Like most Duck fans, I’ve had my share of game experiences at Autzen Stadium. I’ve cheered on the team, reveled in the victories and suffered through the losses, tailgated with friends before and after in the parking lots through rain or shine. But my perspective is a little different than most of yours, at least a little bit lower, because I am paralyzed from the waist down.
I wasn’t always this way, I wasn’t born into it through some deficiency, a car accident after high school caused it. But it’s not all bad, from the wheelchair decks I don’t have any old folks at the stadium yelling at me to sit down because they can’t see, something many of my able-bodied friends in attendance often endure endless complaints about.
People always wonder and ask, what is it like seeing a Duck game (or any sporting event) from a wheelchair? What’s the hardest thing to deal with? Do you get better seats? Do the stadium staff provide assistance? And the most frequent question, how fast do you get going down the ramp on the way out? These are the questions I will be answering for you this week, and hopefully giving a little insight into my world, from a height of four and a half feet.
Going through campus and across the footbridge through the woods is simple enough as long as the pavement is solid. There are handicapped parking spaces available east of the stadium, though “available” is a loosely used term, we all know the disaster that is the parking situation at the stadium. With the construction taking place by the Cas Center I can only imagine it being even worse this year.
While most people upon arrival spend hours wandering through the crowd of tailgaters, I tend to stop by specific friend’s reserved spots, which are hopefully somewhere close to the asphalt track around the outside of the stadium. Getting out in that pea gravel or grass is not only a way to ensure I show up looking like Pig Pen when I get inside, but it saps my energy worse than going up that ramp.
Obviously the way up the ramp is the most difficult part, but certainly easier than trying the stairs in a chair, and a smoother ride. There is an elevator that can also be used, but it is usually crowded. The stadium also provides a tram service, but the line for it is worse than the elevator, so I usually end up going up the ramp the long way, c’mon let’s move it people!!!
With some assistance, it isn’t too difficult to overcome the ramp and reach the wheelchair decks at the top of the Autzen bowl. The crowd can get a little claustrophobic at times, especially when seeing everyone at butt level. I try not to think about being surrounded by thousands of people being shorter than everyone else as perspective of my surroundings can easily disappear like being in a tight forest grove trying to get a sense of direction, and there is the ever-present threat of being trampled under eager crowds wanting to reach their seat before kickoff. Most people are more than happy to accommodate, but a little courtesy is always appreciated.
My main focus during this often treacherous journey is to not destroy some lady’s toes because she wore flip-flops to a game, this is easier said than done. It’s a never-ending battle while making the slow climb at a crawl’s pace, and rarely does everyone come out of it unscathed. Fortunately, the chair also acts as a pseudo suit of armor, as metal usually tends to win in the fight vs. flesh, so people usually know to give a little room. Still, I don’t think it’s asking too much for some space or a path along the side to expedite my trip, which reduces the chance of injury to others.
The four decks on each side of the bowl are actually pretty good seats, equivalent to standing room only tickets without having to get there four hours in advance to reserve the best spot along the wall for yourself. We don’t have to worry about the drunk guy in front of us that’s always standing up at the wrong time, it’s clear sight lines of the entire stadium. I prefer the East end, simply for the fact that I can get a commanding view of the big screen. For those of you who sit near the band in the west end zone and find it annoying having to constantly turn around to look at the replay, yeah try doing the same thing in a wheelchair and then come complain to me.
Sometimes I wish i could get a field pass just to get down at field level where it is less crowded and then I wouldn’t have to deal with the ramp. At other stadiums they do that for some, but with the stands being so close to the field I can understand how that isn’t available for everyone in my situation. But man, I would love to be down on the field, not having to go up and down that long ramp…until I think about the likelihood of a passing route where the safety and wide receiver smash through the sidelines bowling over anyone not fast enough to get out of the way, and that usually cures me of that fantasy. I remember years ago when Ryan Mitchell plowed right into the marching band gear before halftime one game, I don’t really want to be the bass drum in that scenario so I guess I will reluctantly stick to the decks up top.
Picturing myself as the drumkit in this situation is why I don’t feel too bad about having to go up the ramp instead of getting a field pass.
There are also a few select handicapped seats available under the roof along the rim, but seats are limited compared to the open space of the wheelchair decks. Even the decks can get crowded though, don’t think we’re all up there with great views kicking back in a La-Z-Boy, brew in hand, living the life of luxury.
The way out is always the best, no matter the outcome of the game. Remember as a kid wishing you could take a grocery cart to the top of a hill and ride it down, except that they were always so wildly unstable there was a 99.9999999999% chance of injury that usually detracted you from going through with the plan? Well, my chair has a bit more stability, so I get to live out that dream on the long sloping ramps of Autzen Stadium, and if I get out ahead of the main throngs it’s absolutely golden. You WISH you could do this with me, just admit it. In the off-season they should open up Autzen Stadium just so that us wheelchair-bound folk can have races down the slope, it is so much fun. I fly down the ramp weaving in and out of the drunken fans like a race car driver. It gets dicey if I wait too long though, as the crowds really fill up that ramp once the game ends and then it quickly becomes almost as crowded as the trip coming up.
Going down the hill has its own skill set required, as it’s harder to stay behind the crowd, and I am always hitting heels and apologizing all the way down. Strangely enough, when I run people over no matter who’s fault it was, they always apologize to me, I’ve never understood that. I mean, I am the one driving. And its not my first day behind the wheel. If I wanted to I could take huge advantage of this and be a total jerk. As with the way up there is the tram or the elevator option, but seriously who wants to wait around for room on those, I could almost be at my car by the time there’s space for me.
I hope you got just a little insight into what its like for those of us in chairs, electric and manual. If you see someone in a chair give them a wide berth if its on the downhill, but don’t ignore us. We like to say hi to people too. We are Duck fans too, as loud and proud as anybody else. I just wish the Duckshop sold attachable Duck flags like they make for cars.
If it looks like we might need a push, just ask, I promise we don’t bite. I will always accept a little help, I just like a warning before I get the speed boost. If you are in a chair and have never been to Autzen, don’t feel daunted by the size of the hill or the crowds of people. The elevator is always an option, operating from ground level at the South gate, and the staff is quite accommodating to almost any request we have. The tram that runs almost every thirty minutes to the top of the bowl is a great resource for more than just the obese, old, and lazy, but by the time you wait for that thing you can get some refreshments and to your seat within the same time frame.
Just tell whoever you have with you to eat their wheaties and start pushing, it’s a free ride and the most-time efficient, as long as there is somebody to push…You will be up there before you know it, enjoying hopefully a warm, lightly breezy afternoon on the deck watching the Ducks do what they do in Eugene.