Not even nasty sideways rain could ruin the sentimental feeling for Justin Peelle as he strolled onto the Autzen Stadium turf Monday for practice.
Peelle is one of 14 seniors on the Oregon football team and the reality of preparing for his final home game was beginning to sink in. Just prior to the practice, as he was dressing in the locker room, Peelle chatted with fellow seniors Rashad Bauman and Jim Adams about how fast time has flown.
“I got choked up walking into practice today. … I can’t believe it’s almost over,” Peelle said. “Look at this place. I love it. I love the stadium, the fans, everything. It’s been a great part of my life and something I’ll never forget.”
For head coach Mike Bellotti, this senior class will be one that he never forgets. They all came into the Oregon program in different paths. Some were highly recruited out of high school. Others were middle-of-the-road recruits who have worked their way into the line-up. And then there are those athletes who entered as walk-ons and, through perseverance, have solidified their roles on the team.
In all, this senior class has been a part of an incredible climb. In 1997, when players like Joey Harrington and Peelle watched from the sidelines as redshirt freshmen and Bauman returned two interceptions for touchdowns as a freshman, the Ducks went 7-5.
In 1998, Oregon went 8-4. In 1999, the record improved to 9-3. And in 2000, for the first time in school history, the Ducks recorded a 10-win season with only two losses.
“I’d call that progress,” Bellotti said. “Every year we talk about raising the level of play, and these seniors have not only talked about it, they’ve done it. And raising our goals and expectations and certainly having the matching record to back that up is neat.”
Now the goal is to finish out the season with win No. 10 against Oregon State on Dec. 1 and achieve the program’s first-ever 11-win season with a victory in the bowl game.
“To win 11 games this year would be really, really special,” senior fullback Josh Line said. “I’m excited about that possibility.”
Winning has certainly been the norm for this group. Since 1998, the Ducks are 36-10, with the majority of those wins coming in the can-you-believe-what-you-just-saw? variety.
After each victory, senior offensive lineman Ryan Schmid would sit beside his locker, celebrate with his teammates and think to himself, “Man, I’m never going to forget this game.”
“But then practice picks up for the next game and I forget all about the earlier games as they all just blur together,” Schmid said. “It’s amazing not necessarily how quickly you forget, but just how quickly the focus shifts. People ask me to recall a favorite moment and it’s just overload. You can’t really remember everything that’s happened since it’s been a half a decade.”
Certainly it hasn’t just been this class that has made the difference between wins and losses over the years. The older players from previous years and the younger players this season have all done their share in putting the Oregon football team on the national map.
But this 2001 class has been there for it all, making the transition from young players eager to learn to mature veterans willing to teach.
“We’ve tried to set the example with our work ethic and if you look at us seniors, we’re not all superstars, but we all play and accept our parts,” Peelle said. “Everybody in this class doesn’t care about themselves. They care about the team and what they can do to help out.”
One aspect that these Ducks have helped out comes in the area of recruiting. As the winning seasons pass and the program gets more exposure in bowl games, a growing number of talented recruits make their way to Eugene.
“The guys coming in are physically closer to playing than usual,” Schmid said. “There’s so much talent. Sometimes I feel like the only reason I’m playing is because I know some wily old tricks.”
Of course, there’s more to success than just being talented. The Oregon seniors have formed a tight bond through the years. They remember hanging out with each other as freshmen and looking up at the older players and wondering if they’ll ever be like them someday.
“Boy, was I intimidated,” Peelle said.
But soon, they played.
And soon, they won. And won, and won.
“Always striving for excellence,” senior cornerback Steve Smith said. “It feels good to know that I was a part of the class that sort of laid the foundation of the new Oregon Ducks. We helped hype the Ducks up.”
Oh there was hype all right. Harrington graced the side of a building in New York last summer, as well as the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine. Bauman could be seen on a billboard along the Bay Bridge entering San Francisco and senior tailback Maurice Morris had his own billboard that was placed along Interstate-405 in Los Angeles.
Now, the hype has subsided and the football, and the wins, have done most of the talking. There are still two more victories, though, that these seniors desperately want. Last season’s Civil War loss that knocked them out of the Rose Bowl is a painful memory that won’t escape their minds.
Clearly, to beat the Beavers this season will help a great deal. Not only will it exorcise some of those demons from that November 2000 afternoon in Corvallis, but it will give the seniors one last memorable victory to cherish in front of an Autzen Stadium crowd that has cherished watching them.
“It’s going to be really hard walking off this field on Dec. 1,” Peelle said.
Jeff Smith is the assistant sports editor for
the Oregon Daily Emerald. He can be reached at email@example.com.