Give Thanks to the Little Guys

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While the stars are lauded during the Fiesta Bowl awards ceremony, the unsung, everyday heroes helped the Ducks achieve this success. Kevin Cline Photography.

For every Marcus Mariota, there is a Dane Ebanez, J.R. Maffie and Axel McQuaw.

For every first-round draft pick there are scores of players who come to practice every day, hitting the trenches and working just as hard as the stars.  Yet these players pass quietly through the hallowed halls of Oregon with little or no acclaim, sometimes without scholarships and certainly with no hope of ever making it to the NFL.

These players truly do it for the love — love of the game, love of the university, love of competition and the brotherhood of the team.

For over a century, players like this have come and gone, spending their time at the university before moving on to working-class jobs in the working-class world.  Most of these players were never interviewed and certainly never made the cover of a magazine or ended up on SportsCenter.

But coaches, administrators and dedicated fans know that it is players like these that are the backbone and glue that hold teams together.  It is this unique aspect of football that other sports lack. Certainly each sport has its stars and its journeyman, but in football, due primarily to the size of the teams, players who are not stars have a much more important role.  Whether it is playing on the scout team or special-teams, it is these largely unknown individuals who make up the backbone of a football team.

How many current Ducks can the average fan name?  Without looking at the roster, would it be 10, 20, 30? With Division I teams having a maximum of 85 scholarship players and often over 100 total team members, that would leave a huge chunk of players virtually unknown to all but the most die-hard fan.

Every year these players come and go, and certainly having a scholarship is a bonus to attend school.  The argument could be made that playing a game that earns millions for the school to get a reduced or free college education is a fair trade-off.  However, football is a brutal, demanding, physical sport, and many of these players will be dealing with the after effects of injuries for the rest of their lives, without receiving anything other than memories.  For the elite level stars that make it the NFL, they at least will be compensated with a huge salary, but for the little guys, there will be no such compensation.  They will have to deal with nagging physical issues on their own.

So what drives such players?

As stated before, a love of the game is virtually mandatory.  Many come to play at Oregon harboring the dream that through hard work and discipline, they might make it to the next level.  The sobering reality is the vast majority will not come close.  Most of the players that enroll at big-time football schools were dominant players in high school, but coming to a university where everyone was at that same level can be cold, hard dose of reality.  Yet they play on, day after day, rising early for practice, staying up late to study, rarely giving up, even when they know they will not play a down in the NFL.

In so many ways, these players are the most important players on the football team.  Without them, there would be no football.  Without them, stars like Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas could not become the stars they are today.  Thanks and gratitude — at least among the fanbase — is not common, simply because few know who they are.

So while the Black Mamba may get all the attention, players like Ben Butterfield can walk across campus without anyone stopping to ask for an autograph.  Often players like Butterfield and Ebanez only get a chance to play during practice or one of the Duck’s trademark blowout wins.

So the next time the Ducks make a huge play, or when Mariota gets taken in the first round of the NFL draft, take a little time to remember the players who have quietly and anonymously been the glue that helped the University of Oregon become the elite football school that it is.

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