Call Chip Kelly The Granite Fox. Like Rommel before him he has a gift for commanding men, for onslaughts and misdirections, for stratagems that bedevil and mesmerize a superior force. Rommel took 3-star men and materials and extended a war until he ran out of gasoline and had to haul tanks to the front on rail and by horse and wagon. Kelly took a bunch of 24th-rated classes to the National Championship. But Rommel’s war was a grim business serving the agent of ultimate evil. Kelly’s is a harmless diversion of autumn afternoons, a fit, chaste glory for young men. It’s much preferred that the best of a generation receive their wounds and decorations on a painted field, rather than a beach pockmarked by artillery shells and machine gun fire. The horrors of Rommel’s glory live in infamy.
Kelly understands the difference. Frequently he pauses in his artistry with x’s and o’s to honor the accomplishments of those who make greater sacrifices for our country, understanding it is by these sacrifices he has the privilege to coach football and fans to watch it. Football is a game often described in battlefield terms: it has the bomb, the blitz, and the point of attack, the ground game and the aerial war, but Kelly has seen close hand the bitter difference between one and the other. He’s shaken hands with soldiers who are missing one. It’s a privilege to watch him work, especially knowing his reverence for the guardians of freedom, the small acknowledgements he’s made of young men and women the same age as his gifted troops, assigned to a far less tender task in a desolate place where cheers are infrequent.
We debate and anticipate the uniforms and the various expressions of the Oregon tradition and colors, and it’s right we should do so. It’s part of the joy of sport, to wear them and be part of the home crowd. We cheer touchdowns and defensive stands, and revel in our freedom to do so. The wall of noise that greets the Ducks as they come through the tunnel led by roar of the Harley and the prance of an array of beautiful maidens is a majestic thing, but it’s trivia in a world of mayhem and bitterness. Across oceans there are young men from Texarkana and Houston defending a pile of rocks with their lives, just so Darron Thomas and LaMichael James can wear eye black and we our painted faces and new duds from the Duck store. It would be an ill-fitting and paltry tribute to wait until Veteran’s Day to remember that again. Tonight some mother will open a letter from the President, or a young bride will greet officers at her door with the worst of news. When you hit your knees tonight, or snap off the television or pause from your cares, say a prayer for the Granite Fox, and his analagous commanders half a world away, grease-boarding a far more crucial stratagem in a far more desperate place. No one will live or die over the victory won Thursday, even though we describe it those terms.
What Kelly does is described by soft men in suits with combat metaphors, but he understands the discipline, commitment, teamwork and execution of true warriors. He’s seen them train and welcomed them home. As should we.
I haven’t written much football in the last few days. I’m struggling over my commitment to something so trivial in a world so urgent. I’m not a young man. I have little time left to make a mark in the world, to write something that might matter to someone. I work here for meager wages and for a miniscule but appreciative audience. I value every comment and criticism, and the intense privilege of having my words read by a few interested souls. but I can’t help but ask myself, what could I do if I gave all those hours to a bigger task, to a more worthy corner of the world than Duck football? I love the Ducks with all my heart, and I have since I was a boy. It’s something beyond reason or explanation, how a grown man can love a football team and devote hours to studying it and anticipating the next season and the next game and how the defense will defend third and eight. But if I didn’t write again tomorrow, it wouldn’t make a difference to the final score, or to the awards and decorations I’d take to the undiscovered country. Red Smith called sports the toy department of life. Someone has to stock the shelves, but if I stopped, there’s an army of gifted, well-positioned craftsmen to take my place.