Dustin Haines is visibly emotional as he remembers his late father. He fights back tears and his voice trembles as he says, “The last thing he said to me before he left, it’s so crazy, but he said, ‘Dustin, if I pass away tomorrow, I couldn’t be more proud of the son that I have right now.’ And it’s going to be my lifelong goal to keep making him and my brother proud in that regard.”
Many Oregon gridiron stars leave legacies behind. They get praised for their on-field contributions, records, bowl wins and championships won. Their careers might culminate into something so great that their name is forever enshrined in stone and their number retired. Haines won’t be remembered for any of those things. Rather, he’ll be remembered for his unwillingness to be sunk by tragedy and his encompassment of the true teammate mentality.
Haines was born and raised in Bigfork, Mont. Haines said his high school was “going downhill” academically. He visited South Eugene High School for a summer camp and ultimately transferred there for his junior and senior years.
The two years marked enormous athletic success for Haines, who was selected to the all-Southwest Conference team and named team MVP each season as quarterback and safety for the Axemen. Although he wasn’t heavily recruited at the Division I level, Haines received offers to walk on at Oregon and Washington State.
“Just looking at the program as a whole, coming out of South Eugene we didn’t win a lot of games unfortunately and I kind of wanted to experience that feeling,” Haines said on his decision to attend Oregon. “I think Oregon had the better opportunity to be a successful program and I really valued that.”
Haines redshirted his freshmen season and first saw action against Portland State in 2010 as a running back, netting one yard on two carries. Since then, Haines has seen limited playing time but has been instrumental in other facets of the team. He’s been Oregon’s main signal caller and gained infamy for holding Chip Kelly’s play cards — the ones with abstract pictures representing plays.
Now Haines is Oregon’s holder for field goals and extra points and ultimately has the ability to decide whether the team kicks the extra point or attempts a two-point conversion.
“He’s been doing a great job with it,” said Nate Costa, Haines’ former teammate and current Oregon graduate assistant. “That’s a position that’s a little underrated. There’s a lot of decision making that’s involved with that … and you want to have someone who’s cerebral but is also athletic enough to make the plays happen and Dustin is that and more.”
On June 27, 2010, four friends took off in a 1968 Piper Arrow single engine plane on a sightseeing trip over Glacier National Park. Haines’ brother, Sonny Kless, was a licensed pilot who rented the plane for the day.
The plane was reported missing several hours later. A three-day search ensued and ended with the plane and its passengers found crashed off course between the Flathead River and the National Bison Range. Kless and the other three passengers were dead.
“My brother’s friends would always tell me that he’d always brag to them about how proud he was of me,” Haines said of his late brother. “I think it was a great relationship. Every time during holidays we’d always sit next to each other and joke about our family … everyone’s family is a little crazy in their own eyes. My brother and I kinda were each other’s pillars for support.”
The University of Montana’s Kless Revolving Energy Loan Fund was named after Sonny, and Haines describes it as his brother’s legacy.
Following Haines’ sophomore season, an opportunity arose that could have changed his life. Portland State was offering Haines a starting quarterback job, something he knew he’d likely never have at Oregon.
In the end, Haines turned down the offer to stay with the Ducks.
“I had to think about it, and after thinking I was like, ‘Why would I want to leave a program that’s not just successful on the football field but successful in building men?’,” Haines said. “Even though I’m not playing football I’m learning life lessons and I think that’s more important than scoring touchdowns.”
Haines had a conversation with then-wide receivers coach Scott Frost about his decision.
“I think the best thing you can say about it him is it’s rare that you have a player that’s not on the field much that’s one of the team leaders,” Frost said. “Everybody looks up to him, respects him. His commitment to his team and his teammates even through his trials has been nothing short of amazing.”
Hains suffered another loss when his father passed away in May.
“My dad was my best friend, honestly. A lot of people say that but I really mean that. He was a guy that I’d call every day. He was a guy everyone loved, and that says a lot by making me the man I am today because of him. I wouldn’t be who I am without him. I know that for a fact.”
Michael Haines was driving home to Montana after visiting Dustin in Eugene last spring when he died of a heart attack. He was 62.
On game days, Dustin wears a football necklace, inside of which are some of his father’s ashes.
With the football team as support, Haines pressed on, continuing to contribute to the football program while the weight of grief sat firmly on his shoulders.
Losing a brother and a father in untimely tragedies would normally crush one’s emotional wall without remorse, and understandably so. Haines’ internal fortitude held up, and he prides himself on being the best teammate — and person — he can be, perpetually motivated by the memory of his family members.
“My role, I think, is to work as hard as I can and to make sure people around me are working as hard as they can and I think that’s what I value myself as,” Haines said. “I don’t have that natural athletic ability, but I have the work ethic and the heart that I think prides motivation with my teammates to keep them motivated to give everything they have all the time.”
That leadership ability is clear to Costa.
“Guys like Dustin are kind of the glue that holds everything together,” Costa said. “I can’t say enough about what kind of leader he is for us.”
Janelle Gentry’s eyes swell with tears of pride as she looks at her son across the table. She shuts her eyes and nods her head.
“I’m very, very proud. Dustin’s always been comfortable in his own skin but he’s made me proud in many ways,” she said. “He’s always looked for the best in other people around him.”
As his career with Oregon football draws to a close, Haines plans on leaving his own legacy behind, one that’s inspired by the legacy that was left for him.
“My dad and brother passing really put in perspective how much value it is for one person to give back to others. Just to leave that legacy, I think that’s what my brother and dad did for me. They left the legacy, in my eyes, that they would do anything for me and I want to be able to leave that legacy for my teammates.”
Follow Madison Guernsey on Twitter @guernseymd