“So much for elbow room,” says my friend I.C. Green as we watch Oregon’s morning practice wind down from the soccer stands at Kilkenny Field. “I remember when there were only three or four of us at fall camp. Rich Brooks used to come over and chat us up. How times have changed.
“But at least then we were standing along the sidelines. Now we’re a football field away. Whose idea was this anyways? Heck, I can’t make out Darron Thomas from LaMichael James. Is that Chip Kelley yelling over there? Or is that Nick Aliotti?”
“Gotta be Nick,” I respond. “Too animated.”
I glance at I.C. as he squints at the drills taking place across the way. I wince at the thought I was the one who was supposed to bring the binoculars.
“Hey, want to go get a burger at Rennie’s?” I offer with a half question-half statement, my stomach pleading for help. “We can sit on the deck outside. Clear our minds. Rest our eyes.”
I.C. Green turns and grins. “No problem, you’re the man. We can head back later for the second part of doubles.”
As we get on the bike trail and cross the bridge over the canal, I.C. has a giddy-up in his step. Maybe it is just being on familiar and beloved grounds — I.C. (to family, he’s strictly Isaiah Cornelius) grew up in Eugene, attended the first game at Autzen against Colorado in 1967, and worshipped Steve Prefontaine. His daddy wrestled Kesey in high school (lost, of course). These are Pre’s Trails around us. And Autzen Stadium towering behind us. The Grateful Dead used to play there.
I sense he is about to say something important.
“I never thought I’d see the season that unfolded last year,” he starts, in a low reflective voice that soon develops into a rumble. “I used to sit in Autzen with 15,000 others in the rain and drink from kegs we snuck in. If it wasn’t for the beer, I don’t know what we would have done.
“Last year was like living in a dream. I knew something was up when we overwhelmed Stanford. Take no prisoners! After that one, I found myself walking around at games and taking pictures in my mind because the stars had aligned. It was intoxicating, that’s what it was. And when it came crumbling down against Auburn, well, that was tough. I didn’t sleep that night. But you know what? I’m proud of those boys. Always will be. We were one stinking sloppy field — and a crazy call or two — from the Promised Land. I just wished Chip would have thrown more inside the 10.
“But like they say, the past is the past. Gotta keep moving forward. Gotta keep moving forward.”
We reach the footbridge over the Willamette River and I.C.’s stops to take a look at the rocks stacked on each other in dozens of places in the shallow river bed. He stares intently as if he’s being pulled back, back to that magical season. A long silence interrupts our conversation.
“So how will the Ducks fare this season?” I finally say. “Any chance for a repeat?”
“That’s just like you media types. Always trying to pin people down,” he responds. “But I hear ya. I’ve been wrangling over that in my mind for weeks now. A 12-1 record in the regular season? 11-2? 10-3? I sometimes think to myself 13-0. Whoa baby!
“I got my hands on some of those preseason magazines. That Phil Steele character is on the bandwagon now. He’s got us winning the Pac-12 and maybe getting back to ‘the Natty.’ A year ago, he had us in the Alamo Bowl. The Alamo Bowl!”
I recognize where I.C. is going. Just getting to the national championship game requires great athletes, team brotherhood, microscopic attention to detail — not to mention a bit of luck. Returning to the national championship game the very next season requires all that, plus more. The target on your back is as big as the giant O on the south side of Autzen.
“I just don’t see it,” he continues. “I’m as optimistic as the next guy. I wouldn’t have placed my butt in those wet aisles for so many years if I wasn’t. But I just don’t see the Ducks going undefeated this year. Gonna be a loss or two. Oh, how we use to wish for that to come true so many years ago. And if I’m wrong? I’ll take that, too.”
As we pass a man and woman playing frisbee on the other side of the footbridge, I decide to fling another query at I.C. “So where will the Ducks stumble?”
“Well, the pundits are pointing to LSU and Stanford as likely hits and I can’t argue. LSU, neutral field? Give me a break. That’s a road game for us against a team that’s been plotting for months to wipe clean ‘the Blur Offense.’ They’ve got a good ‘D.’ But who says Chip hasn’t been planning for months? Plus, Jefferson, the QB, has gotten himself into some off-the-field trouble of late. It’s gonna be close, probably a lower scoring game, like the BCS Championship.
“Stanford gives me pause. They got Andrew Luck but no Jim Harbaugh. Did you see Luck, by the way, at media day? Holy smokes. Looks like the second coming of Grizzly Adams. Maybe he and The Tree can go camping together.
“Put his arm and legs on the field, though, and look out. He’s the best pure QB in the league since Elway. He scares me. But those Stanford teams under Harbaugh emulated his toughness. With him gone, I don’t think they’ll be the same.
“So I figure a loss to LSU and a win over Stanford. But heck, it won’t be the end of the world. We’ll survive. We’ll be in the AP Top 10. Ha. Imagine saying that 20 years ago.”
We saunter into Rennie’s and snake our way outside and grab the last table. I.C. orders a shroom burger. I’m plain cheese. His eyes quickly latch on to the sidewalk and the goings-on a few feet away. “Where were these girls when I was going to school,” he mutters under his breath.
“They were here but you were too busy fretting about the keg running dry,” I say with a chuckle.
“Yea, probably so. But you only live once, right?”
I.C. gobbles down his shroomer in about the same amount of time it takes Darron Thomas to lead a 10-play scoring drive — 1 minute and 58 seconds. The Rennie’s version of the Blur, I think to myself.
He manages an extra point with a 5-second downing of his ice water.
Sitting back in his chair, satisfied, he begins pondering the rest of the schedule.
“We beat Stanford, we’ll make the Rose Bowl. We’ll be favored in all the rest. So where is the trap game? Well, it sure ain’t gonna be USC. We got under their skin last season. We know we have a better program than them now. So do they. Kiffen has pretty much said it himself. The Autzen crowd will eat the Trojans alive.
“Same goes with Arizona State. They’ll be good but they’ll implode here. Ever notice how a team usually mirrors the persona of their head coach?
“Trap game? I’m thinking ol’ Arizona again. With Stoops, we’ve built up this history. He wants us bad. This one is in Tucson, too. Clemens and Dixon both went down in the desert. It’s on grass. We don’t do as well on grass. They got a great QB in Foles. I got a troublin’ feeling about Sept. 24. We’ll see.”
I.C. Green has never been one to hate anyone. His mother taught him to love all. But he freely admits to a strong ‘dislike’ for certain things purple. I decide to stir the thick August air some more.
“What about the game with Washington? It’s the last game played in Husky Stadium before the place gets remodeled. I hear the UW is bringing in all their former greats for the game.”
“Ha. I read that, too. They’re calling it the biggest game in years against the Ducks. They’re turning it into the Crusade Against Oregon. The only crusade that’ll happen in that old dump is a steady stream of disappointed homers leaving by the middle of the third quarter. Sark is doing a decent job at Montlake, don’t get me wrong. He’s got them competing and has a few studs now. But unless Kevin Price is the second coming of Hasselbeck, they’re no better than a lower-tier bowl team. Chip likes a challenge. Once he focuses on what the Huskies are stirring up, he’ll have the Ducks ready. I’m thinking something like 38-27 Ducks.”
“What about the Beavs?”
“I just don’t see Mike Riley being able to do another 8-4. I like Katz. Got a good arm. I like Markus Wheaton. Hey, you gotta like him, he’s Kenny’s cousin. But I see Oregon State falling another notch this season. Too many injuries. A couple poor recruiting years. If I was handicapping things right now, I’d say the Civil War has a good chance of turning into a bloodbath, shades of ’08.
“Then you get the Pac-12 Championship game. That’ll be a doozy in early December. Remember it Never Rains in Autzen. Oregon or Stanford will win that one.”
I.C. insists on picking up the bill. He’s a charitable sort. Always has been.
“So, it sounds like you’re predicting a 12-1 or 11-2 regular season, is that right?”
He looks at me like I have asked a really dumb question.
I persist. “So 12-1 or 11-2?”
“If you’re gonna pin me down, Mr. Reporter, it’s 12-1 or bust! Go Ducks!”
No sense arguing. “Well, let’s get back to football practice,” I say. “Nothing like some sunshine.”
We rise and head for the front door. But I.C. doesn’t seem to hear my words. Once inside, the walls adorned with Oregon memorabilia suck him in.
I ready myself for his trip back.
“Hey, did I ever tell you the time I smuggled myself into Autzen inside an empty garbage can? Boy, those were the days. …”