I AWAKEN TUESDAY MORNING lost in a Pacific Crest Trail dream, trying to find some high-mountain trail near Mt. Hood, when, as undoubtedly happened with a lot of Duck fans about the same time, it hits me: we lost the national championship game the previous night. Worse, we got thumped, 42-20 by our nemesis Ohio State, whom we’re now 0-9 against. Ouch.
The season of a lifetime suddenly is shattered, college football’s answer to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” lyrics: “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”
How do I possibly get through this?
1. I remind myself that nobody died and none of my family members is lying in an emergency room. I put into perspective not what this is but what it isn’t.
What helps me remember that? The realization that for another family I know, someone did die. The e-mail arrived Sunday night amid flurries of pre-game giddiness with news that Jean Glausi, 77, a gracious Eugene woman who opened the world of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Sally and I, had lost a long struggle to illness. And I think to myself: there’s a family being reminded that life is wider than a football field.
As I finish writing a book about a millionaire who gave away all his money to the poor and then died of cancer—ironically, a man from Dallas, home of the Ducks’ despair—I remember something he said months before he died: “Nobody in a cancer ward grumbles about their football team.” (OK, maybe a few.)
2. I think of something funny. Not “funny-at-the-time” funny but “funny-now” funny.
As a kid, our family was camped on an island on the Columbia River with some friends, when my teenage sister went water skiing before breakfast.
As she let go of the rope to finish, she came straight into the sandy beach, hit the sand with her two skis and popped out of the bindings like a champagne cork, landing flat on her face. My mother, making hash browns and eggs, sprinted to her side, certain she had broken her neck.
It turned out to be only a broken arm.
“Oh, well, then,” said my mom, “let’s go back and have some breakfast.”
It was a flippant comment, to be sure, but you get the idea. This isn’t a broken neck, Duck fans. More like a broken arm.
3. I remind myself that I’ve been through plenty of sports defeats in life and I still have a measurable pulse.
The time my younger son’s Sheldon High baseball team was one pitch away from making the state finals and lost. The time a Kidsports team I coached was primed to win the city championship only to have the final game rained out, me standing in the banquet room at Papa’s Pizza on Coburg Road trying to put a happy face on a kiss-your-sister tie. The time we all knew that Auburn guy was down but the ref said no and Oregon lost a chance for a national title.
I’ve survived three generations of defeats — 60 years’ worth — and I am still ticking: playing on a middle school football team so bad that when we tied a game 0-0 we went to Shakey’s Pizza to celebrate. Watching my sons in Kidsports anguish. Then, last night, saying goodbye to a grandson stretched out out on his bed in despair. The latter triggered one of my earliest memories: crying incessantly in the bathtub as a 4-year-old over an Oregon State loss, back when I was a Beaver fan.
And guess what? I’m still alive. The sun still comes up. Life is good.
4. I remind myself that there but by the grace of an out-of-position referee Oregon gets called for pass interference against Washington State as the Cougars are coming in for a possible winning touchdown, and we never make it to Dallas.
Or if Marcus Mariota doesn’t make that backhand flick to Royce Freeman on third-and-forever against Michigan State for a first down we never make it to Dallas.
Or if the Utah player waits a second longer before dropping the ball at the goal line we’re down 14-zip on the road and, perhaps, we never make it to Dallas.
Or if the powers-that-be hadn’t instituted the new playoff system this year, the Ducks wouldn’t have been playing at all last night. Florida State and Alabama almost certainly would have been, based on the old BCS setup.
It’s easy to play the “what-if” game when we feel we’re the victims. But it’s just as easy to overlook the times the “what-if” game gave us opportunities we might not have had: to be on the nation’s largest stage as one of the last two teams out of 128 still standing.
5. I remember the photograph.
Turkey Bowl, mid-1980s. Bellevue, Washington. Ryan and I vs. Sally and Jason. True Civil War. A family divided. Back then, KIRO TV in Seattle would run Turkey Bowl scores in its sports news segment and ours made it: Ryan and Dad 35, Mom and Jason 28.
A photograph that I took shows Sally reaching out to console a 5-year-old Jason who had melted into post-game tears while Big Brother stands proudly, arms crossed in smugness.
A quarter-century later, Jason is a happily married and the father of three cool little boys. He got over it. Ryan is less smug. The four of us still love each other and have expanded to eleven. Life goes on.
6. I remember how bad it once was.
Nobody likes to get as close as the Ducks did and lose, myself included. But I compare last night’s loss to Ohio State in a championship game with a 5-zip non-conference loss to San Jose State at home in 1975 and, in the words of a singing Julie “Sound of Music” Andrews, “then I don’t feel so bad.”
I was sports editor of the Oregon Daily Emerald when the Ducks had a 14-game losing streak. When the university president wasn’t touting his team’s lopsided Rose Bowl victory but saying (after the San Jose State loss), “I’d rather be whipped in a public square than watch a football game like that.”
This season, I watched 13-2 Oregon win three more footballs than the Ducks won in my entire four years as a UO student from 1972 to 1975 (10). I didn’t know what the phrase “bowl game” meant.
It puts it all in perspective for me.
7. I remind myself that, though I love them, life is bigger than Eugene, Oregon, and the University of Oregon and football.
ESPN’s story on Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones Monday afternoon moved me to tears. It was about a kid raised in a vacuum of love tattered with drive-by gunfire. A kid saved by the love of a social worker and a school principal who didn’t treat him like dirt, but called him a diamond. Believed in him.
Good for Cardale Jones. A third-stringer who, in his only three starts, won a Big Ten title, a Sugar Bowl title and a national title. Great story.
And if the roles had been reversed, if we had won, I would hope Ohio State would appreciate the Ducks’ amazing story, too, which leads to ….
8. I remember the amazing story Oregon created in 2014-15 — and feel privileged to have been part of it.
A little-known quarterback from Hawaii who comes to Oregon and wins the Heisman Trophy. A team that overcomes injury after injury after injury to get to the first-ever Football Playoff Championship. A team that many had given up for dead after the loss to Arizona but didn’t give up on itself.
It’s a cliche but it’s true: the journey is the destination. If you live only for results and not for the richness of processes, you will be elated on occasion and miserable often.
“Just remember,” I told my grandson last night after the game, “it hurts and it should. But nobody can take away all the good stuff we got to experience. Nobody can take away you and your dad going to that Rose Bowl game.”
9. I dismiss the haters. Actually, I feel sorry for the haters.
The best advice a journalism professor ever gave me came from the UO’s Dean Rea, when I’d slunk to him after a reader had ripped me particularly viciously about a column I’d written.
“Consider the source,” he said. “If you’ve been criticized by someone you respect and has your best interest in mind, listen to them. If you’ve been criticized by someone who’s just out to make you feel bad or lord their superiority over you, ignore them. Let it be water off a duck’s back.”
Now that Oregon’s dream season is over, plenty of fans from teams whose schools lost to the Ducks will come out of the woodwork to gloat about the Ducks’ defeat — even though they’d trade their season for yours in a heartbeat.
Water off a Duck’s back.
10. I go hike Mt. Pisgah.
In other words, I get on with my life. The suggestion isn’t that I can slough off a loss like last night’s as if it didn’t mean anything. No, no, no.
Losing hurts. Whenever you invest in a relationship — in this case, with a team — you do so realizing you’re going to get to enjoy the good times but must endure the pain of the bad. The two are inseparable.
I love the Ducks. I hurt. If I didn’t, if you didn’t, then the relationship wouldn’t mean anything to us. That’s why death hurts so much: it’s a badge of honor reminding us we had something special with the person who is gone.
But whether it’s a football game or the bigger stuff of life beyond, we live daily by choosing to either be thankful for what we have — and have had — or bitter about what we don’t.
I choose to be thankful. For 13 wins, none sweeter than the 59-20 Rose Bowl win over Florida State. For the lesson in why you should never give up, as some thought the Ducks would do after the Arizona loss. For all the wonderful evenings when our three generations of family walked home from Autzen talking about this great play or that. And for a kid named Marcus Mariota, who proved that nice guys don’t necessarily finish last.
Every life experience can enrich us or enrage us. We choose.
So this morning I take Marcus’ smile and that tearful Heisman acceptance speech and Tony Washington sprinting into the Rose Bowl end zone and Mark Helfrich being a class act, win or lose, and “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota” and bandwagon fans painting their fingernails green and yellow and “Watch the game here!” marquees and businesses closing early — and stuff it all in my backpack.
Then I go hike Mt. Pisgah, wondering what will happen next.