Houston defensive end Eric Eiland changed sports, then changed positions on the football field in short order.
His resiliency was built from near tragedy.
When he was a junior in high school, starring in both football and baseball, a fire destroyed his house. Eiland was at home at the time, with his mother and brother in an upstairs bedroom. They heard a noise coming from the dryer in the garage downstairs. When they went to take a look, a wall of flames greeted them.
Thankfully, the three were able to make it to safety, but they watched as all nearly all of their possessions were taken from them. All the trophies Eiland worked so hard to earn: gone. Team photographs: gone. A photographer chronicling his high school sports career ended up following Eiland around for the year that followed, as his family slowly put the pieces of their life together.
The resulting photo essay shows in moving detail what a teenager in the prime of his high school career had to go through. Suddenly, deciding whether to play baseball or football was not a matter of life or death.
"It was a life learning experience and it definitely changed me a little bit," Eiland said in a recent phone interview. "My outlook on life changed. Anything can happen."
Eiland and his family moved into a small apartment across from his high school for a year, until they found a new house. During that time, he had to make a tough decision about which sport to pursue. He had committed to Texas A&M to play football, but word began spreading that he could be a top pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
Sure enough, in the summer of 2007, the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the second round. Though he had signed with Texas A&M, Eiland decided to pursue his baseball career. He was rated the top athlete, top base runner and best defensive outfielder in the Blue Jays' system after the 2007 season.
But Eiland struggled as a professional, spending five years in the minors. He never made it past Single A.
"I just wanted to go in there and work as hard as I could and do it to the best of my ability and if it was good enough, then it would be good enough," Eiland said. "I told myself at the beginning that once I felt like I wasn't going to make it, I was going to give football another opportunity."
After walking away from baseball, he went back to his high school football coach and told him he wanted to get back into the sport. Eiland is from Houston, so playing for the hometown Cougars most appealed to him. He enrolled last fall as a walk on and started out as a safety.
Eiland eventually moved to linebacker, and now the Cougars envision him playing a rush end role as a hybrid end/linebacker. Those plans came to fruition after Eiland had a breakout performance to end the 2012 season. In the finale against Tulane, he had a sack, forced fumble, interception and four tackles in his most extensive action on the football field since his senior year of high school.
"They told me the last game we’re going to get you in there, we’re going to see how this position works for you," Eiland said. "I’m a pretty fast guy, so the combination of speed and strength makes it tough on the tackles who have to hold me off the end. I think it’s an advantage for me."
Eiland still has plenty of room to grow and develop, but coach Tony Levine has raved about his potential. Eiland is already up to 238 pounds after coming in at 205. At 24, he will be just a true sophomore in 2013. The talent certainly is there. The maturity that may have been lacking early in his baseball career is there.
And, perhaps most importantly, an ability to keep life in perspective is there.