Deep in Cougar and Husky country, a Duck

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To put things into proper perspective, we must first describe the setting. Washington state. East slopes of the Cascades. Deep in the heart of Apple Country. Roughly halfway between Pullman and Seattle. Lots of Cougars and Huskies.

And right smack in the middle of Wenatchee you’ll also find Luke Gillespie the Duck.

Even though the 22-year-old bartender never went to school in Eugene. Is not an Oregonian. Has a dad who is is a Nebraska Cornhusker (bachelor’s degree) and an Idaho Vandal (masters). Counts family who wear purple in Seattle. And whose friends are virtually all, well, yes, Cougars and Huskies.

Luke Gillespie, Duck fan for life, flashes the "O" sign in downtown Wenatchee.

Gillespie is a Duck. Make no mistake about it.

Something caught his eye on TV a dozen years ago. He’s not exactly sure today what game, play or moment it was —  other than it happened in 2000. Since then, his interest as a fan has grown exponentially. All in a place that is decidedly, well, anti-you-know-what.

“They’re come to accept me as a Duck,” says Gillespie of his family, friends and acquaintances. “Some still feel Oregon’s uniforms are ugly. But it doesn’t matter because you could look like crap as long as you’re outscoring who you are playing.”

It used to be that if you were an Oregon football fan, you came from one of two places: You either went to the school or had a parent or sibling who did; or you grew up somewhere in the state.

No more.

These days, you can find Ducks hats on heads in Eugene, Portland, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, London, Stockholm, Athens, Moscow, Cape Town, Dubai, Calcutta, Bangkok, Sydney — and everywhere in between. And, yes, even that Orthodox Jewish college in New York City.

Credit the program’s win-loss record, its rise to national prominence, the spectacular offense, the brash uniforms, the Nike connection, the state-of-the-art facilities, the Autzen crowd, ESPN Game Day, proud alums and residents, the fast-talking Chip, the zaniness of the Duck, Snoop, JJ, LMJ, DAT — or any combination therein.

Credit the Internet, fan message boards, cable TV, games streamed live, social media — all of which have made following a team minute-by-minute, day-by-day, possible virtually anywhere in the world.

Once a Duck, always a Duck. No doubt.

Never a Duck, but forever a Duck. That, too.

I first became acquainted with Gillespie a few years ago when he worked as a barista at a downtown Wenatchee coffee house. One day the conversation turned to college football and he made it clear how and when he first started bleeding green and yellow and black and chrome and gray. I was intrigued.

He played the sport in high school and continues to do so today as a tailback and special teams player for the Wenatchee Valley Rams, a collection of former high school and college athletes who compete in the six-team Washington Football League. Former Oregon punter Josh Syria (2007-08) played for the Rams prior to landing in Eugene.

Gillespie first became enamored with Oregon during the Joey Harrington years. The program under coach Mike Bellotti had been on a rising trajectory since 1994. It won often under Harrington, capped by the Fiesta Bowl crushing of Colorado and a No. 2 AP poll ranking at the end of the 2001 season.

A few years later, just as he himself was wearing the blue and red for the Eastmont High School Wildcats as a fullback and linebacker, Gillespie got drawn in even more thanks to the ever-evolving and splashy Duck uniforms.

Then came running back Jonathan Stewart and quarterback Dennis Dixon. When they helped craft 2007’s magical run, Gillespie committed to the Ducks for life.

For life!

“For years, the West Coast, besides USC, never really received respect from other conferences, and now Oregon is up there with them,” he says.

What strikes Gillespie the most is how Oregon uses the entire width of the field on offense and wields the no-huddle tempo ruthlessly.

“That offense has always sort of tripped me out,” he says.

The uniforms? Well, he enjoyed the combos worn in the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn and this year’s Rowl Bowl against Wisconsin. But his all-time favorite is the all-white “stormtrooper” look first used against Washington in 2007.

As for his Seattle relatives — the one who are UW fans and don’t like to be reminded of the past eight Duck-Husky contests — he only feels “the hate” on game day. As for the Cougars who live in and around Wenatchee, “they’re pretty docile,” he says.

If not, at times, still a little confused.

Sometimes he and his buddies get together on Saturday. Inevitably he’ll be asked to turn on the game.

“And I think, well, Oregon is not playing right now, why would they want to watch Oregon. Then I realize what game they actually want to watch.”

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