Three days in the Willamette Valley

The blinking red light of my answering machine was the first thing to greet me. It was Sunday evening, and I had just entered into my apartment, after having spent three days down in Eugene.

As I let down my bags and splashed cold water across my face, I hit the play button to hear the messages.

One of them went as follows: "Derek! Just callin' to check in and see how your trip went… And just callin' to see if you got back in one piece! (Laughter)… For all I know, at this very moment you're tied up in a green and gold gunnysack and lying at the bottom of some Eugene river (More laughter). Well, assuming you ever get back in, give me a shout, dawg."

As I subsequently accessed the Dawgman message boards, I saw people giving their experiences, both good and bad. The question of just how receptive Oregon would be to the incoming Husky fans seems to be in our collective purple consciousness. In talking with many Washington fans, clearly the general image of Duck fans has been that of spiteful, barbaric behavior perpetrated by green-clad guttersnipes who have yet to learn the ABCs about winning with dignity. As a personal example, I remember being appalled at the stories emerging from the Oregon-Wisconsin game from a year ago. That was when several Oregon fans belligerently took the visitors' seats and refused to relinquish them. The apoplectic Badger fans had to stand in the aisle ways throughout the duration of the contest. As we heard from message board testimonials, the number of disgusted Midwesterners was legion. It was certainly bad PR for the University Oregon at the time.

However that was then, and this is now… As I entered into Eugene on early Friday, I was ready for anything. This was to be my sixth trip to Autzen Stadium, but the first time I had seen the actual campus.

Of note, I was wearing my sleeveless Husky jacket.

I was to be meeting a friend of mine at 2 PM, but got there early and had the chance to wander around. The weather was partly cloudy, no rain, cool temperature. My kind of weather. I went for a short jog by the river, but left the headphones back in my vehicle, so as to avoid any slight possibility of getting jumped, caught unawares. I also had a chance to wander about the campus a bit and take in the sights. At one point early on, across the street from the main entrance, I was coming down a walkway through a section of beautiful trees. Approaching from a side angle were some students. The silence was broken as the tallest one roared at me "HEY, YOU HUSKEEEEE!!!"

Instinctively my right fist clenched and I turned in a slightly defiant posture. But that proved to be ridiculous of me, as this guy broke out into a huge smile and shouted "good luck toooooooo-morrow!" I grinned and nodded back to them, and offered them luck too.

This was to be the closest thing approaching an incident that I would experience in my whole three-day trip.

I hooked up with my friend at a little after 2 PM. He is an Oregon Alumnus and took me over to the Athletic Department to check things out. I was introduced to a handful of administrators and they all couldn't have been more gracious to me. I was given an informal tour of some of the facilities, including the Hall of Fame. It is a bit more spacious than ours, with some sound effects emanating from the side rooms flanking the main central walkway. The sound effects were a healthy mixture of Oregon's fight song along with cheering crowds, squeaking sneakers upon a court, and tackling and whistle sounds. This was a nice compliment to the experience while looking at all the trophies and dozens and dozens of historical pictures. Everything was encased in glass, just like in our own beautiful Hall of Fame.

The section featuring the Fiesta Bowl season was sparkling. Located down toward the end of the main walkway, and off to the left. There were also wide-screen TVs every fifteen yards, and a giant, almost space-age style TV set, which was seemingly floating above us at the end of the hallway. It seemed to glow like a perpetual solar flare.

My friend hit a secret code into a panel in the wall, and a five-minute video began playing. From the big TV, it projected the images onto the actual floor upon which we were standing. Booming rock music blared all around me as I bore witness to an assortment of Duck highlights from the last couple of years. They show this regularly to recruits, and it is very impressive. On the whole, I think that our HOF is a bit classier and with lots more football history to take in. However, unabashedly I admit that I would love to see UW copy this method of advertising for our recruits. It was a beautiful and immensely impressive facility.

From that point, everywhere we went throughout the campus, countless Duck fans and students saw me and everybody was as friendly as could be.

Late in the day, my friend's cell phone rang, and it was someone calling from Seattle. It was a close friend of mine, and apparently she had just received a call from some Oregon student who had found my (purple) phone. They had looked up a number in there, and called back to Seattle, and reported that my phone had been found on campus. I didn't even know it was missing! Sheepishly, but gratefully, I ran over to the student union, and retrieved it. There was no graffiti on my phone, it hadn't been thrown into the river, nor tossed into a putrid trashcan somewhere. It was in perfect condition.

I was starting to see a different Eugene than what I had expected.

The next day I was at the stadium with another friend of mine, and we briefly stopped in to the Dawgman-Educk get-together. I met Race Bannon (aka Duckfighter) and we chatted for a couple of minutes. He told me that he had picked UW to win 56-20! I chuckled with him and said that that seemed pretty brazen. In retrospect, that was an example of startling clairvoyance. In Neuheisel vernacular, allow me to say "my hat's off to you, Race."

As we headed toward another get-together, we came across an old, rounded little trailer that was completely green and yellow. A sign on the back said "Quack Shack". I started howling with laughter and immediately fell in love with it and the concept. Upon it's back end were a multitude of bumper stickers, including the obligatory "Huskies Suck". I loved the gaudiness of the Quack Shack, and asked them for permission to snap a photo. Perhaps fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, nevertheless these fine folks mentally embraced us and invited us inside. Throughout virtually every square inch of wall and ceiling, there were all kinds of signatures of past football players and people whom they had encountered in tailgates past. When I told them that I wrote for and wanted permission to possibly use the photos for publication, they recoiled in surprise, then asked me why my on-line photo didn't show me with my present goatee. After which a cold can of beer was thrust into my hand and I was violently slapped on the back. When I stated that I didn't drink, it was forcefully removed and a cold can of soda was thrust into the beer's place.

They honored me by drunkenly demanding that I sign the back wall. This was their opponents' "Wall-of-Shame". There were signatures of enemies past, and trinkets of various sorts that were graciously relinquished for the sake of this collection. It was like a collection of scalps snared by a tribe of Sioux Indians from the 19th century. Included was a foam Sun Devil hat, a ratty old Oregon State cap, and a USC license plate frame. If I was to sign the wall, I had to relinquish something. I dug deep into my coat pocket and retrieved a ticket stub from the previous week's OSU game. They proudly snatched it and stapled it upon the wall.

I then signed, "Remember Mark Lee… Go Huskies! Derek Johnson - 11-16-02"

I will admit that I was crestfallen when they blinked and said that they didn't know who he was. It kind of lost its desired effect… (Mark Lee had the game-winning 53-yard punt return for a TD {with 1:58 left!} to beat the Ducks 21-17 in '79).

We had some good fun there, which was concluded with a mock photo of me standing in front of the camera with one of the Ducks holding a knife to my throat.

Needless to say, all had a good time, and they wished us good luck.

On the way to our seats, a handful of Duck fans offered us best wishes. Finally, we were about to have kickoff!

The friend who attended the game with me was named Scott, and he was from Cottage Grove. This was to be interesting, as he was a Duck fan seated among a healthy throng of rabid Husky fans. He had joked beforehand that he would wear his green and gold Afro wig, and if I could get my hands on a purple and gold Afro wig, we could perhaps stage a fight… and perhaps get on TV! Alas, I didn't follow through, so our fifteen minutes of fame will have to wait for another day.

There were no problems for him at all, as everyone around us was fired up but showing good sportsmanship.

As Washington fell behind 14-0, and Oregon was moving the ball with ease, I was running the risk of a minor stroke. All I could see in mind's eye was Nate Robinson dropping that interception. "Just keep fighting, just keep it close, boys!" I shouted from the very bottom of my lungs. I must admit however, that I didn't feel very optimistic.

We had two great guys sitting off to our left. I didn't catch their names but interacted with them all game long, and these guys were true Husky fans. Dressed in purple, they were loud, razzing, sarcastic, but really good-natured, and funny as hell. They loved their Dawgs! Even amid the dismalness of trailing 14-0, we were all cracking each other up. I was sitting there thinking, "This is what it's all about, win or lose". Their presence beat the hell out of the inert lumps of matter passing for Husky fans that have sat by me in my two previous road games (I am sorry to say).

As the momentum totally shifted in UW's favor, and the rout began to mount amid the soggy downpour, the spirits of the Huskies' rooting section commenced lift-off and rocketed into the stratosphere. It was like a tremendous New Year's Eve party. It felt like all the frustrations of a flat season were expunged and washed away with the Eugene rain. This was the most enjoyable victory since the Rose Bowl triumph against Purdue. It felt fantastic to be a Husky on Saturday. As the final gun went off, to see the players stampede over to the UW fans in the end zone, and revel in this wild glow of victory, was such a gratifying thing to witness.

My biggest challenge at that point was to enjoy the moment, while consoling my buddy Scott, who naturally was displaying some signs of despondency and immense suffering. But to the victor go the spoils, and this was Washington's time. It was a proverbial Roman dining hall for the Dawgs on Saturday night.

An hour after the game, some Oregon fans were in Neuheisel's path and congratulated him on a great win, engaging him with some light-hearted conversation for a few minutes. Neuheisel graciously spoke with them and reciprocated the sportsmanship and sentiments.

So Sunday night I saw that blinking light on my answering machine and heard the inquiry as to whether or not I was in a gunnysack at the bottom of a river. I needed to call him at once and correct this wrong impression he had of Eugene and its citizens.

I dialed the number and gave him the boring, stagnant truth.

I told him that in the stadium parking lot, my back window had been smashed out and beer bottles had been thrown at me… but other than that everything went OK.

"Oh, man!" he exclaimed feverishly… "You've got to be kidding me!"
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories