They say that everyone in the state of Oregon has to make a choice: Oregon or Oregon State? They say you must take a side, that you aren't allowed to remain neutral, that you can't just be happy with whomever wins.
Well, I'm about to make a case for that very thing.
Most people who fall into the neutral category either don't like sports or don't have a close tie to either school (not an alum, don't have a kid who went there, etc.). Obviously I can claim neither of those things, since I am a huge sports fan, am an alum of Oregon, and having had season tickets to Oregon State for nine years.
So why is it I don't feel a strong desire to pick one team over the other? I don't honestly know the answer as I type this, but I think the root of it goes back a long ways.
Neither of my parents went to Oregon or Oregon State, and neither one are sports fanatics. They like the Blazers as much as the next Portlander, but their day hardly revolves around when the game starts or anything like that. Neither of them are really football fans either. Why is this important? So often a person's sports loyalties are formed by their parents at a young age - the point is I didn't have a parent to mold mine, so my sports loyalties were formed later, in my pre-teen and teenage years.
I first started to really get into sports around sixth or seventh grade. I'd listen to Bill Schonely call Blazer games on the radio every night, because at the time only 10-15 games a year were on TV and we didn't have cable. At the time both Oregon and Oregon State weren't very good at football; Oregon was barely mediocre and Oregon State was in the midst of that epic streak of losing seasons. The games were still important to Oregonians, but they didn't make an impression on me. In fact, I didn't really get excited about football until I got to high school, which for a boy who loves sports is a pretty late start. I was all about baseball and basketball, plus I loved tennis.
At this same time I kind of did pick a school: Oregon State. Gary Payton, one of the greatest to every pick up a ball in the NBA and the best player in school history, was leading the Beavers at the time and if memory serves me right they won a Pac-10 title during Gary's years. The Beavers were my first pick of an Oregon college team - a lot of people don't know that. They assume that as an Oregon alum Oregon was always my choice...but there's even more to the story.
As I went through high school and started planning for college, I picked out a couple things I wanted to study: architecture and Japanese. At the time Oregon was winning the Pac-10 in football and going to the Rose Bowl, so I'd be lying if I said that didn't make an impact. (That's right all you who would like to think sports success makes no impact on university applications - they do. No, definitely not for everyone, but a lot for some people.) Oregon has a top notch architecture program and at the time a top-ranked Japanese program (not sure if they still do or not). It seemed like an easy choice.
Well, until I went down there early in my senior year in high school and talked with the admissions people of the architecture schools. It turns out you need actual creative talent outside of drawing plans for houses to be admitted, and art is not something I have ever been able count as a talent. They showed me some of the submission portfolios (I think the ones that failed, I'm not sure) and they were amazing, displaying people's talents in all areas of art. Apparently that's what they wanted.
And me? That set me back to square one.
Studying Japanese was still a priority though. Honestly, the other priority was a school from a major conference, because college football and college basketball were both experiences I wanted. I also wanted to stay relatively close to home, so my choices then became schools in the Pac-10 (sorry Marquette and Tulane, both schools I considered for awhile). Oregon still wasn't in my top three choices for awhile, but Oregon State - being a science-oriented school - wasn't even in the discussion either.
Instead, I was looking at Washington State, Arizona State, and USC. All of them had the major sports and all had decent Japanese programs. At this point I had to start thinking about what else would whittle down the choices. I'm not a huge fan of snow, so the fact Wazzu is in Pullman was a negative. Hey, you have to eliminate schools somehow, right? And no, I didn't visit any of these - perhaps I should have. I eliminated SC due to a combination of location (not the best part of L.A. - and yes, maybe that's a naive decision, but again you have to eliminate schools somehow) and cost. That left Arizona State and Oregon, which had moved up the list by default due to the fact it was the most cost-effective school on the list.
In the end I chose Oregon. I honestly can't recall why I eliminated ASU, but it was probably related to the fact that even though Arizona is only a couple hours away by plane, it still would have cost a lot more than Oregon.
So that's how I ended up an Oregon Duck. It was the cheapest school on my list, it was part of the Pac-10, it had a Japanese program, and I could go home for the weekend (two hours by car) if I really needed or wanted to. Hardly a heartfelt choice, you can see.
But when I got there, I was all Duck. I had three different UO hats, a couple sweatshirts, T-shirts - all the trappings of an Oregon student who wants to represent their school or logo. I attended every college football game at Autzen Stadium in my three years (spent my freshman year at a community college on scholarship - there's that cost factor again) there, save for some very early September non-conference games. I attended just about every single men's basketball home game, save for a poor scheduling choice my junior year that had me in class on Thursday nights (who picked that?!) that forced me to miss epic upsets of UCLA and Arizona. I still remember my first game at ancient McArthur when Oregon hosted 12th ranked Fresno State, coached at the time by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian. Being newbies we got there late and sat in the rafters, where the seats shake when the building gets loud. To be honest, that was thrilling but at the same time scary in a I-think-I-might-die kind of way the way the building shook.
When I graduated I was pure Duck, I'll admit that. However, the bonds to that loyalty were only three years and some change deep.
When I met Wifey she was (and is, and always will be) Oregon State through and through. She jokes (or, at least I think she's joking) she bleeds orange and black - I've never felt I bled green and yellow (if I had to pick anything, it would be Blazers red and black). The first major commitment we made as a couple - besides an apartment - was season tickets to Oregon State football. I felt odd about it at first, being a Duck and all, but the 2000 season for Oregon State was epic good. That was the team that should have been the national champs. They struggled to beat Eastern Washington and then lost to Washington later (a game we actually drove up to Seattle to watch), but by the end of the season that was - and still is - the best football team I have ever seen. And yes Miami, Florida, USC and Florida State, I'm including your great teams as well.
That season, and the seasons that followed, easily trumped anything I saw as an Oregon Duck at Autzen stadium. It also started somewhat of a change for me.
That's hard for me to admit, honestly. I know friends will read this - some of whom are fellow Oregon alums - and question my sanity, question my loyalty. And to be fair, switching allegiances in a rivalry is the most heinous offense for a sports fan, isn't it? It's one thing to go from, say, Oregon to North Carolina as a fan, but Oregon to Oregon State? That's just not acceptable, is it?
I'm not there yet. But let me explain why I know that time is coming.
Wifey made a perfectly logical request during that first season we attended games at Reser Stadium - wear orange and black. The first time I pulled that Beavers T-shirt over my head I felt weird. Very weird. At the same time, what was I going to do - wear Oregon colors? Yeah, right. Maybe if they were playing that would make sense, but I was rooting for Oregon State, so wearing the colors was logical. And I wanted to, eventually. You want to be a fan.
I wore orange and black to that game up in Seattle. Wore the visiting colors as we walked amongst the tailgates and visited the official Washington Husky (which is really a malamute, since huskies are crazy and malamutes are much more laid back around large groups of people). After a very close, hard-fought game I stopped at the bathroom on the way out. Throughout the day I had gotten some ribbing from the Washington faithful, but it was all in good fun, but the guy at the urinal next to me said something that has always stuck with me (which, yes, I know, is extremely weird). After complimenting the Beavers on a great game (like I had anything to do with it) he said, "At least you aren't a Duck."
At the time I laughed to myself, knowing that I was a Duck and wondering what he would say if he knew that. As time has passed I understand this for what it really was...my first tip that Oregon fans aren't very much appreciated around the Pac-10. Be that as it may, I don't really care that much - it's not like I can do anything about it or alter the perception any. It's just interesting.
That first year with Beaver season tickets Civil War was in Corvallis. I decided, like a good Duck, I would wear my Oregon hat and sweatshirt to the game, sitting in our season ticket seats. Understandably Wifey was less than thrilled, but figured it was my own funeral. This was the day Joey Harrington threw five interceptions for the Ducks, the day both teams were ranked in the top 10 (a first for the Civil War). People around us were shocked a Duck had been in their midst all season, but when you explain you graduated from the school, they seem to accept it. Not understand it, but accept it. And they were all good to me - good natured ribbing, but never anything aggressive or violent.
That was the first of five Civil War games I saw in Corvallis - and only once did the Ducks win, in 2008.
Throughout the seasons I've managed to accept the ribbing, even though I'm not always fine with it. Wear the road team's colors into a stadium and that's just part of what you have to accept. The novelty has worn off, though. In 2008 I surprised the whole tailgaiting crew when I showed up wearing neither orange and black nor green and yellow - was Switzerland when it came to color that day.
I realized then - roughly a year ago - that it didn't matter that much to me anymore. It's not that the games didn't matter or the team I was rooting for didn't matter, it's just that I didn't think my heart was truly in rooting for one team over another. I honestly just wanted to see a very good football game. If Oregon won, great. If Oregon State won - and ended up in the Rose Bowl - that would be just as special to witness and savor. Having seen some great, great games in Reser Stadium - upsets of top-ranked USC, multiple times, for instance - I've come to appreciate those moments.
When Oregon ran the Beavers out of the stadium, I took no solace in the fact the school I went to was victorious. It was sad. The fans were sad. It was depressing. I honestly would have been happier had Oregon State won that day, because a chance at the Rose Bowl is an opportunity that doesn't come very often for either school.
My closet now has more OSU logoed items than UO, something that will probably not change. In fact, I've even worn the Oregon State gear out in public, something I never used to do unless it was a day we were driving the two hours to Corvallis for a game.
Now, one year later, here we are again, though the venue is different with this year's game to be played in Eugene. Once again my heart doesn't feel like it's in rooting for Oregon, but neither do I feel comfortable outrightly rooting for the Beavers. Oregon State in the Rose Bowl is a better story, I think, because I've always had a soft spot for the underdog.
But when the game kicks off Thursday night on ESPN, and I'm sitting on the couch with Wifey with popcorn and a beer, I don't know what I'm going to be wearing. I don't think it matters, honestly, because I really just want to see a good game. I want to see my two favorite colleges play an epic game in the most important moment in the schools' shared histories, on national television with millions of people watching.
They say you can't remain neutral when it comes to Civil War, and to a certain extent that's true. However, that's probably right where I am, and it's been a long and complicated road to get here. If one were to look at the trend it could be said I'll be a Beaver fan soon. That very well could be true.
At the same time I will always be an alum of the University of Oregon - that can never change.
Oregon and Oregon State. These are my two favorite college programs. I will cheer for either school. When they play each other, I want simply to be entertained and the game to be good.
Is that riding the fence? Is that unacceptable? Is that sports fan bigamy? Is this the worst choice a sports fan can make? The truth is it's a little bit of all of those things. That's a little hard to admit and to accept, but at the same time I can only ask myself one question.
Is it honest? If the answer to that is yes - and I believe it is in my heart - then the answers to the other questions don't mean a thing.
Cheers to a fantastic 2009 Civil War game - may the best team win.