Oregon coach Mike Bellotti has announced his intention to burn the redshirt of running back Aemon Bonderchuk and start him against Washington.
Let the comparisons to the Huskies and Ichabod Crane begin.
"The win over Stanford gave us a real chance to turn this season around," said Bellotti, whose team will come to Seattle with a 5-3 record. "The Huskies are certainly our biggest rival, and we owe it to our fans and alumni to pull out all the stops. And that includes seeing what Aemon can do."
In varsity play, Bonderchuk actually saw the field early in Oregon's 2002 season. He carried the ball just 5 times but for an astonishing 109 yards and 3 TDS. But an NCAA rule stating that all contestants must wear a helmet was duly enforced. As a result, a crestfallen Bonderchuk was forced to sit out the rest of the season. But this past September of 2003, the NCAA officially reinstated Bonderchuk's eligibility, and the ecstatic running back rejoined the Ducks.
"But he missed a lot of work from fall practice," said Bellotti. "He had a lot of catching up to do. This is why we tried to redshirt him this year."
Bonderchuk's story has been amazing and certainly inspirational. Heralding from the remote eastern Oregon desert town of Trailer Park City, Bonderchuk was born without a head. While the exact origins of this tragic birth defect have never been conclusively traced, Bonderchuk today seems very comfortable with his lot in life.
"I have always chalked it up to the Hanford Nuclear Plant", said Bonderchuk in a recent interview with Dawgman.com. "And that's upwind from us, on your side of the border. I tell people it's just another reason to hate the state of Washington." With this Bonderchuk leans back and emits laughter from the air hole where his neck would be.
As a teenager attending East Trailer Park high, Bonderchuk was met with much cruelty. He was a loner and outcast for the first two years of schooling. Derided and mocked in hallways, he was nicknamed "Freak Boy" by insensitive classmates.
That cruelty finally ended on a magical, Friday night in September 2000. That crisp, autumn evening in the desert marked the first time Aemon Bonderchuk suited up for his school's football team. The Fighting Sage Brush of East Trailer Park high had been mired in a 47-game losing streak. But the losing turned to winning, and the cruelty transformed into adulation, when Bonderchuk started at tailback.
"Aemon was electrifying", said his old high school coach "Gruff Gus" Smith. "The very first time he touched the football, he went 89 yards for a dang touchdown! The crowd rose to its feet and applauded him wildly. He ran for nearly 400 yards that game, and the losing streak was snapped!"
Bonderchuk would go on to rush for 3,391 yards and 56 touchdowns in 9 games that season. At 6'3" and filling out a uniform at 226 lbs., he was once clocked at a 4.22 – 40 yard dash. With his rare combination of speed and size, one opposing coach said that tackling Bonderchuk was like trying to corral a runaway Mack Truck.
Due to the lack of visibility from playing in a remote desert outpost, Bonderchuk didn't get much media attention. But in the meantime, one uplifting thing did happen to Bonderchuk.
"Aemon became the most popular kid in the school", said a beaming Smith. "Instead of calling him Freak Boy, the students and school paper started calling him The Headless Horseman…
When asked to describe his former star running back, Smith simply shrugged.
"Aemon? Sure. Nice boy. Good hands. Big heart. No head."
Injuries limited Bonderchuk in his senior season. But he had demonstrated enough ability to garner home visits from certain notables. That included former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel.
"Rick was a very nice person", stated Bonderchuk. "But in spending time with Coach Neuheisel, there was just something about him that made me feel uncomfortable. He watched a lot of college basketball on TV."
However, the headless Bonderchuk really clicked with Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. Soon the young running was focusing upon the Ducks.
"It was a good fit," stated Bonderchuk. "In Eugene I feel like I fit right in. The people there hardly ever stare. They just let me go to class, spend time with my friends and simply allow me stay on the right path… to fulfill my destiny in life."
Right now that destiny seems to reside in becoming one of the nation's premier running backs. Said one Pac-10 coach, "Bonderchuk is like a Reggie Bush without a head. The sky is the limit for this monster talent. I can't understand why the hell Bellotti hasn't played him since the NCAA cleared him back in September."
He added: "And if the Husky defense keeps tackling poorly like they did against ‘SC, Bonderchuk's gonna run wild up there."
Some national attention is starting to come Bonderchuk's way. ESPN's Game Day crew spoke of him last Saturday. Analyst Lee Corso thwacked his hand on the counter and pointed sternly right at the TV camera. "Mike Bellotti should put Bonderchuk in right now! This kid is gonna be a great one. I don't care if he doesn't have a head. He will return the swaggering waddle to the Quack Attack!"
New ESPN College Game Day personality Rush Limbaugh also chimed in with his thoughts.
"I think what you're going to see here is some social concern from the media", said Limbaugh. "They will want to see a headless running back do well. And if Bonderchuk has some success against Washington, they will over-hype it to be more than its worth. In truth, the Ducks' success resides with the big guys up front. The Oregon offensive line carries the rest of the team on its back."
When asked about Limbaugh's comments, Bonderchuk just shrugged.
"Does it bother me? No. Limbaugh is paid to give his opinion. And he's right about the offensive line. We running backs are nothing without good blocking up front… Regardless of whether people criticize or praise me, I can't pay attention to that… I'm living proof that in America, if you're willing to work hard and pay the price, we all have the opportunity to live our dreams. That's regardless of skin color, gender, or whether or not you have a head."
Despite the emerging accolades, Bonderchuk doesn't relish the media attention. He seems to want as much normalcy as possible.
"I have to stay focused on school and football, in that order. I just want to get back out there and help the Ducks win some football games," he stated resolutely.
"Nothing would feel better than to beat Washington."
This article was inspired by the late George Plimpton's fantastic 1981 article "Medora Goes to the Game", and the Harvard Lampoon. Special thanks to Educk for providing the photo and being good sports.
Derek Johnson can be reached at email@example.com
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