Part 3: Going Their Separate Ways — Friends Struggle to Succeed On Separate Paths For The First Time
For friends Jaiya Figueras and Kenny Wheaton, their first couple of years at the University of Oregon had seen the pendulum swing wildly. After their redshirt season in 1993 watching their teammates struggle to win, the two roommates had spearheaded the improbable 1994 season leading Oregon to the Pac-10 title. The following year Wheaton was already a star, while Figueras became the unlikely hero two weeks in a row early in the season, only to then have his career shattered by a devastating leg injury. Wheaton had carried the torch in Figueras’ absence, but for all the success the 1995 team achieved, for Wheaton it felt hollow not having Figueras as a part of the on-field success.
The 1996 season would bring a new defensive coordinator, Rich Stubler, replacing Charlie Waters, and a new defensive scheme, the “Edge” defense, where the Duck linemen would line up a yard off the ball. Fans didn’t get it, the Ducks looked confused, and the experimental defensive scheme was scrapped several weeks into the season. The Ducks would struggle to find their identity that year, going on a 5-game losing streak mid-season, and finishing the campaign 6-5 without an invite to a bowl game.
“When Coach Waters left and Coach Stubler came in…that edge defense destroyed our season, destroyed our mentality.” Figueras spoke, sounding still angry over the switch. “We learned it, we worked on it, we spent months on it, then we junked it halfway through the season. Coach Waters came in after the Rose Bowl and he didn’t change anything, he just added stuff on top. But Coach Stubler came in and he changed everything, so for some of the senior guys we weren’t used to playing in a defense like that. It took us too long to catch up. That team should have been great, but I put that year on the defense. That was on us. We went from the No. 12 defense to the 112th in the country with a lot of the same players from the year before. Then after that Kenny (Wheaton) left early for the NFL, suddenly what had been an experienced unit was now mostly freshmen starting in ’97 and me.”
Jaiya Figueras pursues a Utah player during the October 18th, 1997 game at Autzen Stadium, a 31-13 Oregon victory.
“That was frustrating for me, being on those great gang green defenses to start out and then my junior and senior year we underperform like that,” lamented Figueras. “It wasn’t because we didn’t have the talent. Stubler was a good coach, but it was too much change for us because we had done stuff two years in a row that had put us at the top of the country, why change it if its not broken? We were small, so we could work in space. But giving teams an extra yard cushion didn’t work because of our lack of size. I still run into guys today we played against that year and they still give me hell about it, asking ‘what was the deal with that weird defense you guys were running back then?”
Kenny Wheaton agrees that the switch was too radical, on both sides of the ball perhaps, as the offense was also experimenting under new offensive coordinator Al Borges with extensive pre-snap shifts and motions.
“Don’t get me wrong, Stubler is a great coach, but the biggest problem with it wasn’t the scheme, we just didn’t buy into it,” said Wheaton. “It was foreign to us. You have to get guys to buy into things to be successful in a team sport, and guys just didn’t get it. We complained because we didn’t understand it. We were built for years as a man-to-man defense, we would cover and we would blitz. Stubler’s defense was a matchup zone where you play with your eyes. Taking guys who played man-to-man for 3 years to now make them suddenly play zone is tough to do. People pointed blame at the team and coaches, where now we had both sides of the ball experimenting with new stuff. Borges had the offense doing all these crazy shifts and the defense was trying to run zone. Blame could have gone to a lot of different places, simply put players didn’t buy in and didn’t understand.”
Jaiya Figueras, as a senior starting safety on the 1997 Oregon Ducks garnered honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors, but the defense again struggled mightily that year. The era of Gang Green defense was over, the Ducks were now an offensive-minded team first and foremost, and the stats reflected that mentality switch.
His teammate and friend Kenny Wheaton was in Dallas in his rookie season of the NFL with the Cowboys after declaring early for the draft following the 1996 season. Figueras had rushed to recover from his injury suffered in 1995 to be there for his teammates in ’96, but he didn’t regain his speed and on-field prowess until the 1997 season after Wheaton had already left.
“We got to play together in ’96, but Jaiya really rushed to return and hadn’t fully healed, we as teammates appreciated that but we knew he wasn’t healthy, he wasn’t there.” Wheaton recalled hesitantly, choking up a bit. “So if you think about it, for all the time that we planned and plotted, really Jaiya and me only got to truly start together for one game. Fans might remember Jaiya Figueras from 96 and 97, but the real Jaiya that all his teammates knew was the guy making plays against Illinois and UCLA in 1995. You want to know what kind of player Jaiya Figueras was, remember him for those two games. He rushed back for us, but I could look at him and tell something wasn’t right. But that’s the type of guy he is, he’s going to give it his all no matter what. We stayed up many nights and talked about many things, and after all that all we truly got was that one game together against UCLA at the Rose Bowl in 95. That one is special to me to this day. I think about that game a lot, he was going back home and he made the play, that will always stick with me.”
Wheaton continued, “I really regret not doing a better job of keeping in touch with Jaiya during his senior year in 1997. I was going through tough times of my own in Dallas dealing with the loss of my brother (Kenny Wheaton’s brother Derrek had been shot and killed that November in a senseless drive-by shooting in Phoenix, AZ), and while we talked on the phone a lot, I knew Jaiya was down about the situation back in Eugene and I should’ve done more for him. It wasn’t fair for him to start out on such great teams early and finish like he did…”
Pausing for a moment, Wheaton gathered himself and then strongly spoke, “The one thing that has always really angered me to this day is why Jaiya never got a shot at the NFL. He was good enough to play, why did all these other guys get their shot and not him? He was such a great athlete, he earned his chance.”
For all his hard work to get back up to speed and on the field again for his teammates following his devastating injury in 1995, it will be what he did in the two games prior to his broken leg that will leave the name Jaiya Figueras permanently etched in the record books for Oregon fans. While he didn’t take too much time to enjoy the two plays that will forever define his time as a Duck, Jaiya does look back fondly on his time in Eugene and feels blessed that all these years later the efforts of his teammates are still remembered.
“We changed history,” said Figueras, reminiscing on the impact his teams had on the Duck program. “We put Oregon on the map. We changed the tone and attitude of the program. Oregon got better in basketball and track after that, more students started coming to the university after the football team started winning. I feel like we had an impact on the history of the school beyond just football. That’s the biggest thing for me, to be a part of a group of guys that changed history. I feel very honored to have been a part of not only Autzen Stadium history, but to have had that kind of impact on the state of Oregon as a whole. People still write me today and tell me about the great father-son moments they had because of those teams and the plays I made, I feel honored to have done that.”
Jaiya Figueras (left) and Cristin McLemore (right) still enjoy the gameday atmosphere surrounding Oregon football, now 15 years removed since they last played for the Ducks.
Jaiya Figueras, the man who soared like Icarus to heights most people only dream of in one week’s stretch, only to then crash to earth harder than most can imagine. He reached the highest highs, suffered the lowest lows, and left behind a lifetime’s worth of what-ifs. Time may eventually heal the bumps and bruises left behind by the rigors of college football, but the brief shining moments like those experienced by Jaiya Figueras and his roommate/best friend Kenny Wheaton will remain fresh in the memories of Oregon fans forever.
Almost 15 years removed from his playing days as a Duck, Jaiya Figueras remains active. After time spent as a teacher and football coach, he now operates his own personal training business in Long Beach, CA.
Kenny Wheaton is retired from professional football after a long career in the NFL and CFL. He splits his time between Dallas, TX, and Phoenix, AZ, providing football training seminars to young athletes when not managing the Kenny Wheaton Foundation, a fixture in the Eugene community striving to assist underprivileged children.
“We’re still close, 15 years later,” Wheaton added. “Jaiya’s such a positive person, he’s a guy you want to be around. His attitude was what turned around Oregon football. He’s the one that did that, and nobody realizes it, nobody gives him credit for it. We all rallied behind him and made Oregon football special.”
Kenny Wheaton (center) and Jaiya Figueras (right) remain close friends, here seen enjoying the festivities at the national championship game in January, 2011. Also pictured: Lyndsey Kyle.
On October 29th, 2011, during this season’s Washington State-Oregon game, Autzen Stadium will be buzzing with excitement as the newest class of Oregon Hall of Fame inductees are officially presented, a group highlighted by Kenny Wheaton. For Wheaton, it is the lone remaining goal from the list formulated by him and roommate Jaiya Figueras nearly two decades before when they were freshmen in the dorms visualizing their success to come.
Jaiya and Kenny have both technically already been inducted, as the 1994 Oregon football team is in the Oregon Hall of Fame, honored for the entire season’s impact on Oregon athletics and the university, but Wheaton is now being added again for his individual performance. With his legendary status growing by the year as young fans who weren’t even born yet when Wheaton made his pick continue to idolize him, Kenny refuses to bask in the glory of that iconic moment by himself. Wheaton and Figueras succeeded from day one of their careers by pushing each other to greatness, the two friends forever linked side-by-side as equals in their minds, though the average fan wouldn’t know it.
Everyone knows the name Kenny Wheaton, the man who supposedly changed Oregon football, but only the most obsessive fan recalls the name Jaiya Figueras. For Wheaton, this is unacceptable, who appreciates the continued accolades but grows tired of constantly discussing his interception vs. Washington as the defining moment in school history without any credit ever being awarded to Figueras for his immense behind the scenes support.
Kenny Wheaton’s attendance at the Oregon Hall of Fame ceremony will be a great honor that he does not take lightly, but he maintains one very strict requirement for the scheduled festivities at Autzen, “Jaiya needs to be on the field by my side for that. He has to be there. That’s as much about him as it is me.”
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