Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A tribute to my Ducks

It really began at the age of 9. Yeah, I'd worn over-sized "1995 Rose Bowl" sweatshirts and hats that were too big, but the spark for my adoration of the Oregon Ducks didn't really happen until my family and I moved back to Eugene in 1998. The Ducks weren't bad that year. Akili Smith was being touted as the best quarterback in the country by many media and opposing coaches, and Oregon ended up turning it what was, for them anyway, a pretty good season from what they had been accustomed to. It shocks many people to look at the Ducks now and then to be told that they were once the laughingstock of the Pac-10. I didn't live during those days, but I know plenty of die-hard fans who did. North Eugene High School used to hold their football games at Autzen Stadium. My grandpa took me to quite a few of them, and almost always we'd have a hot dog and soda or something like that. I enjoyed watching those games, even though North wasn't always the best. The thing I remember best about those Friday nights was, of course, Autzen. That was during the time where you went through a fence and then had to walk up a hill just to get inside the stadium. It's much less strenuous now, although I do miss being able to occasionally run down those hills. Eventually, North Eugene got a new field installed at their school and didn't need to hold their games at Autzen. It was rather disappointing to learn the news. Then, two things happened that brought my "fanhood" of the Ducks to a completely different level. The first was that Oregon started to be a pretty good team from year to year, and I was getting to the age where my attention span slightly improved so that I could actually watch them for more than a couple quarters. The second was that I met a kid my age named Benjamin Steig. His family had recently moved to Eugene not long before our family, and we were in the same ward. We became friends almost overnight, and he told me that his dad's job was one that could get them regular tickets to Duck games. The first one I can remember going to was in 1999, although I actually went with my Uncle Michael. We beat Nevada 72-10! This was unheard of for the Ducks! First of all because teams almost never score that many points in a football game, and secondly because it was the Ducks who did all the scoring!

On that day, I sensed that Oregon was a team that I should start following a little more closely, and thanks to my rapidly developing friendship with Ben and his family, that started to materialize. Ben only lived about 10 minutes away from me, so it was just more convenient to hop on my bike and head over there. We would play baseball, basketball, and football, hang out in his hot tub, get Slurpees, play video games....well, you get the idea. However, there was one thing that stood above the rest, and that was getting on our bikes, hopping on the bike path, and riding over to Autzen Stadium for no other reason than to see the stadium. By this time, Oregon was starting to get some serious national attention, due to their new-wave uniforms and ever-increasing budget provided by "Uncle Phil," Nike CEO and co-founder Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus. I'll never forget when it was announced that Autzen would be adding over 12,000 seats to give the stadium close to 60,000. That was a very big deal, and a sign that our fan-base was growing. By no means is Autzen even close to the biggest stadium in college football....but no one who goes to a game there can tell me that any other place could possibly be louder than that. Our fans travel very well, and you can always hear them clearly in opposing stadiums. I remember going to Autzen and being blown away by how loud it was, but it was a good kind of loud. It is music to my ears, and the ears of every Oregon fan on the planet.

Ask any Oregon fan when the fortunes of the football team began to change, and if they know their history, they will ALL say October 22, 1994. Up against the Washington Huskies at Autzen, late in the game, clinging to a lead, and a freshman corner named Kenny Wheaton makes what is simply referred to as "The Pick." Everything changes from then on. Great players and teams become the norm. The 1998 team, a high-powered offense led by QB Akili Smith, WR's Tony Hartley and Damon Griffin, and RB Reuben Droughns. The 1999 and 2000 teams, which introduced everyone to "Captain Comeback," QB Joey Harrington, and then the 2001 team which rode Harrington, RB's Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith, WR's Keenan Howry, Samie Parker, and Jason Willis, and an inspired and underrated defense to an 11-1 season and Fiesta Bowl win. The 2005 team, which was the year I moved back to Utah, may have been the most-surprisingly successful group in school history. The previous year had been hyped up because Oregon was shooting for their 10th straight winning season, a big deal for a school that had long been used to football failure. Let's just say that 2004 was maybe the darkest year because of all the failed expectations. However, the 2005 group redeemed themselves. QB Kellen Clemens led the spread offense, and was surrounded with play-makers in RB's Terrence Whitehead and Jonathan Stewart, plus a solid group of wideouts led by Demetrius Williams. The defense was anchored by mammoth tackle Haloti Ngata, the most heralded recruit in school history who was named a consensus All-American at season's end. The 2007 team, Chip Kelly's first as offensive coordinator, who dominated opponents with their quick-strike offense led by QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart. Only an unfortunate knee injury late in the year kept Dixon from winning the Heisman and Oregon from playing for the national title. From 2008-2010, Oregon's record is 32-7, and thanks to Kelly's system as well as his fearless approach, the Ducks seemed poised for even greater success.

And who can forget some of our greatest moments? All the comebacks led by Harrington, the greatest perhaps in 2000 against Arizona State; game-winning field goals against USC in 1999 and 2001; Onterrio Smith's record-setting performance against Washington St. in 2001; Howry's punt return TD in that year's Civil War to seal a BCS berth; the domination of Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl to show the nation and computer "experts" that they belonged in the title game; beating #3 Michigan at Autzen in 2003. I elected to stay home and watch the game rather than accompany the Scouts on a trip to hike the South Sister; the 2005 Civil War at Autzen, called the Fog Bowl, in which Oregon smashed the Beavs 56-14 to finish the regular season 10-1; the comeback that shouldn't have been in 2006 against Oklahoma, which ended when Oregon blocked the Sooners' last-second FG attempt to complete an improbable turnaround in which they trailed by 13 with 2:30 seconds left and had some help by the refs (we'll take it!); beating Michigan AGAIN in 2007 at the Big House by a score of 39-7, setting the stage for a fun year despite Dixon's late-season injury; denying the Beavers a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2008 with a 65-38 whooping in Corvallis; earning our own trip to Pasadena in 2009 by again taking down Oregon State. And, well you know the great memories from this season.

These are just some of the reasons why I love to be a fan of the Oregon Ducks. It's kind of hard to live in Eugene and not root for them. Falls in Eugene are heaven for anyone who supports the green and yellow. Rain or shine, you can count on a full house on Saturday's in Autzen, where great teams go to die. Oregon is not like other traditional programs, and they don't try to be. We have our own unique tradition, our own style. Catchy Nike uniforms with the latest technology, facilities that no one can hold a candle to, a locker room I'd like to live in, a mascot who does push-ups after every score, a billionaire sponsor, College Gameday's yearly visits, spirit tee-shirts every year, Win The Day, a team who practices even faster than they play, insane fans who yell entire games without losing their voices, a Harley Davidson, Supwitchugirl, Autzen PA man Don Essig telling us that "It never rains in Autzen Stadium," even when it's raining, being able to go on the field after every game. These are the kinds of things that make me smile and never have any regrets that I am a fan of the Oregon Ducks. Eugene would not be the same place without them. Anyone who visits there or who has ever lived there knows exactly what I'm talking about. Every time I go back there, I make it a point of visiting Autzen. Part of me is lodged there. Before this season, Ben and I took our traditional walk along the bike path to Autzen and talked about the upcoming year. We felt the Ducks had a chance to be pretty good, but we didn't know just how good. On this day, we were lucky enough to find the Ducks practicing behind the Moshofsky Center. We had never even got this close to the team during games! Little did we know how the season would progress. I have to admit that as the Ducks took the field in Glendale last night, I started shaking and my eyes got a bit watery. I was glad that Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit didn't say anything during that moment. The amazing thing about this season is that it is only the beginning of even greater days for the Ducks. They will never again be the laughingstock they once were: Chip Kelly's recruiting and Phil Knight's wallet will make sure of that. The great ones always bounce back, while the rest just make excuses. Lastly, I will close with words that every Duck fan is familiar with, or at the very least they know the sound:

Oregon, our Alma Mater, we will
guard thee on and on.
Fellows gather 'round and cheer
her; chant her glory, Oregon.
Roar the praises of her warriors,
sing the glory, Oregon;
On to victory urge the heroes of
our Mighty Oregon!

Win The Day. Fast. Hard. Finish.