Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On Saturday, the Most Important Duck Quarterback Will Be the One Who Doesn't Get the Job

We're all waiting like the faithful on the Autzen concourse, waiting for a puff of smoke. On Saturday Chip Kelly emerges from the conclave of Oregon coaches and answers the question he's been asked a 1,000 times.

And the most important quarterback on the practice field that morning is the one who doesn't take the first snap.

All his teammates will be watching. The fans and media will be watching. Does he hang his head? Is he sulking and detached and going through the motions? Or he is engaged, involved, with his chinstrap buckled and his eyes on the defense, shadowing every rep?

The guy named the backup has an incredibly difficult job. All his athletic life he has trained to be the man. Guys who sign up to play quarterback want it on their shoulders, from peewee football on. They want the helm, the command, the cadence. They want every snap to go to them. They want to be recognized and admired. Dennis Dixon was unique as a quarterback in that he was the shyest and most unassuming star I ever saw. He was a gazelle with the football in his hands, a magician on the ball fakes, fearless in the pocket, but put a microphone in front of him and he would lower his eyes and speak in a shy whisper. Most quarterbacks want the attention, the notoriety and the pressure. They want the spotlight and the responsibility and the cheers. They want to be the legend, to one degree or another.

I remember Johnny Durocher. 6' 4" 205, a four-star recruit from Spanaway rated 17th in the country. He ran a 4.8 40 and could throw the ball forty yards from his knees. He got lost in the shuffle at Oregon and transferred out. To Washington of all places. His last year here, he was sulky and detached. Cody Kempt left. So did Justin Roper.

How the number two guy reacts on Saturday will make a huge difference in the character and focus of this Oregon Duck football team in 2010. His demeanor and body language will signal his teammates whether they are in this together, or whether they are a group of individuals pursuing individual glory and individual goals. If he buys in, and shows it, and stays engaged and stays committed to being Oregon quarterback 1B, he sends a clear message to Dewitt Stuckey and Dior Mathis and Everett Benyard, "This is what we're about. We're Ducks. This is what it means to be a Duck. Every one of us is here for one goal and one purpose." He has a chance to lead this team in a more meaningful way than anyone in uniform on day one of the preparation for New Mexico. Because if he prepares like he is the starter, everyone else in uniform will take his cue.

Watch that guy on game day. Is he a coach on the sidelines? Are he and the starter working together, studying the pictures, comparing notes on what they're seeing out there? Or is he sullen and off to the side with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, his helmet stuffed under the bench? Where is his head? Where is his heart? Nothing can divide and destroy a football team faster than a number two quarterback who has quit on his teammates. Nothing can strengthen a football team like a number two quarterback who prepares perfectly for his moment to step into the huddle. Because it will come. He has to know he is one jammed ring finger from having it on his shoulders at the most critical moment of the season. Last year, Nate Costa saved a season in one play.

For the next 101 days these two young men are the Oregon quarterbacks. Next to the birth of their children and their wedding day it will be the most rich, intense experience of their lives. If they bond like brothers, their teammates will also. A team is not a team until it laughs, cries, and loves together. Oh, there are exceptions, like the Fighting A's or the Bronx Zoo, but the most legendary teams in sports achieve a deep camaraderie that is indescribable to an outsider. It is mystical. It is a refusal to be separated, divided, or defeated. It is a shared will of hope and iron in the heart.

Do you ever wish you could go back to your twenty year old self and tell him what a moment he is living in? The seasons seem long but they pass quickly. There will never be another moment, another opportunity to not only win the day, but seize the day. There are 101 of them. Live well.

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