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December 8th, 2010 HENRY STERN | Cover Story
 

Duck Tales

Take a trip inside an Oregon football fan’s troubled mind.

     
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Photos By Rachelle Hacmac

Here’s a guess: You’ve got a passion, an obsession that gets your heart pounding and lets you endure the humdrum of work, home, sleep, work, home, sleep.

Maybe it’s for a band. Perhaps you’re a foodie. Or you like to collect snow globes.

Whatever your fixation, it helps get you through the day, connects you to others who share your itch and helps separate you from the hoi polloi who aren’t smart/witty/handsome/athletic/well-read enough to recognize you’re part of a super-special community of fellow travelers.

My passion? Ducks football. Has been for 38 years.

On the outside, I’m a normal guy.

I’ve got a fantastic wife and two awesome kids.

But my mania has caused me to miss family get-togethers, soccer games and trick-or-treating with my kids.

I’ve made loved ones schedule around my sacred Saturdays. I’ve done household chores like cleaning gutters, emptying dishwashers and starting the laundry for no reason other than to absolve my guilt.

I’ve spent more money than is rationally supportable on game tickets as well as Oregon caps, car flags, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies and socks.

Given all that, and given that the Ducks completed an undefeated season last weekend and are playing in their first national championship game next month, you’d think I’d be in heaven.

Actually not. I’m scared.

Really scared.

*

The first Oregon game I attended, oddly enough, was in Corvallis.

I was 7. And it was the Civil War, the annual battle between Oregon and Oregon State that was played last weekend for the 114th time.

A friend’s dad who was a UO alum took me and his son to the 1972 game at which Oregon ended Oregon State’s eight-year win streak over the Ducks. And I clearly remember Donnie Reynolds running 60 yards for a TD on Oregon’s first play.

I grew up near Beaverton, and while my older sister attended Oregon, I didn’t, choosing to go east for college.

I don’t pretend to know why this attachment from childhood stuck while others have faded.

But I do know the following:

  • At age 11, I mowed lawns to be able to buy a ticket for the Oregon-USC game. The Trojans won 53-0.

  • I sank into a depression so deep in 1979 you would have thought my dog had been run over. The reason? I witnessed Oregon blow a 17-0 second-half lead over Washington on an otherwise-glorious fall day at Autzen Stadium.

  • During my senior year of high school, a time when my friends were spending their loose cash on pot, record albums and term papers, I bought season tickets. The Ducks went 2-9.

  • While going to college in Washington, D.C., I flew home for Thanksgiving, driven not by freshman homesickness but so I could go to the 1982 Civil War between one-win Oregon and one-win OSU.

  • After college, when I lived in New Jersey for several years, I spent many Saturdays on the phone—listening to the Ducks broadcast. In that pre-Internet world, I’d either spend untold amounts of money calling my nephew in Portland to put his radio by the phone, or I’d pay for a phone service that would do the same thing for college football games in 10-minute increments.

  • In 1990, to my everlasting shame, I made a woman who drove down from Allentown, Pa., to visit me in Jersey wait in my apartment before we went out to dinner. The reason? I just had to hear the second half of the Oregon-UCLA game. (The Ducks won.)

  • On my wedding day in Portland in September 1992, my nephew took the microphone at the reception to provide regular updates of the Oregon-Texas Tech game.

  • Early in my marriage, my wife awoke long after midnight and caught me in our West Virginia hotel room during a trip tuned to a TV channel we lacked at home. No, not porn. A sports cable channel broadcasting the Oregon-USC game, with the video scrambled by the hotel but with the audio still coming in clearly.

  • And, of course, I flew cross-country in 1994 for a 24-hour visit to see Oregon beat the Beavers in the Rose Bowl season.

Perhaps that history explains how my fan’s madness plays out now.

*

As with most obsessions, I cannot keep Ducks football compartmentalized to one day a week.

Each day, I wake up, read The Oregonian’s sports page, hop in the shower and listen to 95.5 The Game.

At work, I check Oregon websites (sorry, boss) like Addicted to Quack, Duck Territory, (Eugene) Register-Guard reporter Rob Moseley’s blog and the Ducks’ recruiting page at Scout.com.

Why? Because it’s very important to learn if some five-star linebacker from Texas has committed to play for Oregon, or what the latest update is on the health of a backup wide receiver.

And then there’s the holy day—Saturday, when my routine is as regular as an extra point.

For the past decade since moving back to Oregon, I have had four season tickets. My nephew and a buddy get first crack at two of the tickets, and the fourth I offer to friends and family (more on that in a bit).

On game day, I wake before dawn (no need for an alarm) to make coffee. I pour it into one of my three Ducks mugs while watching ESPN.

I set the UO flag outside my front porch, near the Ducks door knocker and welcome mat, and go inside to dress. I make my sartorial selections for the game itself with greater care than the Pope preparing to celebrate high Mass.

If it’s an early season game with warm weather, I choose the Hawaiian shirt with an Oregon pattern. Cooler weather calls for the dark-green Oregon hoodie and one of two UO windbreakers.

The usual headwear of choice among my dozen or so is a white Oregon football cap. Rainy weather calls for the rainproof 2001 Pac-10 champions hat.

I pack a change of clothes in a Ducks bag my daughter made me for Christmas.

It’s all pretty much function over form.

I’m not superstitious, with two exceptions.

Once a year, for the Civil War game, I wear a “Turf’s Up” T-shirt that has meaning because I wore it in 1994, when Oregon won the Civil War game and went to the Rose Bowl. And I also wear one of the Rose Bowl hats I bought in Pasadena, so OSU fans can see what one looks like.

There are car flags and a football with an Oregon logo to retrieve from the basement, as well as a Ducks cooler and a radio to listen to the pregame show while tailgating.

Whatever mix of folks is using the other three tickets assembles at my house at least five hours early to minimize the chance of hitting traffic during the 110-mile drive to Eugene.

I choose the people for my tickets with one criterion foremost in mind—they must be low-maintenance.

No showing up late. Leaving late increases the chance of traffic, which increases stress, and I don’t want the tension of missing even one play added to my pregame jitters. It’s my routine: If you want to come to the game, don’t screw with it.

The car radio is usually tuned to 95.5 The Game for the pregame show until we get closer to Eugene, when we switch to 590 KUGN. On the ride, we’ll discuss the lunacy of some radio callers and hash out our own idiocies of whether defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is calling enough blitzes or why quarterback Darron Thomas doesn’t keep the ball more often during the option read.

We arrive in Eugene and head to a killer parking lot that’s comparatively cheap at $20 and allows easy access back onto I-5 for the drive home.

Sorry, it’s like a great fishing spot—I’m not going to tell you where it is.

But I will tell you I’m usually responsible for bringing the beer in my Ducks cooler—three six-packs for a foursome and whoever happens to drop by our tailgater. And yes, if kickoff is at 12:30, that means we’re cracking a beer by 9 am.

Cigars are reserved for special games like Washington or Oregon State. If my buddy Gary is there, he’s got his grill out with sausages so good that if you’re quiet enough while eating them, you can hear your arteries hardening.

Believe it or not, drinking three beers, eating sausage, throwing a football and occasionally smoking a cigar during a two-hour stretch in a parking lot doesn’t leave me wasted.

But my next stop could.

The past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the “Jägermeister circle,” a pregame gathering of a couple dozen folks that begins about an hour before kickoff in a lot closer to Autzen Stadium.

I barely know many of this ritual’s participants. But it’s a wonderful tradition with simple rules.

Between one and three bottles of Jägermeister are passed around the circle. In the first pass, you predict the final score, take a swig and pass it to the next person.

Topics vary for subsequent rounds. Sometimes you predict how many rushing yards Oregon will get.

Before this year’s UCLA game, participants offered up which STD they wished for Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel, whose sins include calling for a fake punt late in Colorado’s 1996 Cotton Bowl rout of Oregon when he coached the Buffaloes and, of course, coaching Washington from 1999 through 2002.

We’re a mature group.

The circle welcomes people regardless of political affiliation, sexual preference or rational thought.

At this year’s last home game against Arizona, Rob Cornilles, most recently a serious Republican congressional candidate, was there. He didn’t drink. But he brought signs comically patterned after those the Ducks use to signal plays from the sidelines.

*

After the circle, I race to my seats in Section 37.

I want to arrive in time to hear longtime stadium announcer Don Essig’s ritual after the national anthem. There’s his call for home fans to welcome visiting fans, his weather forecast for the game. And, of course, he leads us in a chorus of “It. Never. Rains. At Autzen Stadium.”

Next come the highlights of past glories on the jumbo screen, always culminating in the seminal moment of Kenny Wheaton’s interception in 1994 that fans will tell you turned around Oregon’s fortunes forever.

Then. The Game.

I won’t waste your time waxing about the dreamlike trance I enter for the next few hours as I become absorbed in the play-by-precious-play panorama of spotting cornerbacks who bite on quarterback fakes, running plays mysteriously called to the short side of the field and imminent big punt returns.

Suffice to say, if I concentrated this fully on anything worthwhile in my everyday life, I’d have achieved Grandmaster status in chess or become a virtuoso pianist.

I scream on every play when Oregon is on defense in the belief that it helps rattle the opposing quarterback.

And I like the fact that my seats are next to the section reserved for visiting fans, which allows me to rattle my car keys at them when they leave early during an Oregon win.


(Left) DUCKIN’ NUTS: University of Oregon students Cameron Mertens, 22, Ben Hollander, 24, and Ashley Kirsinnkas, 21, prepare to head into Autzen Stadium. (Top Right) TAILGATING: Fans cheer as the Oregon marching band makes its rounds through the parking lot. (Bottom Right) TOUCH OF MADNESS: Oregon’s mascot reaches out to Darla Silling of Klamath Falls. PHOTOS: Rachelle Hacmac

On Nov. 19, I attended an event at the UO’s Old Town campus in Portland. There, Athletic Director Rob Mullens greeted more than 100 Ducks supporters with the obvious, “It’s a great time to be a Duck.”

With a national championship in the offing, it’s easy to excuse the swagger that was in the room that day, or the cackles that Mullens elicited by telling us that Oregon football has become so popular nationally that “the ESPN football programmer has us on his speed dial.”

The polished Mullens was treated as a minor deity.

But for the real demigod, you have to look to head coach Chip Kelly.

Kelly is one of those rare guys who has the arrogance needed to succeed in sports, plus a legitimate claim to have concocted a secret sauce with his razor-quick offense. If you need evidence showing the benefits of an arrogance that’s outsized even in a sports world of huge egos, check out how often Oregon goes for it on fourth down. Or consider how the Ducks seemed unfazed by trailing in eight of their 12 games.

In 2009, Kelly replaced Mike Bellotti, who had compiled an unheard-of 116-55 record despite Oregon’s generally dismal football history. But for all that, most fans never placed the seemingly decent and definitely milquetoast Bellotti in the class of college football’s most-feared coaches.

Kelly is in that feared class. Funny that. After Kelly’s first game as head coach—a loss at the start of last season to Boise State—I wasn’t sure if Kelly would even last three seasons. To my untrained eye, he looked totally lost on the sidelines as the Ducks melted down in Boise.

Kelly has coached Oregon to a 22-2 record since then. And while his dismissive responses to sideline reporters’ often-inane questions can be painful to watch, he’s our cocky SOB and he’s winning.

And he’s brought my passion, my craving, to a scary precipice I thought I’d never see.


QUACK HOUSE: Fans in the student section cheer as Oregon beats Arizona 48-29 at Autzen Stadium on Nov. 26. PHOTOS: Rachelle Hacmac

So here we are. A month away from the championship game Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., between undefeated Oregon and undefeated Auburn.

Decades of entrusting my happiness to a bunch of oversized strangers who wouldn’t piss on me if I were ablaze.

Years of willful ignorance of the big-time hypocrisies of college sports and Phil Knight’s bankroll buying unending permutations of uniforms, among other things.

Wasted Saturdays—and much of my mental bandwidth on weekdays—worrying about every play and injury.

I won’t be in Glendale. The lottery for tickets doesn’t have room for season-ticket holders like me who can’t afford to donate to the athletic department beyond the $1,500 I shelled out this season for the four seats.

But that’s OK.

I’ll be very nervous between now and then, hoping for a big win and planning to celebrate quietly at home if it happens. I am, of course, worried that big and fast Auburn quarterback Cam Newton will dominate the Ducks like big and fast Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor did in last year’s Rose Bowl.

But what really worries me almost as much is that the Ducks’ point-a-minute spread offense, led by LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, plus Cliff Harris and an opportunistic defense, will add up to a package so lethal the Ducks will beat Auburn 52-49.

Why? Like so much in life, it’s the hoping that matters as much as the achieving. Scratch something big off your bucket list and then what?

It’s the journey, not the destination, and all that.

ESPN “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons dealt with this question in Now I Can Die in Peace, his 2005 book about his beloved Red Sox breaking their curse and finally winning the World Series.

He likens the question to the one expressed by Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate, when he wonders at the end of his victorious Senate race, “What do we do now?”

If the Ducks were to win, what would I do now?

Pine for a second national championship? Sure.

But it somehow seems like it would be, well, less dramatic than the past 38 years.

Maybe I could collect snow globes.

Nuts For Ducks

Sights and sounds of University of Oregon Duck fandom, photographed and compiled by Rachelle Hacmac.


Topping my all-time list of favorite Ducks: Reggie Ogburn, Anthony Newman, Vince Goldsmith, Lew Barnes, Bill Musgrave, Reuben Droughns, Joey Harrington and Keenan Howry.

Topping my all-time list of opposing villains: former Washington coach Don James, former OSU coach Dennis Erickson and, of course, Neuheisel.

I get why Oregon State fans hate fans like me who did not attend UO. The animus is mutual. And I have no room for “platypuses”—those who root for both the Beavers and Ducks until the Civil War. Schadenfreude at your rival’s losses is half the fun.

 
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