gets run over and the quarterback is in the shotgun, you can still get the ball out,” Eckley said. “Every week we were able to score points and gain yards on offense with really, really lower-level talent than what we were going against.”

Eckley kept this in the back of his mind because he liked the idea of an “underdog offense,” where even if his players weren’t better than their opponent they could still find ways to take advantage of a defense. This also helped Eckley figure out that he could hide players in his system.

After graduating from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education, Eckley had an opportunity to be a graduate assistant at Nebraska Omaha back when the university had a football program. This was the only other college football team in the state besides Nebraska at the time.

Eckley and his wife decided it was best for him to turn down the offer since they were in need of more money instead of more bills. This led Eckley to take a sales job for a company based in Atlanta, Georgia, but the job opening was in Little Rock, Arkansas.

It was only two weeks after graduation when Eckley moved to Arkansas, a place he was unfamiliar with but came to know two people at his job, who eventually left.

Being a salesman hammered home the idea of “do your job” Eckley had already learned at a young age. This was because if he made a sale he was paid, but if he didn’t than he wasn’t.

Eckley worked there for nearly a year before taking a promotion in St. Louis, but his brother started a business in Kansas City, so Brent decided to work there after a few months of living in Missouri.

“In the end, my oldest brother gave me the best advice he could,” Eckley said. “He said, ‘Hey, you were kind of wondering about what you wanted to do. What would you do if you won the lottery?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d coach.’”

In the fall of 1995, Eckley worked as a hall monitor and was later hired as a teacher in the Hickman Mills School District. He volunteered for the football team his first year and was hired on as an assistant coach the following season.

Eckley fell in love with coaching right from the start because it was something he could easily be passionate about and motivated to do every single day.

“It didn’t matter what I was doing on that team — I wanted to be a part of it,” Eckley said. “I figured out what I needed to be doing.”

Eckley was then hired by Warrensburg in 1997, where he became the team’s offensive coordinator after one season. He and the staff explored different things to do offensively.

Three years after running Warrensburg’s offense helped land Eckley his first head coaching gig, which was at Montgomery County. He finished with a record of 39-14 through five seasons.

In Eckley’s final season at Montgomery County, his team lost to eventual state champions Blair Oaks in the playoffs but then reached the state title game the year after. The quarterback Eckley coached during his time there was Eric Czerniewski, who ranks second all time in passing yards (11,557) and touchdowns (140) in Missouri high school football history.

Eckley was named the head coach at Union in 2005, where he finished with a coaching record of 62-18 overall. In 2010, Union reached the quarterfinals but fell to Class 4 powerhouse Webb City, which went on to win the state title. The quarterback third on Missouri’s all time passing yards and touchdown list behind Czerniewski is Jordan Webb (10,533 yards and 133 touchdowns), who started 34 games for Eckley from 2006 to 2008.

Following the 2011 season is when Jackson called upon Eckley to be the program’s new head coach, and after seven seasons the Indians have compiled a record of 57-21 overall and are 24-4 in SEMO Conference play.

Jackson has also won three Class 5 District 1 Championships, three conference championships and have reached the state quarterfinals three times. Former Indian Cooper Callis threw for the fourth most touchdowns in a single season in Missouri history with 56 in 2017, while Jordan Kent ranks second all time in receiving touchdowns with 65.

“I’ve said since the beginning Jackson is a special place — our school is important to our community and athletics are important to our community,” Eckley said. “If I bring the focus even brighter — football is important to our community. Not all communities are that way.

“You could win 10 or 11 games in some places and they would hoop and holler in November and will have forgotten about it and won’t think about it again. Shoot, we get done with having a good season and days will pass, and then people from the community will be talking about who’s going to replace so and so and how are they going to do next year. It’s on the minds of a lot of our community a lot of the time. That’s what makes it special as a coach.”

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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