Can you smell it in the air?
There’s a sense of something not quite definable but very enticing wafting on the breeze that demands attention, like the scent of somebody barbecuing nearby. It’s that beautiful, unavoidable event we crave most, and wait for what feels like a lifetime to experience again. It’s nearly football season, the duck days of summer are nearing their end. Football is back, football is back, thank Haloti almighty, football is back!
Today fall camp officially begins for the University of Oregon Ducks, signaling the start of the 2011 college football season. It is the time of year when everybody is undefeated, when fans of every team can be optimistic of their chances, teams prepare for the opponents to come, hope springs eternal leading to opening day.
Can you taste it?
The electricity is building in the air, the Duck flags are being unfurled, the online messageboards are overwhelmed with posts speculating on certain players and brimming with excitement for the games to come, travel plans are being reserved, new Oregon merchandise is being purchased, it’s coming.
Oh sure, there’s a pretty important “neutral site” game that comes first, but considering the uneven distribution of tickets between the competing schools, the vast majority of us will be left watching on television. So as much as the LSU matchup is anticipated, the days that make Oregon football special will come a week later for the home opener, the day the Autzen parking lots will be abuzz with burgers grilling and footballs flying once more. Opening day is coming, and not a moment too soon.
For fans it is the glorious three months that the rest of the year are spent obsessing over, but for the student-athletes and Oregon staff it has become a year-round venture. There is no off-season at the Casanova Center, there are no off days, no time to rest, as every morning is another opportunity to win the day.
Can you hear it?
To participate in college football takes dedication and hard work. It requires tremendous effort and sacrifice in time, mind and body; it is most certainly not for the faint of heart. For most, it is a toil that despite public perception goes largely unheralded. For every star garnering headlines, there is a legion of backups, scout team walk-ons, trainers and advisors grinding away daily going largely unnoticed. Fans revel in the glory of gameday, but don’t witness the work that takes place behind the scenes leading up to those moments.
In the long months since we last saw the Oregon Ducks leave the field in January coming up a wrist short of a national championship, there has been no break, no rest. Winter workouts led to spring practice and the spring game, that one oasis in the vast desert of offseason we anxiously anticipate to get our Quack fix before September comes. On days when there was no informal practice, athletes were still hitting the weights and preparing, determining what can they do to win this day so that come September 3rd the team wins that day. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Can you feel it?
Less than 3% of all college football players ever get a shot of playing in the professional ranks. Most are bit players, cogs in the machine of a team game requiring total dedication to be successful. Some may fight for four or five years and rarely get to play in a game or be mentioned in the Monday morning postgame water cooler conversations among the office armchair quarterbacks. Others may achieve a spot on the field, only to then be stripped of their reward tragically due to injury. There are many former players who years after hanging up the jersey for the last time still bear the scars of battle. Coaches preach competition to determine who gets to play, and with the pool of talent collected at Oregon, the competition is fierce.
For every LaMichael James, there are ten Axel McQuaw’s. For feel good story players like Justin Hoffman and Ramsen Golpashen going from walk-ons to scholarship players expected to play huge roles, there are many more peers alongside them working hard for just one opportunity to line up on that field when it counts. They live for this, they work for this, they dream of this moment.
As fans, we boast over how long we’ve supported the team, how we didn’t leave early (though you know who you are who did walk out or turn off the TV before the clock hit zeroes), how many road games we travel to, how much we love our Ducks. The passion is there, but few realize the sacrifice that these young men make just for the opportunity to represent their teammates, their school, their community. Between classes, study sessions, practice, film study, weight training, training table, treatment, and homework; the day-to-day life of a student-athlete is intense. With all the fancy-schmancy facilities and slick Nike toys to test some may think they are coddled, but live a day in their life to witness the difficult reality, the maximum effort that is required every day to be a college football player.
Can you see it?
During the course of a college football season playing 12-14 games, it comes out to roughly 40 hours of actual football played during the entire year. Of that, easily 2/3’s is non-action waiting for the next play, commercial breaks, and halftime; so maybe 10-15 hours of actual action, if that. For those few hours, these young men sacrifice their entire year, waking up well before the sun rises to work all day everyday well into the night. 99.999% of their time is preparation in the hope of participating in that other .001% when the whistle blows and the battle is finally on.
For these student athletes, the reward is in the team’s success and the pride in carrying on the tradition. They sacrifice their bodies, sometimes causing permanent injury, all for the opportunity for that short amount of time on the field.
The names may fade from fan’s recollections after a few years once their time as a Duck is done, aside from the biggest of stars, but for a lucky few they make their mark in one glorious moment. Over time those that once wore the uniform assimilate into the fan culture, donning their colors as fans on gameday in the stands recollecting the days when they too got to run out of that tunnel. The battle scars fade, but their memory of those brief moments of glory remain as vivid as the day it happened.
Can you sense it?
Tailgate parties are being planned for those few glorious days we get at Autzen Stadium each year, now only a month away. Friends will come together to share food and drinks, and exchange thoughts on the game to come. You won’t know it, but at the tent next to yours stands an unassuming gentlemen dressed in Duck colors like you. Nothing may standout about this fellow at first glance, though perhaps his face is oddly familiar even though you can’t quite place it. These days they are another face in the crowd, but once upon a time they were an Oregon warrior, donning the armor and sacrificing everything for our entertainment out on the Autzen turf. Take the time to introduce yourself, and say THANK YOU for being a Duck, for they are deserving of every fan’s respect and gratitude for their efforts.
It’s here…almost. Camp is starting, the final preparations are being made by players, staff, and fans. It is the greatest time of the year, when all the energy built up from months of anticipation and hard work is finally unleashed with raucous chants of “GO” and “DUCKS” reverberating from each side of Autzen Stadium. The fever pitch is boiling over, the clock to kickoff on the scoreboard has counted down to zero, the decibel level so high everyone can feel the soundwaves bouncing off of them. The ground shakes, nearly 60,000 are standing, screaming. The world is watching as the kicker approaches the tee…
For fans, student-athletes, and staff, these coming days are special. Opening day of Oregon Ducks football is a benchmark in our annual lives, a time circled on the calendar like a kid awaiting Christmas. A treat awaits that indulges all the senses, a time to celebrate with 60,000 Duck brethren. However, as obsessive as we may get with the days counting down to kickoff it must be remembered that this isn’t a matter of life or death, for we obsessed many it is far more important than that.
The time is coming, are you ready?