Saturday brought opening day at Autzen Stadium, a time when the beer flows, the sun bursts, and thousands descend upon our happy little hole in the ground to cheer on our Ducks. It is a day that as Oregon fans we all anticipate from about an hour after the last game ends and the final beer is downed in either celebration or sorrow of its outcome.
Added to the masses was a collection of former Duck players to attend their annual alumni gathering, and two Fishduck reporters traveling to the game together, myself and fellow writer Kurt Liedtke, up for the weekend from Los Angeles for a few days. Fortunately for us, we had received a special invitation to attend the Duck player alumni event from Dan Johnson, who was featured on a recent DuckTales article, an Oregon linebacker in 2000-01 and younger brother of Patrick Johnson.
It was a great afternoon for football, though we arrived early in the morning, before the lots actually opened. Dan had said to meet him at the alumni event at 8:30am. One benefit I suppose of being paralyzed is that we get AWESOME parking spaces, and at Autzen that is no exception, as Kurt and I marveled quite a bit about how much people pay for annual passes to park way off while $20 got us right at the gate.
We got there early and wandered around the various tailgating parties in the lots and external camps near the Boyscout and Masonic Lodge lots. Eugene had showed up in full force for the home opener, but even with the morning calm as people arrived it was clear this would be a scorcher.
There was a fair amount of Nevada Wolfpack fans as well. I commend them for putting up with our raucous taunting, they were good sports, and we went out of our way to welcome a few to Eugene and briefly discuss the game. It turned out that while we were promptly on time, Dan had slept in and nearly missed the game entirely, and while we awaited his late arrival things started to heat up, it was clear the sun would be brutal this day. We had some nice distractions though, as while waiting for Dan to get there the Oregon band and cheerleaders came by to entertain us up close and personal, with a quite possibly very drunk old Nevada fan deciding to join in on the fun.
With Dan Johnson’s eventual arrival, Kurt and I made our way into the event and immediately encountered legends of Oregon’s past. There was Alden Kimbrough, Willie West, and Darrel Aschbacher from the 1957 team that made it to the Rose Bowl, who were also recently featured in a DuckTales article. Eric Edwards (cornerback,1993-98) spotted Kurt and came up to say hello, as many former players know him for his youtube highlights and went out of their way to thank him for bringing back some good memories. Dino Philyaw (runningback, 1994) catered the whole event and his burgers were fantastic (www.philyawscookout.netif you want proof).
Kurt was armed with a camera and made sure I snapped a few photos of him with his heroes, as I took shots of Kurt alongside former Ducks like Rich Ruhl (linebacker, 1991-95), Josh Frankel (kicker, 1996-00), and Eric Edwards.
Bob Newland, Juan Shedrick, Dietrich Moore, Joe Schaffeld, Dan Klein, Zack Freiter, Tony Koker, Josh Tschirgi; everywhere we turned there was a quasi-familiar face above a much more familiar name on a tag that had Kurt and I remarking to each other often, “do you remember that guy? He did such-and-such in that one game, wow.” I know we should maintain some sort of journalistic integrity, but Kurt and I are fans first, and having grown up Duck fans there is still a sense of awe meeting people face-to-face we grew up cheering for.
The former players were ushered out to participate in the pre-game festivities on the field, and we made our own way into the stadium. It turned out that our seats in the wheelchair section of Autzen’s east endzone required us to go through the tunnel, and we found ourselves right back amidst the large contingent of former Oregon Ducks players waiting to be escorted out. The band was also squeezed in there on their way to the field, making for a very packed and chaotic situation, and Kurt and I joked about how if we wanted to we could just follow the players out in the crowd and be on the field in front of 58,818 fans staring at us as if we were former players too, helping to form the tunnel that the team runs through to take the field.
I came up with a story about how I was a linebacker who hurt his back in a wicked collision on a kickoff that put me in my wheelchair, but I forced a fumble got the ball. The back injury may linger, but glory lasts forever. We figured people would probably buy it, but as the players slowly started shuffling out of the tunnel onto the field we thought better of testing the Autzen crowd management crew.
Making our way to our seats, a special section in front of the east endzone bleachers reserved for wheelchairs and their guest below section 21 that had us almost at field level, we couldn’t believe how close we were to the action on the field and in front of us, as the cheerleaders graced us with their presence on more than one occasion.
We felt right there amidst when the action was coming directly at us. And its cool being almost at field level seeing eye-to-eye with all the players, hearing all the hits, and the occasional swears when they make an error.
It wasn’t even kickoff yet and we were already sweating in the heat, water bottles were selling out at the concession stands. At one point late in the game they registered the temperature at field level at 108, though to those of us in the stands it felt even worse. But that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits, it was as loud as I have ever personally heard it at Autzen when things got started, though admittedly I’ve missed a few classic games over the years that likely exceeded that. Still, there’s just something special about opening weekend at Autzen Stadium.
Being at field level is a different experience from the stands. Things seem louder, and depth perception becomes an issue making it tough to tell how much yardage each play gains. The noise of the Harley up close was deafening, and being right in the center of the field we weren’t sure if we were on the “Go” side or the “Ducks” side for the pre-kickoff chant.
Once the game started the Ducks began to roll early. A long methodical drive was capped with a LaMichael James touchdown, and near the end of the first quarter the Ducks struck again with a touchdown pass to Lavasier Tuinei, Ducks rolling 14-0.
Just what kind of team Nevada brought this past weekend was a mystery of much discussion. The Wolfpack were a team that finished 13-1 last season, led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, arguably the greatest player in Nevada team history. But Kaepernick is gone, along with much of their senior-laden team from last year. Nevada should be no pushover this year even without Kaepernick though, as they feature a superstar wide receiver that SHOULD have been a Duck, Rishard Matthews. Matthews was a 2007 commit to Oregon, but failed to qualify academically, ending up at Nevada where he is now a senior almost assuredly bound for the NFL. Rishard Matthews caught eight passes in the game for 100 yards, but it felt like every play was funneled through him.
Nevada had a bye in week 1, and had many players graduate, so nobody quite knew what to expect. Would they be the 13-1 team that beat Boise State last season, or the Nevada teams that have come to Autzen in previous years and got steamrolled. With a motivated Oregon team wanting to redeem their subpar performance the previous week vs. LSU, it was pretty clear by the end of the first quarter that this game would be a bloodbath.
The much greater foe as it turned out wasn’t the Wolfpack, but the heat and hornets that seem to descend on gamedays at Autzen. Kurt made a couple swipes at bees as they buzzed past our heads and commented about it, but it wasn’t until a while into the game that somebody from the bleachers above us yelled, “You know you’re sitting on a hornet’s nest, right?”
Kurt had made a joke earlier asking if Uncle Phil had sprung for new massage chairs because it kinda felt his seat was vibrating…turned out, it was. A hornets nest had been built inside his seat, how we weren’t stung repeatedly with him sitting directly on a nest is a total mystery. Kurt notified security and a few minutes later they sent someone by to spray it down with poison, but it only helped for a short time. Within a few minutes, a whole new swarm appeared. How many cans of spray that guy must have gone through during the course of the game, I don’t know, but I’m sure a lot were used.
The Oregon defense was swarming on the field in black and yellow like killer bees, as our seats were being swarmed with a vicious crew of hornets packing almost as big of a sting as a Michael Clay hit. The game was over by the 2nd quarter, as Darron Thomas set a new school record with five touchdowns in the first half and six overall in the game, tying the all-time record previously set by Danny O’Neil in 1994 and Joey Harrington in 2000.
Unfortunately I succumbed to the heat early. By the last half of the first quarter I was hiding in the shade watching from the tunnel, while Kurt also periodically came by seeking refuge from the brutal sun. Being in the tunnel was actually quite breezy and comfortable, forming a natural wind tunnel it was far cooler than anywhere else in the stadium. But despite the water bottles and big breeze, it was too little too late. Nearly passing out from the heat, I had to leave early leaving Kurt to grit out the rest of the game alone and ended up listening to it on KUGN 590am with the AC on full-blast as I drove home to watch the 2nd half.
After a cold shower and lots of fluids, I was able to enjoy the last half of the game from the comfort of my cool living room. But as i drove home i saw numerous people that had it far worse than me. It looked like Eugene’s EMT’s had their hands full Saturday, sunstroke and dehydration clearly a major issue all day in the sweltering heat. Flashing lights were everywhere, people were laying out in the ground outside the stadium anywhere they could find shade, any respite from the sun attainable was highly sought.
I don’t think we could have asked for a better game for a home opener though. The offense looked together, and firing on all cylinders, a welcome response to the uncertainty over their previous week’s performance and the greater context it might have made for the rest of the season.
And I don’t even have to start talking about our defense (but I will), they shut down Nevada toying with them like a cat that has caught a mouse, relinquishing points only after playing backups and playing very loose defense. They were swarming the ball, just like the bees swarming the section we sat in. None looked more dominant than linebacker Michael Clay, however the one downside of the game that looms afterward is the condition of Clay after suffering a currently undisclosed but potentially severe injury late in the game.
I can’t wait to see what unfolds for Oregon this year on the field. Although I did have one complaint, one that is not new but bothers both Kurt and I nonetheless, the booing of the opponents as they take the field. I know it will take a while for all of the fans to realize how bad it looks when we boo the opposing team as they enter, but it is truly low class, and should only be reserved for Huskies and Beavers. I understand it’s the opposing team and we do love our Ducks, but booing the opponent destroys the reputation the rest of Oregon fans work so hard to create of being knowledgeable and classy.
Maybe it’s not as uncalled for as immediately booing injured defensive opponents thinking that they are flopping like European soccer players as we witnessed repeatedly last season, but I still think we can do better than that. So hopefully some of you will read this, and tell a friend. They will tell another friend and so on, eventually we might even applaud the opposing team as they come onto our field as Kurt and I both did, but I’m not holding my breath for that day to come.
There were a few things we learned on Saturday that can be applied to future games as fans. First, don’t ever count the Ducks out, this is a motivated team with great leadership that seek redemption after a poor performance. Second, it’s probably not the best of ideas to drink heavily the night before an early morning wake-up call for a game, especially on a hot day, it’s not a winning combination. And third, when attending a game at Autzen Stadium, before sitting down check your seat to see if there is a wasp nest underneath.
I know Autzen Stadium has a no outside liquids policy, but I wonder if they would make an exception if fans could bring in a can of RAID, as otherwise I might look a little goofy being in a wheelchair in a beekeeper’s outfit, plus if the heat is like what it was on Saturday I doubt I could make it to halftime without passing out. A round of applause to the person in the Duck mascot costume doing 306 pushups in that heat, if it was hot for us in the stands I don’t want to think about how much that suit must have smelled by the end of the game.