There’s not much to say about it that hasn’t been said already. But how can you make people really feel it?
That Kenny Wheaton interception in 1994. The radio call—the huge roar of the full house at Autzen Stadium—and the impossible fact that Oregon had defeated Washington. The Huskies were a conference and national behemoth in those days. They had mounted a hundred ducks on the wall for every pelt Oregon managed to take.
It is a hard task to make someone really feel a single moment that marked a change for everything that came afterwards, but it shouldn’t hurt to try.
Wheaton’s dagger is rightly considered the Fountainhead of modern Oregon football, the sudden powerhouse that everyone now pretends they had been turned onto in the very beginning. You can be certain that’s a lie in nine cases out of ten, when you hear it. Nobody outside of Oregon liked the Ducks before 1994; and most people who claim an affiliation now did not come until after Chip Kelly brought the odyssey home.
My Old Man used to travel on a Pacific Northwest business circuit. He would return to Minneapolis toting along trophies from what I imagined were large-scale adventures through distant realms. Places called by the exotic names of Seattle, and Portland. These burghs seemed so far away as to be unreal, for even the sun rose and set at different times than my own. What I knew about that part of the country had to do with pictures of snowy mountain ranges, volcanoes, and famous rivers holding mighty fish. I knew they played some football out that way, too. But that was it.
One of those business circuits—about ’89 or ’90—culminated in the gift of a forest-green University of Oregon t-shirt. It had the big block "O" in the center and a warlike mallard charging through it. It was an extreme novelty to my child’s mind. I had never thought of a duck as a fighter. Equal in importance to the Duck, it was the first piece of clothing I owned that was green-and-yellow. You either like green-and-yellow together, or you don’t. The colors appealed to me in direct proportion to the fighting duck. It was a match.
I had that shirt four or five years, and had outgrown and faded it, before Oregon had its first big season.
In the early 1990s, Oregon football was more like a rumor in the Midwest than a reality. Scores floated in, though often they were marked "Late" in the Sunday paper box score, and their games never were televised anywhere but the West Coast.
The most you saw of those uniforms—those great yellow-and-green get ups that were better than any of the 500 great and 100 lousy uniforms they have worn since—were best admired in the college football preview magazines. You cut out those pictures and hung them on the wall. Nobody else could be sure exactly what it meant.
But late in 1994, when news came east that Oregon had won the Civil War and the Pac-10 outright, and would be playing in the Rose Bowl, it was almost too much to bear. Imagine that—seeing those yellow-and-green uniforms with the big O-Duck on the sleeves, and the brightly, perfectly painted end zone at the Rose Bowl! It was something that came, you believed in those days, once in a lifetime. It was to be a very special New Year’s Day, indeed.
That team could not have looked better in Pasadena. Their bright, one-off threads put against Penn State’s navy-blue-and-white made the starkest contrast possible. But the Ducks were beaten that day, and it was over. The dream had ended, the giant won. That Nittany Lions team finished 12-0 and should have shared the national championship with Nebraska—but that is a different conversation. The Ducks limped back home.
Despite the loss, Oregon’s destiny had changed. The Gods had reversed course. Because they had won the Pac-10 for the first time in 37 seasons, there was no doubt it could be done again. Because they had broken Washington’s spell, it turned into another rivalry game that was theirs to take. The program capitalized on that season, consolidated its gains. The Ducks grew steadily in strength, in prestige, in potency. Uncle Phil got out the wallet.
The program reached an apotheosis under Chip Kelly with four consecutive BCS bowls and an appearance in the national championship. By an amazing turn of the screw I was at the Rose Bowl in 2012 when Oregon knocked offWisconsin. It was their first Rose Bowl victory since 1917—the third year of World War I. I had witnessed in person what I thought back in 1994 I would never see again. Mysterious how things fall into place with that much symmetry.
But the makings came that fine day in October with the shadows stretching darkly over the field when the warlike mallards slayed the Huskies. Wheaton’s play had clinched it.
The throwback uniforms for this year’s Washington game—now 20 years on—are a fitting salute to the birth of a program. The game, as always, is huge for both schools. It does not matter anymore, for me, who wins or loses. I have become an observer. But those threads are the full embodiment of an aging moment that happened to change everything that came afterward.
Why not try to relive the past?