Four years ago, Oregon fans were introduced to a tall, lanky and shy kid named Justin Herbert, a kid who felt like his shoes would never be big enough to fill those of departed Ducks living legend Marcus Mariota.
Herbert now leaves Oregon a hometown hero and the face of the program. He has also set the standard of what a student-athlete should be, achieving success in the classroom as well as on the field. When Herbert opted last year to forgo the NFL Draft and return to Eugene for his senior season, it felt like a proper bookend for a kid who lived in Autzen’s backyard.
Today, this young man, who was once deemed too reserved to be a starting NFL quarterback, is in Indianapolis for the NFL combine preparing for the NFL Draft, where he will surely go in the first round. Oregon fans will rejoice no matter where he is picked in the draft after watching him progress over the course of four years.
Herbert’s career ended with triumph and elation, but it began in a polar opposite fashion, when arch enemy Washington turned Autzen Stadium upside down with a 70-21 beatdown of the overmatched Ducks. It’s hard to find a bright spot in a 70-21 loss, but Herbert was one shining star showing a glimmer of hope for the future.
Let’s look back at the beginnings of Justin Herbert.
The loss to Washington was the low point of the 2016 “culture of loss” that started the previous season in the Alamo Bowl. There, Ducks fans learned a 31-point halftime lead wasn’t large enough, as Oregon managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. The only thing that could cure the sour taste left in Oregon fans’ mouths was the fresh start of a new season.
After two fairly breezy wins, the Ducks lost three straight against Nebraska, Colorado and a blowout at the hands of Wazzu. But like a light at the end of the tunnel, the Huskies were coming to town. Although they were the nation’s fifth-ranked team, Oregon fans were pretty confident that the Ducks could extend their 12-game win streak against them with an upset at the Autzen Zoo.
On that day, it didn’t play home to the Ducks. Instead, it was “Autzen Stadium, home of the Oregon Webfoots.”
For this game, Oregon wore commemorative uniforms that displayed the nickname “Webfoots” across the chest, and replaced the usual green and yellow with dark blue and gold. As the players rushed out of the tunnel, they looked more like the Cal Bears than Oregon Ducks. In hindsight, the Ducks should never have left the tunnel to begin with, as they suffered one of the worst defeats in school history.
On their opening drive, the Ducks threw an interception, which led to a Washington touchdown on the ensuing drive. It all went downhill from there. Oregon provided a brief glimmer of hope with a late first-half touchdown to cut the lead to 28-7, but what followed was nothing but more agony, as the standing room only crowd grew quieter and quieter.
After this 70-21 defeat it became easier to think about the Ducks of yesterday than the ones of tomorrow. The rejoicing over national title runs, Rose Bowls and PAC-12 Championships all seemed so distant, even though they felt like yesterday.
That night, when the lights went dark at Autzen. Oregon was left with one positive takeaway. As an Associated Press game recap put it: “Despite his obvious inexperience and that initial interception, Herbert showed potential.” In his first career start as a Duck, then-freshman Herbert threw for 179 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. There it was, a potential. A potential that Herbert and the Ducks would end the string of tantalizing defeats and begin a rise to the top.
With a Pac-12 Championship, a Rose Bowl win and some of the nation’s top recruiting classes, it’s fair to say that that rise has well begun. The horrific 2016 season should be a distant memory in the minds of their fans. The once “silver lining” in a horrific defeat is now on the verge of beginning his professional career and potentially starting on an NFL roster in his first year as a pro.
Looking back on the “Webfoots” and the emotions boiling at the time certainly isn’t fun, but you have to do that to fully appreciate how far the program has come in such a short time. Fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the future even without Herbert under center — after all, he did mention the next Herbert is going to be the best one yet.
Patrick Herbert, it’s your turn now.
Eugene, OregonTop Photo by Kevin Cline
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.
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