COMMENTARY: Reflecting on Beaver-Duck rivalry

RECENTLY I WAS stranded alone in New York's JFK airport, dealing with flight delay after flight delay. Surveying the packed terminal, a virtual gray cloud of stranded travelers, a visual thunderstorm appeared -- a brightly clad University of Oregon fan. It got me thinking about the rivalry between the Beavers and Ducks.

There I was with my laptop and an endless amount of work, a familiar partnership to face the pending boredom. But looking at this proudly dressed Duck fan it was evident he was sharing my wait, and we seemed to have much in common -- age, stature, professional standing, looked like he came from the Northwest, too. But there was nothing subtle about this Duck. To an untrained eye, he was wearing a bright multicolored Oregon golf shirt and Duck jacket. But what I saw was a chartreuse, spinach and yellow ensemble with a gigantic "white toilet seat O" across his back.

There he was, standing 20 feet away, proudly representing the Ducks for all of New York to see and looking for a place to sit. He may have noticed but didn't acknowledge my Beaver fan-hood. It was more discrete. If he did, he would have spotted the black sports coat, orange watch face and Beaver tags on my luggage. I thought about calling him over. Intellectually, I figured it would be fun to talk with a Duck football fan the next couple of hours, reminisce about the recent seasons our teams booked in 2008-09 and discuss in detail our common history from the century old rivalry.

I had little doubt the conversation would surprise both of us. We should share common interests and most assuredly know some of the same people. Instead, I returned my attention to my laptop, while the Beaver rivalry devil on my shoulder whispered; ‘You have little interest in talking to this guy. Why does he have to wear such screamingly loud gear? Typical Duck.'

WHY DIDN'T AN outspoken, never-met-a-stranger, sports fan guy like me not take the opportunity to engage? The answer is simple -- I am not sure how our rivalry would have matched up. This guy looked the part of the dreaded type of Duck fan that brings out a side of me my wife dreads and my sons admire. In the end, the rivalry that began in 1894, between schools 42.4 miles apart, presented to me a gap at least that wide, even though we were just 20 feet apart at JFK.

Later on the flight home, somewhere over the Midwest, I thought about whether I missed an opportunity. The last couple of years the Beavs and Ducks have produced some of the best football in my thirty years of rooting for the Beavs. In 2008, the Civil War determined if the Beavs were going to the Rose Bowl as Conference champions. In 2009, it was the Pac-10 championship for both schools, winner take all. The Beavs and Ducks created a buzz across college football; "The state of Oregon is deciding the PAC 10 championship?"

The mutual success even created some momentum the idea that the state of Oregon was coming together and could be fans of both schools. ‘I'm an Oregonian first, I cheer from both teams unless they are playing each other,' was heard. No. I understand how this state-pride-fan-strategy might work for some. However, for me and others like me, I contend the fan bases are not coming closer. In fact the 42.4 mile rivalry chasm between the two schools is actually growing apart at an accelerated rate.

IT'S COMMON SOCIOLOGY -- the fiercest rivalries, sworn enemies in some fan cases, are between groups who appear to most closely resembling each other. The Beaver-Duck rivalry is an exception.

To the untrained eye, Oregon's two largest college football programs are virtually identical. The schools and communities share similar geographic region, weather, socio-economics and over the past decade, nearly the same winning percentage. It's a common occurrence for people outside the state get the schools confused. However, true fans of both schools can speak loudly to the broad and defining differences and cultures between the two -- land grant vs. arts and sciences, engineering vs. architecture, pro offense vs. the spread, Riley vs. Kelly, even potato salad vs. tennis shoes is a hot topic.

For outsiders these facts may not seem to matter much but for a tight group of fans, these differences unequivocally support rational and irrational points of view of their school's superiority.

ARE RIVALRIES beneficial? Do they make sports better? That question stayed with me on my flight home. Yes, without a doubt, I believe the rivalry creates a way for fans to actively participate and feel a part of your team at the highest level. Personally, I made a lifetime oath decades ago to become an OSU rivalry warrior, to defend the Oregon State Beavers, especially against University of Oregon Duck fans, without compromise. I choose to challenge opposing Duck fans in battles of humor, banter and relentless logic in support the Beavs' superiority. This pact, alas, is not for the faint of heart.

Looking back on Civil Wars past, my heart swells with pride reliving the nearly identical runs by Ken Simonton and James Rodgers to claim overtime victory over the Ducks. On the flip side, there is no more devastating moment of fan despair than the 2008 Civil War home loss, and it will likely live on until the Beavs beat the Ducks to claim a Rose Bowl berth.

Considering both programs recent success, the long standing rivalry stakes have now risen to new heights. The game behind the game is at its pinnacle. The joint success of the 2009 season has set the stage for a monumental skirmish in the 2010 Civil. There are already predictions the Beavers' Pac-10 championship dreams will come down to that game against the Ducks, a team who has become one of the most outlandish college football personas followed by a cult like fan base dressed in green.

IN AN EPIPHANY reached at 30,000 feet, I realized I like that the Ducks are my rival. Then, almost immediately, the thought of complimenting the Ducks made me think about finding the air sickness bag and breaking out in a cold sweat.

With invested in any rivalry, you are very connected with the ups and downs of the other team. Taking into account the high profile events of the past months in Eugene, there is evidence the Ducks have attempted to sour the rivalry game. For those of us who participate, there is a now growing frustration from the Ducks not holding up their end of the deal. Initially the Duck football program's "transgressions" created easy fodder, simple and endless material to feed the smack machine. But sadly, goofy uniforms, outrageous fans, distorted "facts" and endless expectations for national championships and Heisman trophies are now being overshadowed by the chaos of player suspensions, dismissals, and genuine problems with alcohol and violence.

What's going on?! The rivalry covenant between Oregon State and Oregon's football teams is based on our unique Northwest concepts of honor and respect, built on a century-plus of competing on the gridiron. When the rivalry is threatened by violations of this covenant, it introduces the potential for irrational thought, of compassion and reassurance to Duck fans that things will return to the way Oregonians like their college football -- we want to see both programs playing at their potential, so when we beat you it hurts the most.

As my plane landed, it shook me back to my rational, rivalry fan mindset and I remembered countless harassment from Duck fans over stolen sheep, smashed up bus stops and other transgressions by Beaver players through the years. Those thoughts restored my confidence -- the immediate problems of today at Duck Central will pass. Our age old battle will resume on the field and stoke the rivalry fires.

As the plane stopped, I pulled out my Blackberry and without hesitation typed a quick text message to my Duck buddy, Tony -- "Hey I just flew over a bunch of your Duck football players, wearing Beaver Orange picking up trash on the side of the freeway."

I exited the plane with a smile, secure in the knowledge the rivalry for the state of Oregon's college football supremacy is for the moment, alive and well.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kevin Stuck is a 1983 graduate of Oregon State. After spending his youth in Astoria and college days in Corvallis, he now resides in San Diego County with his wife Amy and two youngest sons. His eldest son, much to the enjoyment of the lifetime Beaver supporter, is currently attending Oregon State.

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