When it comes to football in the state of Oregon, there’s no bigger game than the Civil War. Even with big-time BCS bowl games and hyped nonconference matchups dominating the media landscape, the annual grudge match never seems to disappoint.
Taylor Hart knows this. In fact, he probably understands the rivalry more than anyone on the team. After all, the Tualatin native will likely be the only Oregonian to grace the starting lineup for the Ducks come Saturday.
Getting Hart to talk openly about the backyard brawl, however, is a challenge. After all, with the emotional nature of the face-off, who wants to give the opposition locker room material?
“I know the fans love it,” Hart says. “I know it’s going to be a great atmosphere. I know both teams are gonna give their all out there. We’re going to do what we do every week and prepare for this game like it’s our Super Bowl.”
It’s our Super Bowl. Win the day. It’s just one game. Sound familiar? A cynical fan could say Hart was channeling his inner Chip Kelly.
But if you sit down with the 6-foot-6, 283-pound defensive tackle and look him in the eye, it’s hard not to believe him. Even with an Oregon alumnus as a father and a gaggle of friends attending both universities, to him this really is just another game.
“I think it means the same,” Hart says. “I want to go out there and win the football game as much as they do.”
Considering that much of Hart’s success in life has been predicated on a gradual and industrious approach to progression, his sentiments shouldn’t be surprising.
As a youth, Hart toiled in his family’s lumberyard during spare time. And he wasn’t just whittling sticks. While other kids bagged groceries or hit the mall, Hart towed blocks of wood under the supervision of his father and grandfather. In his mind, the tasks helped ingrain the importance of hard, physical labor. It also taught him to never leave a job incomplete.
“They would just never let me quit,” Hart says. “They would just never let me give up or pout when I was younger. They would always make sure I finished what I started.”
Kelly, for one, appreciates Hart’s grinding nature.
“You love having a kid like Taylor Hart,” Kelly says. “He doesn’t say, ‘boo.’ He just comes to work every single day. (You say), ‘How you doing, Taylor?’ ‘Good.’ And then he just works.
“Taylor’s been outstanding. His improvement, not only year-to-year but game-to-game, is really what jumps out at you.”
As a sophomore, Hart has used that steady progress to help fill the shoes of former defensive standout Brandon Bair. Bair, like Hart, was a hulking physical presence on the defensive line — the 2010 second-team All-Pac-10 selection stood a towering six-foot-seven. But the two men share more than a similar stature. The last two seasons, Bair served as a mentor to Hart in multiple capacities.
“Not only just football things, but he taught me things about life,” Hart says. “He also showed me, on the field, how to do different techniques. It was very helpful for me.”
Last year, Hart was a redshirt freshman. Bair, on the other hand, was a 26-year-old senior with a daughter and wife. Was it fair to say the two shared a father-son relationship?
“Kind of,” Hart says, grinning. “He was up there. He had a family, so he knew what he was doing. It was good to look up and watch someone like that.”
In the next couple years, it’s Hart who could serve as a sterling example for future generations of Oregon linemen.
“What you see in practice is the same things that you see in the game,” says Jerry Azzinaro, Oregon’s defensive line coach. “Sometimes the ‘hard-working’ label doesn’t truly get a good understanding of him … he’s a guy who, at his height, is very athletic. He plays very hard, he’s a hard worker, but he’s also very talented.”
While Azzinaro coaches all linemen on the team to pursue the ball relentlessly, Hart takes the directive to another level.
“You look at the Nevada game,” Kelly says. “I remember them throwing a screen pass, and then he just comes flying out of nowhere for a tackle from behind. That’s what Taylor has been.”
Hart’s impressive combination of athleticism and technique isn’t a gift. It’s a right that’s been painstakingly earned through summer months and weekly practices.
“That’s what he exhibits every single day,” Azzinaro says. “It’s the same effort we see on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that we see on Saturdays.”
So please excuse Hart if he approaches Saturday like it’s just another game. To him, the Civil War is just part of the process. In his world, there are no days off.