Follow the legend

Never has Autzen been so quiet.

Never so somber.

As Oregon Duck star running back LaMichael James rolled back and forth on the ground near the west end zone on Thursday night, his elbow a complete mess, the 58,796 on hand for the California game did some squirming of their own.

The tortuous image of James’ arm bending backwards was shown on the big screen.

Seconds turned into minutes.

Oregon running back LaMichael James leaves the field Thursday night after dislocating his right elbow on a gruesome play that drew comparisons to the injury pro quarterback Joe Theismann suffered in 1985.

Fidgety hands texted those watching at home.

“What is the story on James?”

“LMJ’s elbow?”

“Is LaMike OK?”

Antsy voices inside the bowl, meanwhile, began a spontaneous chant: “La-Mich-ael-James, La-Mich-ael-James,” the cadence growing more pronounced, as if fans were willing their beloved star to come up off the turf, for the nightmare to end.

When that didn’t happen, they fell into another prolonged hush, this time as if in prayer.

What followed — after James finally rose, was helped onto a cart and then whisked into the stadium tunnel toward the medical offices — was a clap of continuous thunder.

Never has Autzen been so loud.

***

Moments like Thursday night’s drama bring into focus what an athlete can mean to a program, a school, a state.

James’ dislocated elbow, with Oregon leading 36-15 and on the way to a 43-15 victory over the Bears, didn’t come with a BCS title game and a Heisman Trophy within reach — as was the case when Dennis Dixon’s knee crumbled during that bitter 2007 loss to Arizona. Nor did it snuff out a shot at setting a school rushing record, the fate Reuben Droughns suffered when he broke his ankle in 1999. James already holds most rushing marks.

No, the reaction to the James play and the aftermath — from teammates and coaches, from Duck fans and opposing fans, and from the media — clearly spoke of a recognition of something greater, something many in the Duck camp had failed to perhaps fully grasp until it seemed No. 21 might never carry the ball again for Oregon.

When his career concludes, he’ll be revered as an Oregon legend.

“The air went out of the stadium,” said John McBarron of Portland, who was watching the action from across the way in Autzen when James went down. “The whole place was silent.”

Where James stands with other great athletes who’ve worn green and yellow is impossible to measure. Different sports. Different eras. We’re also talking here about the likes of Steve Prefontaine, Ronnie Lee, Joey Harrington.

The statistics speak loudly. James has rushed for 4,129 yards in just 30 games over three seasons. He is averaging 6.7 yards per carry over his career. He has 43 rushing touchdowns. Oregon’s record in those 30 games is 25-5.

But like Prefontaine, Lee and Harrington, there is something more to this Texarkana, Texas, native than just gaudy numbers.

As Eugene Register-Guard columnist George Schroeder penned Friday, “James is Oregon’s beating heart.”

Has been for awhile.

Think back to two seasons ago when he gave the Ducks the spark they needed after the Boise State debacle and the LeGarrette Blount suspension.

Think back to last season when he refused to come out of that nail-biting California game — with national championship aspirations riding the outcome — despite a badly damaged ankle. At game’s end, he had to be helped off the field, hurt in his eyes. He later said he didn’t want to let his teammates down.

On Thursday night, there was James, in excruciating pain on the artificial turf, popping his dislocated elbow back into place before trainers reached him.

There was James, 45 minutes later, his arm in a sling, greeting his teammates outside the locker after they exited the field.

And there was James giving an optimistic spin in a post-game interview that left even hardened reporters captivated.

Steely, all about team, with resolve.

The stuff of legends.

***

Where No. 9-ranked Oregon goes from here without James — most observers estimate he’ll miss at least a couple games — is the topic of much speculation.

Can Kenjon Barner pick up the slack? Will the Ducks attempt to deploy freshman sensation De’Anthony Thomas more as a running back than a receiver? Can another freshman, Tra Carson, be a worthy substitute for James in pounding the middle?

Can the Ducks keep their Pac-12 championships hopes alive — starting with this Saturday’s clash against No. 22 Arizona State — while awaiting the return of their superstar?

“We have a lot of great running backs,” James said during that remarkable interview Thursday night. “I don’t think we’ll miss a beat.”

Still, there is a reason the reigning Doak Walker Award winner has been at the center of the Duck attack for so long. He’s really, really good.

He knows the Oregon spread offense like no other player. He reads blocks, holes, defenses better than anyone else. He can go inside. He can go outside.

As James has gone, so have gone the Ducks.

He will be missed dearly.

So it would behoove the rest of the Ducks to be reminded again of that lesson James has imparted on all during his stay in Eugene.

Talent only gets you part of the way. You need the intangibles.

Things like toughness and heart. And determination. And looking out for each other.

If James’ teammates can, deep down, adopt his brand of play as their own, they won’t lose again this season.

Follow the legend.

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