There it was: all those years of rooting and hoping, all the dreams and disappointments and surprises, and suddenly one ten-second moment transforms your whole world as a Ducks football fan.
The first quarter of the Rose Bowl was just about in the books with just three seconds left. Oregon had already proven it could score, trailing Wisconsin 14-7 and looking as they took possession again to march all the way downfield like they’d already done on the first drive. A Wisconsin punt from midfield had pinned the Ducks on their own 9-yard line, but as ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit told announcer Brett Musberger a few seconds before Darron Thomas took the snap, it was in Oregon’s DNA to stay aggressive.
The ensuing option handoff to De’Anthony Thomas was bread-and-butter spread offense, ultimately just a running play up the middle. Yet the offensive line gave the 5’9” running back a wide lane from which to blast off. If Chip Kelly’s offense is all about getting speedy players the ball in space with room to run, this was the platonic ideal: the fastest kid in all of college football, with a clear path to the goal line.
The result wasn’t just a touchdown or even a great highlight-reel moment. More than any of the many great plays Oregon players made in the Rose Bowl or that season, the Thomas 91-yarder stands out as something more: the kind of transcendent touchdown that, in its beauty and drama and timing, comes to represent the best of the program’s entire history in a manner just a couple or maybe a few plays do. To those of us who bleed green and yellow, it was that rare moment in which a play is carried out with such ideal precision and grace, means so much to the history of the program and renders the other team so helpless, that it rises above football to become an operatic piece of performance art.
If you spend your life or most of it supporting a team, at some point you realize hundreds of games and thousands of plays have gone by, not to mention the thousands of hours you spent watching them. The whole affair can become a blur sometimes even to the most passionate among us. But every Duck fanatic clings to a handful of different plays and situations that stand out above the rest: game winners, comebacks, standout performances. We could cite here any number of classic moments: Dan Fouts’ winning touchdown pass to Greg Specht in
1971 1970 against UCLA after overcoming a 40-21 fourth quarter deficit, for example, or Terry Obee’s end-around to beat Washington in 1988. There’s Dennis Dixon’s fake statue-of-liberty keeper for a score at Michigan Stadium in 2007, Akili Smith’s winning touchdown pass to Pat Johnson to upset Washington in 1997, the two-point conversion to tie Auburn at game’s end in the national championship in 2010, or any number of other moments.
Above those great moments, however, exist a tiny handful of what I call transcendent or transformational moments – those sequences in historic games that dramatize a change in the course of team history, when the program rose to a new height. These ultimate highlights also have a kind of perfection to them uncommon to the rest of football: untouched runs down the length of the field without the slightest fingerprint. They are outside the norm of football with its grabbing and tackling and out-muscling. But that’s why they stand out – as transcendent, idyllic moments of in an otherwise frustrating, unforgiving world.
For me, Oregon football transformational touchdowns were before the 2012 Rose Bowl just two in number: Kenny Wheaton’s 1994 interception and score against Washington, and the Joey Harrington to Samie Parker 79-yard bomb from the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. But now they’re joined by Black Mamba’s dazzling dash to the goal line in Pasadena seven weeks ago. (I’ve also considered the BCS national championship two-point conversion for one of these transcendent plays, for it represents the highest point of achievement in Oregon’s history, but the Ducks did lose the game. It can’t feel transcendent when it’s from a game you lose – even the “natty”.)
Wheaton’s pick-six in 1994 is so special not just because it sealed the game for Oregon against an arch-rival just as the Ducks’ fate was most in doubt. “The Pick,” as it has become known, propelled the program from occasionally reaching lower-tier bowls to playing in The Grandaddy of Them All, and feeling like they belonged there.
Harrington’s touchdown to Parker finished what Wheaton and his teammates started, confirming the program’s arrival. Colorado was the hyped team going into the game, but after Harrington to Parker, the stadium and the worldwide TV audience knew Mike Bellotti’s team was the better one – if not the best in the country. The Parker touchdown wasn’t the only great play Oregon made; many remember Maurice Morris’s touchdown run in which he rolled over a Colorado defender, regained his footing and continued to the end zone. But by the time of the Morris play the game was already more or less in hand. The earlier passing score to Parker was at a more decisive moment: it blew open the game.
The De’Anthony Thomas score was no less meaningful than either of those, either as symbolism or as pure physical performance. Think of how eerily similar it is to a moment from the 1995 Rose Bowl: Penn State’s first play from scrimmage had been a long Ki-Jana Karter touchdown in which the Nittany Lions back similarly blast through the line to run free for the long score. This time around 17 years later, it was Oregon with the explosiveness to go all the way on any play. As the Carter touchdown had done in 1995′s Rose Bowl, De’Anthony racing first up the middle and then down the sideline foreshadowed that Oregon, on this day, was the more explosive team. “And exploding into the middle is De’Anthony Thomas. Can’t catch him,” ESPN announcer Brett Musberger exclaimed as the player in the #6 jersey made his way to the end zone.
Then there’s the broader context of the game: Thomas’s run foreshadowed that Oregon, after being denied for two straight years in BCS bowl games the last two autumns, not to mention going 95 years without a Rose Bowl win, this time Oregon would finally, as the Doors song goes, break on through to the other side.
The De’Anthony Thomas 91-yarder was, like Wheaton’s game sealer against the Huskies in 1994 and the Harrington-to Parker touchdown, an emphatic and dramatic statement of prowess, a moment in which you realize the team has reached a new stage in its evolution. Wisconsin at that point in the game—any point, really—was exceptionally adept at moving downfield, and the Ducks never even led until the second half. Yet there was an apparent ease with which Oregon often scored in the Rose Bowl, and usually it was when Black Mamba had the ball. And that magical ability of one player can lift an entire team. That 91-yard run was a foreshadowing to the team, its opponent, and all of us watching: that no matter how many times Wisconsin matches the Ducks or even jumped out in front, they were dealing with a team too great to be denied.
Thomas was not the official MVP or offensive player of the game. That honor went to Lavasier Tuinei, and perhaps deservedly so. Tuinei provided some of the most clutch catches for Oregon all day long. The player-of-the-game award could also have gone to Darron Thomas, in what turned out to be the swan song in an utterly unmatched record of success as an Oregon quarterback. And then there was defensive player-of-the-game Kiko Alonso, a compelling one-person redemption narrative with a game’s worth of tough plays, capped by his baiting Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson into throwing him an interception. But this isn’t a question of who contributed the most to the historic Rose Bowl win. Instead, it’s a matter of how, like a work of art rendered with cleats and sweat, one play can become the banner for a lifetime of one team’s struggles and glories.
Even if Thomas’s future isn’t as bright as it seems, or Oregon’s as a program for that matter, given the NCAA ruling still ahead and the fleeting nature of both player rosters and sometimes even coaching staffs, he’ll always have delivered more than just a score for the Ducks, on that play or others: a moment in which you see all of the team’s history flash before your eyes as he sprints towards the end zone.