Kenny Wheaton: From the pick to the Oregon Hall of Fame
Last Saturday a mild-mannered, shy, quiet, unassuming gentleman roamed Autzen stadium with a slight limp in his giddy-up, a lingering ailment due to repeated knee injuries. He was one of nearly 60,000 present that day enjoying the festivities for the Washington State-Oregon game. In other cities his presence may have gone largely unnoticed, but in this town on this day he could barely take a step without being recognized and approached by clamoring fans asking for a photo, an autograph, or simply wanting to talk about their memories of him. The previous night a banquet had been held, largely in his honor, and on this day an entire stadium would cheer him for his efforts long ago during a ceremony at midfield at halftime of Oregon’s victory over WSU.
Kenny Wheaton had returned to Eugene, OR, as he often does, but this time it was different…he was being elected into the Oregon Ducks Hall of Fame. With the annual grudge match fast approaching this weekend between the Ducks and the Dawgs, it seemed appropriate to have honored the man who will forever be associated with sinking the Husky juggernaut, killing the UW giant, permanently altering the landscape of football in the Pacific Northwest. His efforts at Oregon have been written about many times, the stories of his greatest moments passed on from the older fans to the newest generation, his kindness and generosity now equally the stuff of legend in his ongoing efforts to give back to the community that he feels gave him so much.
To Oregon fans he is remembered for that one shining moment in time in 1994, to Husky fans he is loathed for that same ugly moment in time in 1994. For as often as it is said in baseball by fans who can’t let the past go regarding similar iconic moments with players like Bill (expletive) Buckner, Bucky (expletive) Dent, or Aaron (expletive) Boone as they are all known these days, so too do many Husky fans often lament about Kenny (expletive) Wheaton and what he did to rip their hearts out and crush their souls, if they even had one to begin with.
It’s been quite a journey for Kenny Wheaton to reach this point, the culmination of effort and dreams realized, the accomplishment of a personal goal he set out to achieve long ago. Today it is arguable that he along with Joey Harrington, are the two most recognizable faces in the history of University of Oregon athletics. Showered with praise wherever he goes, surrounded by fans wearing shirts with images re-creating his greatest moment, it would be easy to expect that Kenny Wheaton could have developed a big head, an ego…yet he remains one of the most humble, kind, and honest people anyone would ever be lucky enough to encounter, while also happening to be one of the greatest to ever don an Oregon jersey.
It’s a little odd to witness the contradiction first-hand when meeting Kenny Wheaton, the person….Relaxed, shy, gentle, kind and generous with his time to everyone who approaches him. It is hard to see this mellow individual and associate him with being the same snarling beast on the football field who destroyed the Pac-10 for three years, then the NFL and CFL for a decade.
Could this really be the same guy who played through injuries, including spending half the 1995 season with a broken hand wrapped in a cast so large it looked like he was wielding a club?
Could this be the same man who led the team in tackles in 1996, from the cornerback position! The one who for those efforts was named a 1st team All-American?
Could this be the same man who was so good that the entire 1996 defensive scheme under Defensive Coordinator Rich Stubler was re-designed for the sole purpose of moving him to different areas of the field playing various positions just so that teams couldn’t go away from him every play?
Is this the player feared by all, who could knock the helmet off a receiver one play and return an interception 70 yards for a touchdown the next? Indeed it is, for as tough and gritty of a player Wheaton was on the football field, off of it he remains humbled and kind, seemingly incapable of a harsh word or raised fist towards anyone.
The call is familiar to all who pack the stands at Autzen Stadium. “Huard gonna go back to throw the ball, sets up, looks, throws toward the corner of the endzone and it’s…INTERCEPTED! IT’S INTERCEPTED! Kenny Wheaton has the ball! Down to the 35, the 40…KENNY WHEATON IS GONNA SCORE! KENNY WHEATON IS GONNA SCORE! Touchdown! Touchdown! Kenny Wheaton, On the interceptiiiiiooooooonnnnnn…The Most IMPROBABLE finish to the football gaaaaaaaaammmmmeeee!!!”
Jerry Allen’s iconic radio call rings out over the P.A. system at Autzen Stadium moments before the team storms the field before every game, with a raucous crowd chanting the words of Jerry’s call in-synch with the video being displayed. It was October 22nd, 1994, when that epic moment happened, and by Kenny’s own count it is approximately a quarter of a million people since who have claimed to his face that they were on hand in the stands that day to personally witness the moment as it unfolded.
It was perhaps not the exact moment that changed the face of Oregon football, but in that magical 1994 season that gets credited for changing the tides, it is appropriate that the most memorable play from the most memorable season be etched in the history books for its greater significance. This is why it is replayed before every game, why every fan has the radio call memorized word-for-word, why even young fans who weren’t born yet still memorialize the moment wearing ‘The Pick’ T-shirts, cheering on the play on the Autzen big screen, and approaching Kenny Wheaton with tentative awe when they see him pass by. If ever a career could be defined by one glorious moment for which a person will be remembered and beloved for the rest of their lives, it is Kenny Wheaton and this snapshot in time.
It is both a blessing and a curse for Kenny Wheaton though, who will be the first to remind people that he did much more than just make one play. While appreciative that he is remembered so fondly, he has told me how he wished more people would remember him for the other things he did on the field. A two-time All-American cornerback (1995, 1996) before a lengthy career in the NFL and CFL, there is so much more to Kenny Wheaton than one play against Washington in 1994. He has endured horrible personal tragedy, overcome career-threatening injury, and persevered through good times and bad while staying completely grounded.
Now a proud father, retired football player, trainer, and CEO of the Kenny Wheaton Foundation (which sponsors various events to generate funds for school supplies and holiday gifts for under-privileged children in the Lane County community), Kenny Wheaton spends much of his time simply saying thank you and to give back to the community that has done so much for him.
Kenny Wheaton came to Eugene by way of Phoenix, AZ in 1993, an all-state prep athlete with great promise capable of playing multiple positions. He was paired with fellow incoming freshman safety Jaiya Figueras as roommates, and a close friendship that continues today immediately began. Kenny was extremely shy, by his own admission he barely spoke to anybody except Jaiya, and he relied on Jaiya to do much of his talking for him. Kenny and Jaiya were inseparable, pushing each other to always be better. Jaiya would challenge Kenny to push-up contests in their dorm room, Kenny would challenge Jaiya to watch more film than him. Together they would go on to change the attitude and success of the Oregon Ducks football program through their mutual efforts both on and off the football field, as was highlighted in a previous DuckTales story on Fishduck.com.
Kenny was a versatile and intelligent player who found his success through film study as much as reps in practice and athletic talent. In the first game of the season in 1994 Kenny Wheaton was the starting running back for Oregon, due to injuries during fall camp, and he scored his first career touchdown for the Ducks on offense…there would be more to come on the defensive side.
Not many recall that the magical season of 1994 didn’t start very magical, a 1-2 opening led to the team being 3-3 and floundering with multiple injuries to key positions when the season turned in Oregon’s favor, spearheaded by Kenny Wheaton and the group of youngsters that were getting their first shot at extensive playing time.
The setting was the Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA, where Oregon arrived to face the #5 USC Trojans without starting QB Danny O’Neil, starting RB Ricky Whittle, or All-American cornerback Herman O’Berry on the field. Their replacements were many Ducks getting their first chance at significant playing time; quarterback Tony Graziani, junior college transfer runningback Dino Philyaw, and Kenny Wheaton all making their first career starts.
Nobody gave Oregon a chance. Not the opposing team, not the announcers, not even the USC marching band, who felt obligated to start a fight with some Duck players as they came out of the tunnel.
“When we came out of the locker room a guy in the USC band was blowing his horn at us, and one of the guys punched the horn right into his face, and next thing you know the whole team is in a big scuffle with the marching band before we headed out onto the field,” said Tasi Malepeai, an offensive lineman for the Ducks from 1992 – 1996.
“They thought it was just a stat game, they didn’t respect us at all,” said Dino Philyaw, a senior junior college-transfer runningback getting his first career start. “Keyshawn Johnson told me right to my face he thought it was going to be a stat game, I never forgot that, I responded ‘Yeah it will be, FOR ME!'”
Tasi, Dino, Kenny Wheaton and the rest of the Ducks shocked the world that day. They dominated the USC Trojans from start to finish, with things getting started early with an astonishing interception by Kenny Wheaton, ripping the ball away from the receiver.
Ask Kenny Wheaton today what his favorite moment or favorite game was, and without hesitation he responds 1994 USC. His favorite play? Not the pick vs. Washington, it was this interception vs. USC. It was his first significant playing time, his first career interception, and according to him his most complete game as a player. Aside from Wheaton’s performance, it was one of the most complete games from the team, defeating the Trojans 22-7 on national television, the Ducks first win over USC in the Coliseum since 1971.
A loss to Washington State and victory against Cal set up the now immortalized Washington matchup. The Ducks seemed to always battle UW tough, and the Huskies would nonchalantly stroll through the game casually taking the victory in the final minutes. The script had played out many times before, and everyone in the stands knew it. Oregon had taken the lead with a 99 yard drive, but Washington in the final minute had driven right back and were threatening to score the game-winning touchdown…just like they ALWAYS did.
Through Kenny Wheaton’s extensive film study he had noticed that when near the goal line Washington liked to throw the out pattern when they lined up in a particular formation. As Wheaton checked into the game with the Huskies about to score, the same formation he recognized from his personal film study emerged and Wheaton decided then and there he would jump the out-pattern no matter what. If they ran any other pattern they were going to score, but Wheaton felt confident that his game preparation showed him exactly what would come.
When the ball was snapped, Wheaton jumped the out pattern, and jumped into the history books, intercepting the pass and returning it for a touchdown.
The Ducks overcame their greatest bugaboo, the curse was lifted, and greatness lay ahead. The Ducks won the final four games of the year to win the Pac-10 title and go to the Rose Bowl. Despite not being a starter, Kenny Wheaton was a hero in fan’s eyes for making the biggest play in the greatest season anyone could recall. Even his teammates looked at it with awe.
My all-time favorite moment as a Duck was Kenny Wheaton’s interception against Washington,” Josh Wilcox said, a legend in his own right at Oregon for both his performance on the field and his family name. “Growing up a fan of Oregon, that was my highlight, it was such a great moment.”
While the Ducks lost the Rose Bowl, it didn’t seem to matter much. The attitude had changed, the perception of Oregon football was different. The 1995 season would see Wheaton emerge as a leader of the defense and a known commodity in the Pac-10 conference. His highlights that season included a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Pacific, and numerous big plays in big games when big players needed to step up. Kenny was a play-maker through and through, someone who his teammates could rely on to be there backing them up or coming up with a big play of his own.
Wheaton was the leader of the defense in 1995, a team that finished the regular season 9-2 earning a trip to the Cotton Bowl, led by a defense that many think was even more talented than the much-hyped ‘Gang Green’ defense of the year prior. It was also a tough year though, as his best friend Jaiya Figueras had seen the highest highs and lowest lows in a two-week stretch, making the game-winning plays vs. Illinois and UCLA in back-to-back weeks only to shred his knee the following week, ending his season.
Wheaton would have to go it alone on the field without his closest comrade, but Wheaton shined in the role as defensive leader, racking up a total of five interceptions on the season, earning him 2nd team All-American honors. Wheaton played through multiple injuries, suffering a disc problem, bicep injury, and broken hand during the course of the year.
Wheaton was a superstar by his junior year of 1996. While his friend Jaiya Figueras struggled to return to his previous form before his devastating knee injury, Wheaton had become a one-man wrecking crew. Under new defensive coordinator Rich Stubler a new defensive scheme was devised, one that would have Wheaton switching between cornerback and safety from snap to snap moving him all over the field, giving him more chances to be around the ball. A normal player probably couldn’t take on all the responsibilities this entailed, but Kenny was such a cerebral player in his film study and game preparation that coaches felt confident it would work.
In the first game of the 1996 season, a 30-27 overtime victory over Fresno State, Wheaton was far and away the best player on the field. Early in the game he returned an interception 69 yards for a touchdown. Shortly thereafter he had another interception and long return, putting him in the rare position for a defensive player of accumulating more total yards than either offense.
Injuries during the season derailed a fast start for Oregon, and a 3-0 start soon turned into a 5-game losing streak before rebounding to win the final three of the year. The path to redemption in those final three games was of course kick-started by Wheaton, who made a remarkable game-changing play recovering a fumble at the goal line vs. Cal in a game Oregon would go on to win 40-23.
In Wheaton’s final game as a Duck, Oregon throttled the rival Oregon State Beavers 49-13 in Corvallis. Despite expecting to have teams avoid him all year, Stubler’s plan to move Wheaton around the field worked in keeping the superstar around the ball making plays, and despite the team’s disappointing record, it was a season to be proud of for Wheaton, the unquestioned team leader and best player.
During the season Wheaton had been mulling over another issue, whether or not to be the first player in the history of the University of Oregon to declare early for the NFL draft. He was a two-time All-American, team leader, an icon, and the most feared playmaker on the west coast, there was little left to prove for Wheaton in college. All indicators were that Wheaton SHOULD go, but family and friends made the decision difficult.
Back in Arizona Kenny’s younger brother Derrek had earned a scholarship offer from Oregon after playing at Phoenix College. Ask Kenny, and he’ll tell you Derrek was the best athlete in the family, and people were abuzz with the prospect of having two Wheaton’s on the Ducks at the same time. Then there was also the thought of leaving behind Figueras, who was playing again but still not at full strength due to his 1995 leg injury. The two had set goals together; to win the Pac-10 title, to change the perception of Oregon football, to earn a place in the Oregon Ducks Hall of Fame.
The double-Wheaton secondary would not turn out to be, as Wheaton chose to enter the draft, and was selected in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys. Oregon fans said goodbye to Kenny Wheaton’s days as a Duck, but cherished every moment they got to see #20 dominate the game for Oregon. And there was hope that the name would continue if brother Derrek came to Oregon.
Then tragedy struck…while returning from a team banquet in November, 1997, Derrek Wheaton was shot and killed in a drive-by-shooting in Phoenix, AZ. With Derrek’s tragic death the Wheaton name would not be seen again in an Oregon uniform, but the family athletic prowess is alive and well, with cousin Marquese Wheaton playing at Southern Miss and cousin Markus Wheaton one of the top weapons for the Oregon State Beavers.
Suffering the loss of a sibling, Kenny was also dealing with tough times on the field, recovering from a catastrophic knee injury that required extensive rehab. Kenny would check in often with his friend Figueras back in Eugene, now a senior captain struggling to keep the defense together on an Oregon team that had changed from a great defensive team in their early years to now an offensive-minded squad. Kenny could feel the sorrow in Figueras struggling to overcome injury, struggling to keep the team together, struggling to carry on without Wheaton in the secondary with him.
After three seasons with the Cowboys Kenny Wheaton was released, his knee injury thought to be career-ending. In 2002 he rebounded and played in the Arena Football League for one season, then 2003 he went north to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
It was here that Wheaton regained the prowess that had made him a legend in Eugene, gaining a reputation as a heavy-hitter and dangerous man with the ball in his hands. In a 2004 playoff game vs. Hamilton, Wheaton intercepted a pass in the endzone and returned it 116 yards for a touchdown, a CFL record. It was a play eerily similar to the pick vs. Washington a decade earlier, a moment that by now was getting replayed before every game at Autzen Stadium. Four times Wheaton would be named to the all-star team and helped lead the Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship in 2004 alongside another Oregon Duck, safety Michael Fletcher.
The late 90’s and into the 21st century has been a time where the Oregon fan base and appeal has grown by leaps and bounds. Those who have claimed membership in the Oregon family long after Wheaton’s days in Eugene were done have been introduced to his exploits through the gameday tradition of watching his 1994 interception vs. UW on the replay board, added in 1998, thanks in part to the success of the team during the Wheaton years. Those who never saw Wheaton in person know verbatim the call of Wheaton’s immortal interception, they know the name, they know the legacy. He is credited with being the lightning rod of the 1994 season, the year everything changed.
For Kenny Wheaton, who spends his time between Phoenix and Dallas, Eugene has become another home for him. Nowhere is he more welcomed, more admired, even by those who know him for nothing beyond one single moment that continues to be immortalized every Saturday in the fall.
Wheaton retired from football in 2009 and returned to Dallas and his family. Now a proud dad of two, he spends his time training athletes, helping the next generation of players pushing them to be the best they can possibly be, just like how Figueras and Wheaton pushed each other years earlier at Oregon. He founded the Kenny Wheaton Foundation, a non-profit organization that has put together multiple events to raise funds for the benefit of low-income children around the Eugene area.
To Wheaton, it seems like the least he could do. While everyone is quick to lay praise upon him for what he did on the field, it is how he was and continues to be embraced by the Eugene community that makes him most proud. In speaking with Wheaton it seems as though he feels obligated to do what he can to help out people around Eugene, a community that gave him so much support over the years.
Now, after four memorable years in Eugene and a decade in the pros, a new accomplishment has been achieved, a goal set years earlier. Figueras and Wheaton together wanted to someday be in the Oregon Ducks Hall of Fame, it was their ultimate goal, what drove them to succeed. The 1994 team was inducted a few years ago thereby they achieved that status as part of the larger entity, but the individual goals remained unfulfilled…until last Saturday, when Kenny Wheaton was officially added to the roster of Hall of Fame players at the University of Oregon.
It seems only proper that the dignified classy gentleman who does so much to give back would be honored in this manner, returning to Autzen Stadium to once again hear the roar of the crowd cheer for #20, to watch ‘the pick’ play on the big screen moments before the team storms out of the tunnel once more, and to graciously do his best to give back to the community that gave him so much…be it a handshake, a photo, an autograph, or a wave to the crowd, Kenny Wheaton remains humble and gracious that so many continue to show him love and support.
Correction, make that Oregon Ducks Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Wheaton.
Congratulations, Kenny, and THANK YOU for everything.
A message of thanks from Kenny Wheaton to everyone can be viewed here.
To find out more about the Kenny Wheaton Foundation, please visit their website at: http://www.kennywheatonfoundation.com/index.html
For information on Kenny Wheaton’s training services, contact KW Next Level Training at: email@example.com