Duck Growing Up
A personal Oregon football story
For a moment it is 2006 again. I am on the sideline of Autzen Stadium pulling my hair, jumping, screaming profanities. Frenzied students are rushing the field. Don Essig sounds like he has just seen his grandson take his first steps as he bellows the final score over the PA system.
Minutes earlier I had been in the press elevator. The Oklahoma sports information director congratulated his Oregon counterpart, my boss, on a game well played, a game that Oklahoma had won. Then Adrian Peterson had practically run me over as he was forced out of bounds on third and goal, and Oklahoma kicked a field goal to go up 13 with three minutes left. Then chaos ensued, and I lost it, as each play unfolded in front of me exactly as I always picture it will when Oregon is going to lose.
Oregon scores a touchdown. Oregon recovers an onside kick. Oregon scores another touchdown. Adrian Peterson returns the kickoff within field goal range. Oregon blocks the field goal as time expires. Oregon wins. I lose all awareness of my surroundings. One of my fellow interns tells me to chill out, pointing to our press badges, which is impossible. My elation is the kind only achieved when everything is surely lost, and then, miraculously, it isn’t. It cannot be contained.
Then Stanford snatches the final onside kick out of the air, and it is 2013 again. Marcus Mariota doesn’t hit Josh Huff streaking down the sideline to put Oregon ahead 27-26. Tony Washington doesn’t drop back into pass coverage and intercept Josh Hogan to seal it. Alejandro Maldonado isn’t carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates for his brilliantly executed onside kicks, past demons vexed. I don’t run into the bedroom to wake up my wife and regal her with the most incredible comeback story she will ever hear.
I sit and stare at the white wall in my living room. It is sometime after 5 AM. I am in Morocco. A bare bulb hangs from the ceiling and illuminates the cement floor, the faded blue sheet covering the window, my laptop on the table in front of me where a victorious David Shaw is being interviewed. I close my computer and put an end to the tiny, pixilated image. Now it is 2001. Stanford blocks two punts and wins 49-42. I run upstairs to my room and lay in the dark crying. In 2013, I’m too mature to cry from watching sports. The mature thing would be to throw the now empty bottle of whiskey I smuggled into my apartment against the wall. I close my eyes and try to sleep, try to not think. The coffee I drank at halftime won’t allow for immediate relief. There’s Mariota’s knee brace, and it’s 2007, and Dennis Dixon goes down in Arizona. Shane Skov strips DeAnthony Thomas from behind, and it’s 2011, and Casey Matthews comes flying in to punch the ball away from Cam Newton. Kevin Hogan scrambles for third down conversions. Stanford grinds the clock. It’s 2010. Oregon can’t get Terrelle Pryor off the field.
* * *
I always had a terrible memory when it came to most things. Some people can give you an answer if you ask about their earliest ones. I don’t really know. There are bits and pieces of preschool, images of shooting baskets on a mini hoop in my basement. But I don’t remember a whole lot, not even from middle school. I’m sure it’s there if I tried hard enough. It just doesn’t come back often.
I can say what my earliest Oregon football memory was, the 1993 Civil War. I was six. It was very cold and very foggy in Eugene. My hot chocolate had peanut shell crumbs in it. Oregon lost, but I don’t remember that part. I remember driving to the game, I-5 a parking lot. A truck plastered in Beaver gear sped by us in the drainage ditch. A few miles later we passed him and his new cop friend, and we all pointed and laughed.
There’s plenty of Duck fans whose memory goes back much further than mine, but these days it seems the median age of an Oregon fan is so young it might be better calculated in dog years, which would make me 182, and my cousins a few decades older than that, and my parents, aunt and uncle a few centuries older than that. Fans only a few years younger than me could probably never fathom listening to games on the radio because they weren’t on TV, or using the outhouses at Autzen stadium, or searching the preseason rankings, and not finding Oregon again, and being told by my dad that Oregon would never be in the preseason rankings. I remember Oregon being the long shot, the little guy, which, of course, wasn’t long ago at all, and neither was the birth of Jesus when you put it in perspective with the history of the homo sapien. The old timers will remind me of miserably long bowl droughts, and though I was born after the toilet bowl, I have still suffered my share of anger, frustration, and heartbreak. These moments have been fewer and fewer in recent years, of which I am grateful. Yet it makes it that much worse when it does happen, brings past disappointment into that much sharper focus. It’s the feeling a well-fed dog must have if their owner suddenly switched out the steak and started them on Purina again. What is this? You never make me eat this anymore! I hate this! What happened to steak?
The more games I watch, the more years that pass, the more each play, game, and season reminds me of another. The memories pile on top of each other, ready to teeter over into my consciousness when something triggers them. I can see them all in my head. Like a pile of Ducks on a loose football they leap and wave their arms, but instead of saying, “We got it! Our ball!” they scream, “Hey! Remember me! I’m like that thing that just happened! Yeah, me too! Me too! Remember us!” You might get a whiff of a gardenia and be transported to your grandmother’s dining room, sitting at the table, bouquet in the center, as grandma wipes off the space in front of you with a wet rag and hums My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. Me, I hear the sound of cleats and picture players walking out the tunnel at Autzen after a game. I see a yellow Frisbee lying in the grass and jab whoever’s next to me, point to it, and say, “Go Ducks.” I don’t believe there’s a special place in my heart for Oregon. Perhaps it started there. It has since spread to the brain. And when Oregon wins, it thrums in knowing contentedness, and says, Yes, and tomorrow you will peacefully read all articles about college football. You have done this since you were young. It makes you happy. And when Oregon loses, it says, What are you doing, idiot? Stop wasting time on the Internet! Why do you care what moronic sports columnists say? All they do is spew out rash, ill-conceived opinions to grab reader’s attention! I forbid you from even checking the polls next week! And in case you’ve got any smart ideas, I’m going to make you think of all the times you felt like shit after a game!
There was the second inaugural, and concluding, presentation of the Seattle Bowl in 2002, a gloomy December day, the Seahawks new stadium packed with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fans, two of them my Dad and I. It’s still the only bowl game I’ve been to. And it’s where I learned to truly hate the University of Washington, as Huskies attended for the sole purpose of jeering the Ducks. They were given plenty of fodder. Oregon was smacked by Wake Forest. My voice cracked when I screamed as Keenan Howry made something happen on a punt return, the last game I would see one of my favorite Ducks in an Oregon uniform. We ran into the Wake Forest band director in the lobby of our hotel before the game and my dad chatted him up. Afterward, we picked up my mom and sister from a restaurant and drove home to Portland in the dark.
I caravaned to Boise in 2009, anticipating vengeance for the cheap shot that knocked Jeremiah Masoli out of the loss the year before, eager to kick off the Chip Kelly era with a rousing blowout victory. Before the game, two of my Oregon compatriots were cited for drinking alcohol in the tailgate area, unaware that Boise maintained one of the most absurd city ordinances ever written into law. During the game, the offense looked as hideous as the field it was being played on. And then after the game when LeGarrette Blount knocked Byron Hout to the turf with a punch to the face, the big screen operator played the video over, and over, back, and forth, to incite the crowd, and I learned to hate Boise State even more than Washington. I remember where I stood when I talked to my friend Joe on the phone and he convinced me to make the trip, behind Lillis, a sunny August day, one of my final as a student on the Oregon campus.
At Autzen, there was the 2007 game against Cal when Cameron Colvin fumbled the ball through the endzone to end the Ducks rally. I was working the Cal radio booth, and Joe Starkey exclaimed, “That’s about the wildest ending I’ve seen since the band came out on the field!” I had to stand next to him and pretend I didn’t care while he high-fived his partner and gave a thumbs up through the glass to a raucous opponent athletic director suite. Earlier in the game, I had the perfect vantage point to watch DeSean Jackson make an impossible angle possible as he turned the corner and ran around Jairus Byrd down the sideline for a touchdown. That same year, I watched Jonathan Stewart get stuffed on 4th and short in overtime, the final home carry of his career resulting in an Oregon State victory, crushing the press box’s sarcastic optimism that had turned real on the injury-ravaged Ducks chances of pulling out a victory. “Roper to Maehl? Who saw that one coming at the beginning of the year?” my boss Andy said with a grin after a first quarter touchdown pass.
Of course, there has been plenty of joy as well, much more than I ever expected as a kid. I’m a long ways from the days when the options for customizing my roster in Madden were few and far between – Alex Molden and Peter Sirmon on defense, Reuben Droughns and Akili Smith on offense, Josh Bidwell punting. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. Back when I brought my Walkman to check the Ducks score during my soccer games on Saturdays, I didn’t foresee multiple conference championships or perennial top ten rankings in Oregon’s future. I don’t remember thinking about rankings or standings much at all. I just remember the wins and losses, a snapshot of moments during and around them. The rest fades into the background. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t care about the other stuff as much back then, but I don’t think so. To say that would be a bit idyllic, as humans are apt to be. My brain just must not have space for it all. In writing this, I had to look up the dates for most games I referenced. I’ve only kept the important parts, the emotions, the people who were there, the stories. And the wins are just as vivid as the losses, even if after a defeat, feeling crushed and bitter, I may spitefully try and not think of them, they always come back sooner than I expect.
There was the Las Vegas Bowl against Air Force in 1997. I listened to it on the radio, sitting on the tan carpet in the old TV room, now the study, at my parent’s house. My Dad told me Air Force had called Oregon an unworthy opponent, and so I took a special pleasure in listening to us destroy them. Afterwards, I was given a green Las Vegas Bowl T-shirt with a big graphic displaying the final score, 41-13. I wore the shirt for at least 10 years, proudly displaying it to my cousin Dante, an Air Force graduate, the next summer when I saw him. Much later, I remember hearing an interview with Nathan Villegas. He said the kicking woes in that game were part of why he chose Oregon were .
The week after the devastating 49-42 Stanford loss in 2001, I went to Pullman with my friend Michael and our dads. I was standing in the corner of the stadium where Oregon batted down Jasson Gesser’s pass to the endzone as time expired, securing a 24-17 victory. The four of us had dinner buffet-style at T.G.I. Friday’s the night before. We shared a hotel room. Michael’s dad snored. Driving up, my dad checked the Windstar’s odometer to see what kind of mileage it got on the highway. We ran into a Cougar fan at a rest stop. He asked me who I thought was going to win. I didn’t want to say anything to jinx it. That same year, there was the Fiesta Bowl victory, when I watched ABC replay Joey Harrington’s touchdown passes set to the music of his own piano playing, the sounds floating from the speakers as each throw hit its target perfectly in stride with a ballet-like perfection
More recently, there was Matthew Harper picking off Mark Sanchez to beat USC in 2007. I remember Kim, a fellow athletic department employee, letting out a shriek of joy in the press box, then covering her mouth with her hands, eyes wide, hoping no one had heard. There was Nate Costa’s hold. There was DeAnthony Thomas’ 100-yard sprint and lean on the opening kickoff against Kansas State. There was Jeremiah Masoli plowing through Lance Mitchell on fourth down to secure the Civil War win in 2009. I watched that game from the lobby of a hostel in Dresden with a laptop I borrowed from a French Canadian, much like how I watch games again this year, 2013.
I don’t know where I was when I first rode a bike, or where I drove when I first got my license, or what I did the day I graduated high school, or what my first class was in college (maybe Spanish with… what’s-her-name). Most Saturdays of my life drift together, except for those on game day, of which I can recall the smallest details. Ask me about a big game. I can probably tell you where I watched it and who I was with. The 2000 Holiday Bowl win over Texas was in the Brantley’s living room. The 2008 Civil War romp was in front of the Boehm’s big screen. Many of them were spent in my parent’s basement, the kitchen at the top of the stairs the spot for a victory recap chat or a long, hopeless gaze of defeat. I think it’s being so far from home, where people pronounce Nike like “Mike” and if they have a drink and watch the game the drink is tea and the game is Barcelona or Real Madrid, that sends me into this state of reflection about the role Duck football has played in my life. And the more I reflect, the more I see how the two of us weren’t all that different growing up.
For Oregon, there were the wins against Michigan as signs to the rest of college football the Ducks were ready to play with the big boys. Nine years after that 2003 game where I first wore my Lightning Strikes t-shirt, I married a girl from Michigan. In that way, at least on paper, I became an adult. She abhors that shirt. Perhaps when I put it on, consciously or unconsciously, I am reminded of that day and she can sense it. But the biggest change for the Ducks came in 2009 when Chip Kelly became head coach. In the following years, Oregon was thrust into the national spotlight. There were new pressures and expectations. Everything got real.
That August I graduated from Oregon. 2009 was the first year of my life, at least the part I can remember, that I didn’t spend in school. Like Oregon at Boise, I didn’t know how to react, what to do with myself. I traveled, tried teaching English abroad, tried all sorts of jobs when I got back to Portland, but nothing that required much commitment. In many ways, my personality had always reflected Oregon football. I felt comfortable in the underdog role. The idea of being a champion just seemed like something other people did. I was meant to lament. Now that wasn’t an option. Oregon kept winning. Here was my team that I had missed parties for, built work schedules around, and they were becoming a winner. I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I had to join them.
We both did a lot of things right. Oregon made the National Championship game, won the Rose Bowl, then the Fiesta Bowl, squashing their rivals along the way. I got married, made more friends, got a couple decent jobs. My wife and I found a nice apartment and lived there for a while. At times we got a little unlucky, Oregon with injuries, me with the economy. But Oregon can’t be bothered with excuses, so neither can I, except when I’m in a bad mood. The truth is no amount of economic fertility would have helped me figure out what to do with myself. I still don’t know. That’s part of why now, in 2013, I idle away my days in the middle of nowhere in Morocco, a Peace Corps volunteer because it seemed a good way of avoiding any real world decisions. You take a few steps forward, you stall. You win the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, you lose to Stanford. Oregon still doesn’t have its national championship. I still haven’t found that idea, trade, project, whatever it is people find, to dedicate myself. But our successes are closer together, the setbacks fewer, and we know how to bounce back quicker.
We’re just not there yet. We’re lying awake. The sun will be up soon. The bare bulb flickers. I switch off the light, flop onto my ponge, and try to lay in a position I won’t wake up with a numb arm. In some ways, this realization comes as a relief. I’ve always enjoyed the journey more than the destination. And so it continues. Through the window, I can make out millions of stars hovering over the Sahara desert. Perhaps there will never be an end, a championship, but that seems unlikely. When it does come, when the Ducks finally finish what Rich Brooks started a decade before I was born, when they reach their pinnacle, my path and that of Oregon football might really begin to diverge. At that moment, though, we will be perfectly aligned.
And then, even more relief, as I think, what if this had been the year? What if Oregon had beat Stanford, run the table, taken down Alabama in the national championship game? What if I had watched it all unfold here, in the dead of night, the only person within hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles besides my wife who cared about the result? What kind of story is that? All this build up, all these years, it can’t end like that. And then, he turned the last dark corner in the building, about to finally look the true murdered in his eyes, when suddenly… he woke up! There has to be a climax, a final story to top the rest. I would have been the girl with rain, a thunderstorm, on her wedding day. This is what I’ve waited for? My dress is soaked! When it happens, I want to be surrounded by family, friends, people I haven’t seen in years, noise, good food, beer. I want to feel like Joe Starkey at the Cal game, and me on the sideline at the Oklahoma game, in the endzone at Pullman, a giant cathedral, thousands of people showering me in rice while I prance down the aisle, jump in the limo, cans rattling against the road as the champagne cork shoots through the sun roof, and I drive off into a miraculous red, orange, and lightning yellow sunset.