It is the morning after Oregon’s worst home loss since the beginning of the Carter administration…and I couldn’t be more nostalgic or more proud.
I first came to know the University of Oregon in the fall of 1993. I was a freshman in Eugene and those first 90 days between drop-off and Thanksgiving were as eventful and defining as any in my life.
I got a group of guys lost on campus looking for a party and a few of them ended up becoming friends for life. I took a drama course with the girl from Always Sunny and never said a word to her outside of class. I got my first incomplete. It was in comparative literature. The professor wrote on my midterm, “Please proof. None of what you wrote makes sense.” During her office hours, I argued it was all lesbian literature and I couldn’t relate—and that sealed my fate. To her credit, none of what I said, did or thought at 18 made sense. To my credit, she had recently come out and was trying to re-define herself through her syllabus.
I had a journalism professor who took the course book to Kinko’s and sold copies at a discount out of his office. He was later fired. But it was through him I learned the two most important lessons of being a journalist: 1) Always hustle. 2) Always have something going on the side.
I got arrested for throwing water balloons.
There was a glorious moment one evening after midnight riding bikes toward the dorms by the memorial union, whisking through piles of soaked leaves and watching my buddy in front of me let go of his handlebars and spread his legs as if he were flying underneath the street lights. And then, he ate shit.
I told the campus paper’s man on the street that I was most looking forward to going home for the holidays to use my own bathroom because the toilet paper at home was softer. I was introduced to the smell of the bungalows and apartments that served as off-campus housing: It was something like stale beer and bong water mixed with the scent of your clothes left in the washer for a day or two.
I had a crush on a girl who Rollerbladed everywhere. Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask her out. We ate cheese sticks at Lyon’s and talked about the Pixies then went back to my room and made out for a bit. She never took her in-line skates off and I had bruises on my shins for two weeks.
I got asked to a party in a barn where you drank enough beforehand to make you sick in the hay bales. My date passed out underneath a tractor and her friends tried to revive her with Red Vines.
The Ducks were the reigning national champions—in Ultimate Frisbee. There was a banner saying so hanging over the threshold to the club sports office.
At parties, we danced unironically to U2 and INXS (I still don’t know how, but we did) and when the school’s unofficial anthem ‘Shout’ came on people went fucking nuts. I studied in the same spot Belushi started the food fight and my academic advisor worked in the same building that served as Dean Wormer’s office.
I found myself standing in front of one of the lecture halls waiting to be let in for my first big midterm—Western Civ. It was also the first big storm of the year and everyone gathered outside was wearing yellow slickers and matching galoshes. I remember thinking that from above we probably all looked like little rubber duckies in a carnival game. Just bobbing and floating and trying to identify one another even though we all pretty much all looked the same. At that moment, I realized how small I was yet felt like I was a part of something.
I felt like a Duck.
There was football. Definitely. But not the kind that easily comes to mind when Oregon is mentioned today. Along with being able to ride the bus anywhere for free, your student ID earned you a season’s worth of football tickets. There were no lines to stand in to get them. No lottery to enter. Just go to the bookstore and when you’re checking out with your textbooks, and your Artgum eraser and your Twix, remember to ask for the tickets. They came wrapped in a Post-it and fastened with a paper clip. The store clerk then shuffled through a dot-matrix printed stack of student names, found yours, and crossed it off. Unless she didn’t. If that was the case you could go back and get a spare set, but mostly it didn’t matter. Tickets were usually left on the table near the dorm mailboxes on game days by people who found something better to do, like sleep all day or go for a hike or hack it up on the Humpy Lumpy or make a mix-tape for their high school sweetheart 2,000 miles away.
I went to the games, but I didn’t wear anything that said Oregon on it. Well, that’s not entirely true. If my pleated Eddie Bauer mom-jean-looking things and flannel tied around my waist said Oregon, then I definitely had school spirit. We’d carry boda bags in the games (under the flannel) filled with the most lethal cocktail of Snapple and Pepsi and Southern Comfort. One game it was sunny and by the second quarter there was enough room for me to lay down across the bench and pass out for five minutes (maybe longer).
There were football players on campus too. You could tell because mostly they wore John Deere green Oregon sweats and lots of them had casts on or cuts on their faces. They were guys you’d sit next to in class, not see in commercials. The only preferential treatment they got was a guy came in and cooked waffles for them in their dorm on Sundays.
Oregon started out 3-0 that year but finished 5-6 and won only two conference games: one at Arizona State and one vs. Washington State. The Ducks lost the final three games to Arizona in Tucson and Stanford and Oregon State at home. A big third-string O-lineman whose nickname was The Hedgehog was on my floor. The night before the final game I remember him calling out, “Bragging rights for the entire state of Oregon are on the line.” His roommate kept a lot of tarantulas and always walked around with one on his shoulder. I remember thinking, well, win or lose at least you’ve got all these spiders to look at.
I felt at home at Oregon. Expectations weren’t too high at Oregon. People kind of did their own thing at Oregon. My RA was a falconer who dabbled in magic and spoke in Monty Python quotes only. My roommate bought a giant lizard and got a tattoo of the Zoot suit-wearing skeleton from Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street on his right shoulder from a guy one dorm over. I used to order up Domino’s and wait for Baywatch to come on instead of reading the lesbian books. My beige phone rarely rang and when it did it was usually someone from another dorm looking for someone to buzz him in.
But the next year, something happened. The football team started winning games it shouldn’t have. First it was at USC, a fluke. Then it was at Cal. OK. Then on Oct. 22, it happened. The Pick. Kenny Wheaton plucked a ball destined for
Eric Bjornson’s Dave Janoski’s hands and a Huskies touchdown out of the heavy Eugene fall air. He cut back at the 35 and rambled the remainder of the 98 yards into Oregon history. And that was it. Cut to a little over two months later and I’m on the 47-yard-line in Pasadena watching the Oregon Ducks, my Oregon Ducks, play in the Rose Bowl.
Over the two decades to follow, the Oregon Ducks navigated with webbed feet the unfamiliar waters of national sports prominence. It took awhile for them to be thought of as more than flashy uniforms and a great practice-turned-drinking facility, but eventually it came to pass that the Ducks would be mentioned in the same breath as the Florida schools, as Notre Dame, as the Michigans and Ohio States…as Ala-fucking-bama. When talked up alongside USC and UCLA, the Ducks were lauded as the school that stole all the five-star recruits from Compton and Long Beach.
It was a time both glamorous and disconcerting. You see, over the course of their winning seasons, I’d forgotten about Eugene, my Eugene. I forgot about walking to Autzen on the train tracks pounding Blitz Weinhard’s and eating Carl’s Jr. I forgot about peeing in the bushes just after crossing the Willamette footbridge. I forgot about sneaking beers and downing slices of barbecue chicken from Track Town post-game. I forgot about the constant drizzle that was the great campus equalizer, turning the cutest of cheerleaders into someone who’d just bobbed for apples or one of those scary drippy-haired girls who walks out of the TV in a Japanese horror flick.
Instead, I bought into the phony backstory and over-marketing of Oregon football. I cheered them on like a professional franchise. I threw down for the gear. I waited for their weekly uniform offering to show up on my Twitter feed. I made the stupid ‘O’ with my hands and sang along to that cloying ‘I love my Ducks’ song. I cooed at the expansion of Autzen. I marveled at the student body’s adherence to game day dress guidelines and syncopated chants. I devoured the Chipotlezation of my college experience.
I didn’t really realize all that had been lost during the days of the Ducks’ rise until Saturday night midway through the third quarter, as the Utah Utes extended their lead to 30. A flurry of texts arrived from a group of about eight guys, all of whom went to Oregon with me. This is the crew who knows the absolute you. The you scrounging futon change for a 12-pack and a pizza. The you who got turned down for a job at Subway because you didn’t have enough work experience. The you who got dumped on the front porch and ran out of gas on the way to Taco Bell. These guys are now great dads. They have good jobs. They’re geographically diverse, sometimes separated by continents. And yet, when the texts started about the carnage at Autzen, it was all—surprisingly—whimsical and positive. Old girlfriends were mentioned, bars that are now closed (Guido’s, Taste of Germany, Old Max’s) were referenced and the undercurrent of it all was a reverence for who we were as…Men of Oregon.
The disconnect of the last two decades was no more clear to us than when the cameras panned to the arterial clogging of students jamming the exits at the start of the fourth quarter. Wait? What the fuck is this? Just because you’re down 40??? What’s this leaving early shit? Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? …Sit back down you sonofabitch. Just because you haven’t seen the Ducks demolished at home, like this—like, ever…doesn’t mean life’s not going to throw you a smackdown every now and again. You go to Oregon, which means the only doors that are going to swing wide after graduation are the ones to the Uber you’re driving. Every Duck alum I know who’s found success has had to storm into the saloon, six guns a-blazing yelling “yippie ki-yay mutherfucka” just to get a first interview. Matriculating from Oregon doesn’t promise an endowment, a network or prestige. But what it does deliver, from that very first day splashing around puddles in front of a lecture hall, is the knowledge that even though you may be an individual—you’re gonna have to fight to have your voice heard.
And so, to that one freshman who stuck around till the final gun at Autzen last night, splayed across an entire row of empty benches and staring up at the early fall comforter of the warm Eugene sky, I salute you. Welcome to Oregon.
For the rest of you, I say the same thing: Welcome to Oregon.
As for me, during the fourth quarter I dug deep into my closet beyond the Christmas cardigan and once-a-year church slacks and pulled out that freshman year flannel. It smelled a little like regret—plus stale beer and bong water mixed with the scent of your clothes left in the washer for a day or two.
I put it on, took a sip of beer and smiled. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like a Duck.
Photo: Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard