Part 2: Jaiya Figueras: The hero’s coming out party arrives early in 1995
The 1994 season was special for the players and fans alike. The sting of losing seasons had been washed away with an improbable run to the Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth. It was a huge surprise to everyone, except roommates Jaiya Figueras and Kenny Wheaton, who had visualized the team’s success every night since arriving on campus, pushing each other to make it a reality. Wheaton had become a household name for his on-field heroics in the Washington game that year, while Figueras was the special teams player of the year and Wheaton’s biggest cheerleader behind the scenes, driving him and the rest of the team to greater success.
While the two friends reveled in the team’s 1994 success, it had been achieved without the two of them starting together in the Oregon secondary. The hunger existed to do it again, this time with both of them starting side-by-side. Wheaton was now a starting cornerback, but Figueras remained the third string safety during the opening game of the season at Utah. His status would change quickly though, as an injury to the starting safety on the Monday practice following Oregon’s close victory over Utah meant Figueras was elevated to 2nd string, with Dante Lewis getting the starting nod.
For the home opener that week Illinois was coming to town, featuring two future NFL 1st round draft picks on defense in Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy. It was a tough battle back and forth, with Jaiya Figueras thrust into the starting lineup in the 4th quarter when Dante Lewis went down with an injury.
“I was happy that Jaiya was going to get a chance to play against Illinois, injuries happen and it’s unfortunate, but we couldn’t wait for the day that we could both get in and play at the same time. We had talked about it so much, visualized it, planned for it,” Kenny Wheaton recalled, his ear-to-ear smile perfectly evident while reminiscing about the opportunity his best friend and roommate was finally getting. “Before the 94 USC game I was thinking ‘man, I’ll never get to play,’ but Jaiya was always saying that both of us have to stay prepared because we’re just one play away from getting on the field. He understood, he helped me through that whole first year. When he finally got his shot in ’95 I knew he would come in and do his job. He was 3rd string, but he prepared like he was a starter, and I’ve always taken that lesson from Jaiya to heart. Here I had been getting to play a lot from mid-94 on and finally he was getting his shot too, I was real happy for him.”
“When you’re 3rd string you don’t expect to get into the game come Saturday, much less make an impact” Figueras reflected. “I wasn’t wide-eyed or nervous when I went in, I was prepared for the moment. I had already made plays in ’94 as a freshman, I was so focused I wasn’t even fully aware of the situation it being my first time getting real playing time.”
That moment went largely unnoticed by the average fan too when Figueras, wearing #22, replaced the injured Lewis in the secondary, nor did the broadcasters pay much mind, mispronouncing his first name as “Gee-yaw” several times. In the 4th quarter Illinois had an 11-point lead, until Oregon capped a long drive with a Ricky Whittle touchdown run to bring it to within three points, 31-28.
Time was ticking away following a series of punts, and Illinois was getting the ball back, somebody would have to make a play or they could run out the clock and Oregon would lose its opening home game coming off that miraculous Rose Bowl run the year prior. To the fans and players having experienced the joy of being on top for once in the previous season, the prospect of losing at Autzen in the first game back was unacceptable. Into the spotlight stepped Jaiya Figueras..
With 6 ½ minutes left, Illinois was backed up near its own endzone when quarterback Johnny Johnson took the snap and rolled out to the left looking downfield, unaware that Jaiya Figueras was bearing down on him blitzing from his safety position off the edge of the Illinois offensive line on a direct path to him. In an instant Figueras was in the backfield wrapping up Johnson, who in a panicked state exposed the ball, allowing Figueras to swat it away in a single motion. As the ball trickled behind Johnson, Figueras released the quarterback and lunged at the ball, recovering it in the endzone for a touchdown. It took all of six seconds for Jaiya Figueras to go from unknown to Autzen Stadium legend. The crowd erupted in glee over the spectacular play, then pondered collectively ‘who was that #22 that just did that? Gee-yaw? Who is Gee-yaw?’
Oregon took the lead 34-31 on Figueras’ improbable touchdown, and would make a 4th down stop later when Illinois got the ball back to seal the victory. Welcome, Mr. Figueras, to the legend status that your roommate Kenny Wheaton had already earned the previous year.
“Coach (Charlie) Waters called a strong safety blitz, I saw later on film that the left tackle missed his block entirely so I came free and a guard that was pulling actually pushed me into the quarterback, giving me a little extra speed boost,” reflected Figueras on the play that instantly made him a household name. “I didn’t think about it, I just made the play and jumped on the ball. If we just do what the coaches tell us to do and stop trying to make the big play, then the big plays just happen. Everyone thinks they have to make the big play or that they need to stand out somehow, but just do your job at the right moment, at the perfect moment. There’s no difference between a play like that and any other play, I just did my job and something good happened.”
Not just something good, something great happened. The stuff legends are made of happened, the kind of play that is reminisced about for years later at tailgate parties where fans proudly boast ‘I was there’ happened, whether or not they were actually physically present in the Autzen stands. This was the kind of moment every kid dreams about, the kind of play that is re-enacted time and again in backyards across America.
“I wasn’t scared or nervous that there would be a drop-off, honestly, when Jaiya came into the game for the first time in the 4th quarter,” said Wheaton. “He was probably the best all-around athlete we had in the secondary, including that 1994 team. I was happier when Jaiya made that play against Illinois than I was when I made the pick vs. Washington in 94. Jaiya is always the happiest guy for everyone else’s accomplishments, he’s happy for everyone, so it was so great to see him make a play for once. It didn’t surprise me because I knew he could do things if he just got his shot, the coaches finally gave him an opportunity and he took advantage. I was super-happy for him first, and then happy we won the game second, in that order. If people knew Jaiya the man, the teammate, they would understand. He was of course proud he had made the play, but by the time we got home he was ready to get to work for next week, he always wanted to be preparing for the next challenge.”
“It was pandemonium on the sidelines after I scored,” said Figueras of his touchdown vs. Illinois. “We didn’t have a good first half on defense, but Coach (Charlie) Waters remained very calm and collected and said we had to step it up in the second half to get the win. We were thinking we could lose and it was going to be on the defense for it, so everyone was going crazy knowing that now we might take it after all.”
Win Oregon did, and had Jaiya Figueras never played another down as a Duck, his one shining moment when he became the savior of Autzen would still be fondly recalled, but more personal glory and a heartbreaking crash to reality were still to come.
Jaiya Figueras played for the Oregon Ducks 1993-1997, earning honorable mention all-Pac-10 honors his senior year.
It would be understandable if Jaiya Figueras might get overconfident in the wake of such a Herculean moment, but instead he barely reveled in the hero spotlight among his teammates and crazed fans as there was another game to be played, and Figueras would be called upon once again. Dante Lewis was still injured and ruled out for the next game, so Figueras would be the starter for the first time in his career, playing in Los Angeles versus a powerful UCLA team that had just dismantled Miami 31-8 two weeks prior to open the season. The Bruins featured stars of the college game that would go on to fruitful NFL careers; including wide receiver JJ Stokes, quarterback Cade McNown, running back Karim Adbdul-Jabbar, and future NFL hall of famer and human bulldozer, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. This would be a battle, no time to party with the looming shadow of UCLA a mere six days away.
Figueras plunged into preparation, studying film and practicing for the big game. When gameday came around his glorious moment versus Illinois was already well in the past for him, though quick on the tongue of all media and fans. The game would not disappoint, and once again in back-to-back weeks it would be Jaiya Figueras emerging from the gridiron as the hero.
“That was special for the both of us,” Kenny Wheaton remembers. “We had spent so much time talking about playing together, visualizing playing together, preparing for that day when we would both be starting, and finally for the UCLA game that day arrived. That entire week leading up to UCLA was great, Jaiya would study film like he was starting anyway but this time it was actually happening. That week was totally different, because we knew coming out of the locker room we would be playing together, and for him it was coming home since he grew up just down the road in Glendale. I had the closest thing next to my two brothers by my side, and that was Jaiya, that game was going to be special for the both of us.”
For Figueras and Wheaton, they anticipated that this would be the first of many games to come with the duo starting in the secondary. It was the culmination of all they had worked at since arriving on campus, all those nights of watching film together and challenging each other to pushups or additional reps in the weight room, they were ready to dominate.
The game was a back-and-forth struggle, an epic battle of two teams unwilling to cave, too good to relinquish the fight. Tied 31-31 in the 4th quarter, Oregon quarterback Tony Graziani led an impressive drive down the field culminating in a tremendous 4-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Cristin McLemore to take the lead 38-31.
Confidence seemed high on the Oregon side with time running down and victory all but assured, until UCLA struck back with a hail-mary bomb somehow completed into tight double coverage down to the five-yard line. With under a minute to go, UCLA could get at least leave the game as a tie, or go for the win with a two-point conversion (overtime rules would not be implemented in college football until the following season).
Some teams may have yielded the touchdown to regroup for overtime, but the 1995 version of the Gang Green defense wasn’t one to give up so easily, especially not that day with their vocal leader Jaiya Figueras urging them on.
“As a defense, we expected to stop people,” Wheaton firmly stated. “A lot of that was based on the year before, we had the best leader to ever coach me in (Charlie) Waters, and with him there was no panic. You don’t want to be in that position if you can help it, but everyone remained calm, saying ‘let’s go, let’s get after it,’ especially Jaiya.”
Three defensive stands by Oregon set up one final play for the game. Four seconds left on the clock, 4th and goal from the two yard line, a couple of feet were all the distance between an impressive Oregon victory and UCLA’s life extended to overtime, and looming large was all-american left tackle Jonathan Ogden ready to clear a path. Few outside of his teammates would have predicted that it would be the no-name hero from the previous week who would find a way to do it all over again.
“Well, #1 they had Jonathan Ogden, #2 they had Karim Abdul-Jabbar, a really good running back,” Figueras recapped. “So we knew that wherever Jonathan went, Karim would follow. So when they snapped the ball and started running a sweep to the left we all immediately started running that way as fast as we could. As soon as he found that crease near the sidelines he dove for the pylon and looked like he was going to just barely make it in. I put my head down and hit him as hard as I could. He missed the goal line by less than 4 or 5 inches. They had four plays and an All-American and future hall of famer to try to beat us, but we had some good guys on defense as well…Jeremy Asher, Rich Ruhl, Reggie (Jordan), (Mark) Schmidt, Kenny Wheaton. Everybody played their part. We weren’t big, but we were tough.”
What happened next was an obscured cloud of dust and baited breath for everyone watching, as the camera angle down the goal line from the far side didn’t give a clear picture of what transpired beyond the evidence of a massive collision and pile of human bodies. What was clear was that Abdul-Jabbar, having sprinted for the sideline, had an angle to the endzone and dove with enough momentum to make it in for the game-tying score. Oregon defensive tackle Desmond Byrd appeared to perhaps get an arm on Abdul-Jabbar slowing him down slightly but not enough to stop him, when seemingly out of nowhere Abdul-Jabbar struck head first a human brick wall named Jaiya Figueras, and fell just short of the goal line.
“I just put my head down and ran as fast as I could, probably wasn’t good form to put my head down but I did it at the time and kept driving my legs. I got enough of him to barely keep him out, but he was close. Real close.” said Figueras.
The sidelines erupted in jubilation as the broadcasters spouted in disbelief, “Figueras, with the great play a week ago wins the game, again with the game winning play. Unbelievable!”
Unbelievable indeed. Former players can spend a lifetime retelling the story of their one shining iconic moment of football glory, but who gets to have two of them in back-to-back weeks? Jaiya Figueras, that’s who. If one iconic play makes a football player a legend, two in successive weeks had Jaiya Figueras feeling like Superman. As the celebration commenced on the field for one of the hardest fought victories in memory, nobody was happier for Jaiya Figueras’ second big moment in as many weeks than Kenny Wheaton.
“What better person to make the play than somebody who was so instrumental in getting us together as a team to get us thinking positive,” Wheaton exclaimed, “so fitting that he was the one to make the play. It was a huge moment. I remember seeing the play unfold, everyone running as fast as they could to the ball, and I’m yelling ‘He’s not in! There’s no way he’s in!’ I saw the guys who were over there, and I came as fast as I could, shouting the whole way ‘he didn’t make it! he didn’t make it!’ It’s a great feeling when the game is on the line and we as a unit get it done, then for me it was extra special because it was Jaiya, it was my guy making the play. As teammates we knew he could do it, because he worked hard everyday in practice. He showed us on film and special teams that he was a beast. We all thought we were going to be really good for a couple years here because he was just a youngster too…”
With Dante Lewis healthy enough to return from his injury for the next week’s game against Stanford, in spite of Jaiya Figueras’ repeated heroics for two weeks in a row, he would be relegated back to the bench. This did give an opportunity to enjoy the moment a little, unlike the Illinois game where Figueras immediately started preparing for the next battle, he had a chance to bask in the glow of what had transpired.
“After that UCLA game I felt unstoppable, like I could do anything. Whatever happened, I could dominate this game, barring injury. I was confident,” Figueras remembers. “I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I guess I should have looking back, because my mind was on the next game, but it felt good.”
“Yeah, we celebrated a little bit,” Wheaton laughed, “but our biggest thing to me was just being back in our apartment smiling at each other knowing that we were doing just what we said we would do, we were finally both starting for the Ducks and making things happen.”
Unfortunately, that which goes up must come down, and for as high as Jaiya Figueras had soared in a 7-day stretch from the Illinois 4th quarter to the UCLA goal line stand, a painful and devastating crash to earth was to come quickly. One week after his UCLA heroics, Jaiya Figueras’ season would come to a sudden and gruesome end with a broken leg suffered vs. Stanford.
“Against Stanford the next week I came in for a play and the running back cut back on me, I went after him but my foot got stuck in the turf and I tore every single ligament and broke my leg. Out for six months…” said Figueras, pondering the what-ifs of the moment. “I was super devastated. I had torn my MCL just after the Rose Bowl and was just coming back from that getting my speed back. I got hurt being at the height of my time. I just wasn’t able to ride that wave the way I wanted to,” lamented Figueras, speaking like a true Californian. “Here comes the wave, and lucky Jaiya manages to catch one of the biggest waves in history, I should have been on the ride of my life, and then I immediately get hurt. That was a great team, I wish I could have played with them more. Our defense was so good in ’95, I’m not sure if fans remember just how dominant it was, we didn’t really realize how good we were at the time either, that team had great players and should have done better than we did.”
“For that Stanford game Jaiya had the same preparation regardless of if he had to step back in the depth chart or not, his prep was always the same, saying ‘c’mon guys let’s go!'” Kenny Wheaton stated emphatically. “He didn’t hold his head down, he didn’t drag his feet even though Dante (Lewis) was going to start instead of him. It was difficult for me because when I’d turn and look my buddy wasn’t back there starting the game with me. But we had to still play another game, and Jaiya prepped the same way he always did. When he went down with the injury it was hard for me, it was hard to see him down because he had been our vocal leader. It was a really tough time for our defense, for a couple weeks we lost our voice. In the locker room he was still a voice, but we lost our vocal leader on the field.”
Jaiya Figueras would spend the rest of the 1995 season on the sidelines watching his teammates accumulate six more wins during the regular season following his injury accumulating an impressive 10-2 record, but losing in embarrassing fashion in the 1996 Cotton Bowl to Colorado, 38-6.
“I always thought the ’95 defense was better athletically and physically than ’94, but the difference was trying to get all of us to play on the same page,” Said Wheaton. “We were more interchangeable, more parts, more safeties that could step out and cover, we had deeper depth at all the positions. It wasn’t a complicated defense, it was a little different under Coach (Charlie) Waters, but it was all guys who had seen players like myself and Jaiya and Desmond Byrd having success as youngsters and maybe there was some resentment with the older guys. Maybe we weren’t as tight because the youngsters were doing good things and the older guys maybe should have been playing more, and perhaps athletically, they were probably right.”
In part 3’s conclusion tomorrow, friends go their separate ways as Wheaton departs for the NFL, while Figueras tries to right the ship on his own in Eugene.