As a promising young athlete with dreams of a college football scholarship, Jeff Eben was working hard to earn a way out of the trailer park where he grew up — but his plans were suddenly dashed after a catastrophic skiing accident at the age of 16 left him a quadriplegic.
“He thought his life was pretty much over,” said Tess Toledo, a Leona Cox Community School assistant principal who invited Eben to speak at a school assembly Wednesday. “But his coach would walk into his room in the intensive care unit for 18 months and ask, ‘How many wins have you had today?’”
Early in the process, Eben would say he had no wins, and the coach would always say, “‘Don’t let the no-hopes win,’” Toledo said, “and he’d do this every day.”
Eventually, Eben decided that he had to think of something to say so his coach would leave him alone, Toledo said. This helped Eben find the small victories in his day, whether it was the fact that he ate or that he could breathe on his own.
“Jeff was determined to go back to school and finish his senior year of high school but he couldn’t even hold a pencil at that point,” Toledo said. However, with the help of his fellow students, who offered rides and support, Eben successfully completed the requirements for his high school diploma.
Eben wasn’t done there, as he would continue on to college to earn his teaching credential from Fresno State and enjoy a 30-year career in public education, where he would find himself coaching, teaching and serving as an administrator.
Eben spent more than 15 years as a principal and was the founding principal of a National Blue Ribbon High School in the Clovis Unified School District, where he instituted his former coach’s motto.
“He really felt it was important to be positive and he wanted to spread his coach’s message,” which was to not let the no-hopes win, Toledo said. Now, he spreads the message full-time as an inspirational speaker, which is why he was invited to speak to students on Wednesday.
The speech focused on the social-emotional aspects of a child, which is a focus for many schools in the area, Toledo said. “Our school has adopted the motto of ‘What’s your Win?’” and the visit gave the kids a better understanding of the meaning behind the motto.
“He’s a super positive man who embraces life and makes you feel fortunate,” Toledo said. “He shared that kids should know there is always going to be help and they should never give up no matter what situation they find themselves in.”