Part 1: Jaiya Figueras and Kenny Wheaton: Freshmen Roommates Driven to Succeed
Every Oregon Duck fan can probably recite verbatim the infamous Jerry Allen call of Kenny Wheaton’s interception versus Washington in 1994, or fondly remember Joey Harrington hitting Samie Parker in stride for an 80 yard touchdown in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, or Marcus Woods flattening BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in the endzone in 1990. The motivation behind the dedication to their craft for every student athlete is the drive to hopefully be in position for that moment if it ever comes, that time when they can be in the right place at the right time to will their team to success, a moment that hopefully will be remembered by teammates and fans alike. For these lucky few athletes, having hung up their jerseys for the last time long ago, they may have moved on with their lives, but the legacy of their achievements live on forever.
For one lucky Duck, their moment in the spotlight garnered an even greater encore. For a stretch of seven days in 1995, one student athlete wore the king’s crown of Eugene, emerging from obscurity to reach the highest levels of on-field glory, only to then disappear shortly thereafter struggling to return to form. Yet behind the scenes, his legacy stretches far beyond that of a week of athletic dominance, his drive to succeed with the help of his roommate and best friend turned the tide of losing, forever transforming the history of University of Oregon athletics. Witness the meteoric rise, the tragic downfall, the voice that would not be silenced and the what-ifs that will forever surround the story of Jaiya Figueras.
In 1993 Jaiya Figueras was a senior all-state defensive back at Glendale High School in Los Angeles, CA, trying to decide between scholarship offers from Oregon, UCLA, and Washington State. When Oregon Ducks head coach Rich Brooks came to visit the Figueras home to convince Jaiya to be a Duck, his decision was quickly settled.
“He had dinner with my mom and me, and I bought in completely to what he had to say,” Jaiya Figueras recollects, now a personal trainer in the Long Beach area of Southern California. “He was straight with me, and I believed him. I decided then that I wanted to be a Duck. It was in the Pac-10 conference, Coach Brooks promised that I would play early and he was true to his word, I did. My mom dished it back though at him, boasted to him that if my son goes there you guys will go to the Rose Bowl…and we did. My best friend had been shot and killed the year prior and I really wanted to get out of LA, leave and start a new life, find a quiet place to just concentrate on football and school. Eugene seemed like the right fit.”
Jaiya Figueras arrived on the University of Oregon campus in the summer of 1993 and spent his first year as a redshirt on the scout team. Something as arbitrary as who he was assigned to be roommates with in college would prove to have a profound impact on not just his life, but on the history and future of the University of Oregon. Jaiya Figueras was matched to share a dorm room with fellow incoming freshman Kenny Wheaton, an undersized but multi-talented player from Phoenix, AZ, for their first year in the University of Oregon dorms.
Almost immediately, the two freshmen Figueras and Wheaton became close friends, and together began turning heads in practice. There was a buzz in the program that this new freshmen class could be special, but for the two friends they noticed a major flaw in the rest of the team’s attitude. Seniors would often give them grief when they tried too hard in practice, making big plays that might embarrass the upperclassmen while NFL scouts were watching. For Jaiya Figueras, this bad attitude of players not wanting to give their all in practice was unacceptable. For the team to improve its on-field performance something had to change, and if he had to be the one to do it then so be it.
“That 1993 team, we redshirts didn’t see why they should be losing all the time, because being in the stands watching the games we thought ‘hey we’re good enough to beat this team! Why are we losing?’ said Figueras, sounding still perplexed as to why talented Oregon teams underperformed. “Me and Kenny (Wheaton), we used to talk all the time about how we were going to change things.”
1993 was a season with growing expectations as the Ducks jumped out to a 3-0 start, but it all came crashing down on one early October day in Berkeley, CA. On that sunny afternoon the Ducks appeared to be walking away with the game, but the Cal Bears overcame the largest deficit in college football history, defeating the Ducks in heartbreaking fashion 42-41 after Oregon had at one point led by 30 points in the first half.
“When that Cal loss happened, it took all the air out of the team,” said Kenny Wheaton, who listened to the game on the radio with Jaiya Figueras and the other redshirt freshmen back in the dorms in Eugene. “Jaiya was the one guy who said ‘look, I don’t care if we lost like that, I don’t care if the seniors say this or that, we’re going to play hard. We’re going to practice hard, we’re going to get better, we’re not going to be the same Oregon team that gets walked over all the time.’ He started saying it all the time after that, he said it so much that eventually we all started believing him…at least our class did, the older guys on the team maybe didn’t and perhaps that’s why that team didn’t do so well. But we began believing that we could improve, because of Jaiya.”
For all the accolades that Kenny Wheaton would go on to receive for his time as a Duck, he believes wholeheartedly it was actually the never-say-die spirit of his friend and roommate Jaiya Figueras that changed the entire course of the Oregon program, not Wheaton, as he is commonly credited. Jaiya’s undying passion for hard work instilled in Wheaton the power of positive thinking, a lesson that Kenny holds dear to this day.
“He said we were going to succeed, he believed we would.” said Kenny Wheaton, speaking with immense respect for his friend Jaiya Figueras. “I truly believe that Jaiya was the reason the Oregon program turned the corner, he motivated everyone to want to be better. We would challenge each other, always competing. We wanted to win the Pac-10, we wanted to be in the Oregon Hall of Fame. These were the goals we set out for ourselves. He would constantly get in my face in our apartment and challenge me to do pushups with him, always trying to do more to get better, never satisfied. I was a real quiet guy my freshman year, honestly Jaiya was probably the only person I spoke to all year, but Jaiya stayed on us all. He started saying the things I wished I could say but couldn’t, he’d say what needed to be said on my behalf. Eventually he got to a point where he would speak out loud to everyone; the seniors didn’t like it, the older guys didn’t believe we could be good, but us younger guys all pushed ourselves because of him, and our efforts in practice eventually started rubbing off on everyone else.”
Wheaton continued, “The thing about the team back in those days was that Oregon couldn’t recruit the 5-star athletes, they would get the two and three star guys that were undersized or unheralded. Give a lot of credit to Strength and Conditioning Coach (Jim) Radcliffe, he’d take a small under-recruited guy and turn them into a vicious animal. We weren’t big, but we were tough. A lot of credit needs to go to Coach Radcliffe for that. But it took Jaiya backing up what the coaches preached, getting in everyone’s face, pushing them harder.”
It wouldn’t take long for the roommates Figueras and Wheaton to make their indelible mark on Oregon history. By the 1994 season Kenny Wheaton had earned a spot in the regular rotation as the nickel cornerback, while Jaiya Figueras played extensively on special teams, garnering the 1994 Oregon special teams player of the year award, and also earning some mop up duty in the secondary, highlighted by an interception vs. Stanford.
For Jaiya, it was a season of great accomplishment for the Duck team as a whole, while he personally toiled in relative obscurity. While most look at the Washington game that earned Kenny Wheaton his legendary status as the architect of the watershed moment that changed the entire football program, Wheaton argues that in fact it was several weeks earlier in Oregon’s shocking upset of #5 USC in Los Angeles, CA, when things actually began to improve.
“Those first few games in 1994 the team struggled, that USC game was when things started changing, and it was the young guys doing it,” said Wheaton. “Nobody gave us a shot against USC because everyone was hurt. It was my first game getting real playing time, and it was the young guys stepping up. Dino (Philyaw) was a JC so he was like one of us, (Tony) Graziani was a youngster, Reggie Jordan was still a youngster. We went in without our starting QB, our starting RB, or our all-american cornerback, but we went in and believed and got the job done. That USC game was when everything changed, and it was Jaiya who spearheaded all of that pushing us to work harder to succeed. We got behind Jaiya and we just took off. The older guys didn’t like it, but we believed and achieved. He was the one that really turned the whole thing around, not me.”
For all the respect and credit that Kenny Wheaton willingly gives to Jaiya Figueras for his attitude and drive to improve himself and those around him, the admiration goes both ways.
“The big thing that helped me was having Kenny Wheaton as a roommate,” said Figueras, reflecting on those early years in Eugene. “Kenny and I used to sit in our dorm room and talk about everything that we were going to do, just visualize it all. Everything we visualized came true. We used to talk about beating USC, UCLA, winning the conference and going to the Rose Bowl. The relationship I had with Kenny had a huge impact, he showed me how to watch film, how to really enjoy watching film on our own time. Not just with coaches, we would watch film back in the dorms. Kenny taught me how to prepare. Having him as a friend, how good he was as a football player, made me a better person.”
In the 1994 season it was the quiet, introverted one among the two friends still trying to find his feet, Kenny Wheaton, who would become the reluctant toast of the town. His interception against Washington on October 22nd, 1994, to this day is replayed on the big screen at Autzen Stadium to pump up the crowd before the team runs out of the tunnel prior to kickoff of each home game, renowned as the greatest moment in Duck history.
Kenny Wheaton became one of the greatest players in Oregon Ducks history during his time in Eugene (1993-1996), and was the first player ever at Oregon to declare early for the NFL draft.
After Wheaton’s interception return, which sealed an incredible upset of Washington 34-20, in postgame interviews Kenny pointed out that he had noticed while watching game film that when Washington got into the redzone that season they liked to throw the out-pattern. It was the weeklong preparations, the extensive film study sessions that he and his roommate Jaiya Figueras had done on their own time pushing each other to do more that led to Wheaton’s pre-snap decision to jump the route if it looked like they were passing. When Huard dropped back to throw, Wheaton immediately started to sprint to the sideline to cover the out-pattern before the receiver had even made his move, stepping in front of the pass in stride and 97 yards later stepping into history.
Playing time beyond special teams was limited, even for the buzzworthy Kenny Wheaton that year, as the 1994 secondary was arguably the greatest defensive backfield unit in Oregon history. Figueras was the third string safety, and with future NFL player Chad Cota entrenched in the starting role it meant little available playing time, but a great learning opportunity for Figueras; as both freely admit that Chad Cota was one of the best pure athletes either ever had the luxury to play alongside.
“1994 I played a little, I had an interception against Stanford. I had (Chad) Cota in front of me. I felt like I was ready to play right after he left, I was getting prepped by watching an NFL-quality safety everyday,” Figueras recalled.
The Ducks that year did what had been deemed impossible, winning the Pac-10 conference and earning a Rose Bowl berth, achieving many of the goals Figueras and Wheaton had visualized. There was a new sense of pride and confidence surrounding the program and community, because of the Ducks success. Excitement surrounding the Oregon Ducks football program was at an all-time high, a palpable electricity could be felt in the air around Eugene that offseason with cars and businesses being adorned with pride with the UO logo. Season ticket sales sky-rocketed, donations to the athletic department came in at unprecedented levels, the players and fans couldn’t wait to see what the 1995 season might bring.
The duo had more left to do to complete their list, but it wouldn’t be without setbacks, as Figueras tore his MCL shortly after the Rose Bowl leading to months of rehab to be ready to compete for a starting role the following season. Despite the injury, Figueras and Wheaton continued to push themselves even harder preparing for the tasks ahead.
The learning experience from 1994 studying under greats like safety Chad Cota and all-American cornerback Herman O’Berry would prove invaluable in short order, as the 1995 season would be the opportunity for the two roommates to capitalize on the goals they had set together. It wouldn’t take long for both Wheaton and Figueras to start turning heads, but little did they know that their time playing together in games side-by-side would tragically be cut short, and never be the same again thereafter.
In part 2 tomorrow, roommates Jaiya Figueras and Kenny Wheaton finally get their shot to play together for the Ducks early in the 1995 season, and immediately make a profound impact.