Three Sunday evenings ago, I had one of the most blissful moments I’d ever experienced.
I’d just returned from Beijing an hour or two earlier and was very relieved to be home amidst familiar faces and surroundings. Valarie made chocolate cupcakes as a welcome-home treat, and Ruthie fell asleep on my lap. I knew I’d have to leave again in less than 36 hours, with a Chicago business trip scheduled for Tuesday. But the fleeting nature my time at home after Beijing made me appreciate it all the more.
Then it got even better. With jet lag keeping me awake and Valarie gone to sleep, I turned on ESPN to catch up with the goings-on in sports. It was just two days after Oregon’s victory over Arizona State, the first time two teams ranked in the top 5 had played at Autzen. With a nationwide viewing audience, the country had got another close look at quarterback Dennis Dixon and the thoroughbred-like Duck offense. After disposing of USC the week before and now the undefeated Sun Devils, the Ducks had risen to the #3 ranking in the country, a feat matched only once before (the 2001 season) in the team’s 113-year history. Although they would have the following week off, Oregon would climb the following week to the #2 ranking. They also received 22 votes for #1, the first ones the Ducks have ever received.
Still, what ESPN college football analyst Kirk Hirbstreet said next practically knocked me out of my chair: “Dennis Dixon is in the driver’s seat for the Heisman Trophy.” I even left Valarie a note on the kitchen table for her to read the next morning, full of exclamation points with the news. Having written the Ducks history that came out this year, Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline, I can confidently tell you that no University of Oregon player has ever been considered the front runner for this most prestigious of sporting awards. Not once in 113 seasons.
It wasn’t so much that Dixon’s Heisman candidacy was a bigger achievement from the team being 8-1 at that point, but I’ve always ached for recognition as much as achievement for the Ducks, and to hear Dixon and the team talked about so glowingly by the national media who once ignored them was a lifelong Duck fan’s dream come true. ESPN, Fox, CNN, ABC, CBS - they all covered Dixon and the team with great enthusiasm starting from the Michigan win on September 8, the showdown with Cal on September 29 through the victory over (and apparent dethroning of) USC on October 27, the ASU game that would be Dixon's last to start and finish on November 3rd, and past the bye week to the fateful Arizona game in which Dixon's mildly torn anterior cruciate ligament (hidden from everyone but the coaches and doctors, and called a strain to the outside world) was more thoroughly wrecked, putting him out for the season.
And besides the media attention it brought, the Ducks were walking the talk. As my longtime friend and fellow Duck fan Joel put it, Oregon's offense at full strength--with Dixon, running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, receivers Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin, and all the other now injured players--was quite simply "a thing of beauty--unstoppable".
In 1995 I travelled to Pasadena to see Oregon play in the Rose Bowl. The opponent was undefeated and #2-ranked Penn State (also undefeated Nebraska beat them for the top slot by just a few votes) behind quarterback Kerry Collins and running back Ki-Jana Carter, which at the time was called one of the best offenses in the history of college football. For 2003-2005 I watched my sister's school, USC, amass one of the greatest college teams of all time behind Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Lindale White, Lofa Tatupu, and Mike Williams. I have every faith in the world that Oregon's 2007 offense at full strength ranked with those great historic teams.
The next morning following the arrival from Beijing, my first at home in several days, I continued to feel wonderful. And if you ask Valarie, I normally never will admit to feeling even good for fear of jinxing myself. Usually on even the best days all you’ll get from me was that it was okay, or not bad. This morning I felt great.
But then I opened my email. A message from my mom broke the joyful spell: my cousin Steve, who had been battling cancer for a long while, was in his final moments. I thought about driving down to Eugene to see him, but before I could even spend much time reacting, the phone rang. My mom called to say that Steve had passed away.
He’d been battling cancer for awhile now, and the end wasn’t a surprise in that the doctors had declared it a terminal case some months ago. But Steve was only 39, and with his wife Theresa they had three young children. Steve was a police chaplain, and his very religious family, I’m told, clung until the very end to the notion that God was going to heal him. So even when what was in purely medical terms all but inevitable came earlier this month, it still somehow felt like a shock, to them even more than me.
Last Sunday was Steve’s funeral, held at the same church in Springfield where I’d seen him get married about a decade and a half ago. Back then, I remember laughing at how one of the wedding songs, Atlantic Starr's "Always", had been sung to recorded, or ‘canned’, accompaniment. Fifteen years later at Steve's goodbye, though, there was actually a live band. Four teenage boys played guitars softly as mourners entered the sanctuary, and later turned up the volume to lead some Christian songs during the ceremony.
What I liked best about the funeral was how several of Steve’s favorite items had been placed at the front of and upon the stage, from fishing nets and camping gear to cowboy hats (everpresent following his successful battle against cancer as a teen) and even his big black motorcycle in front of the first pews. The ceremony began with a playing of Johnny Cash's "Ghost Riders In The Sky".
As the riders walked on by him
He heard one call his name,
If you want to save your soul from hell
Ridin' on our range,
Then cowboy change your ways today,
Or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the devil's herd
Across these endless skies
Although I appreciate a good Johnny Cash song--tears were mixed with a smile as this one played--Steve and I were very different culturally. He loved to hunt, fish, camp and fire his gun; I would go out of my way to avoid all the above. He was an ordained minister; I more or less never attend church. And of course, we held pretty different political views. But Steve was family, and more than that, it was abundantly obvious what a wonderful guy he was. By leaps and bounds his kids are the most naturally best behaved, and yet I’ve never even heard either him or Theresa raise their voices to them. It's naturally cliche after losing a loved one to say he or she was always smiling, but Steve seemed to be fearlessly positive right until the end. When I asked him at our grandpa's funeral earlier this year, in June, Steve (who presided over the graveside ceremony) described his illness as "quite a ride." That was the closest you could get to hearing him complain. He spoke with an endearingly forced but what was to me a still very genuine smile.
And you should have seen how many people stood up at his funeral to talk about him. Even just Steve’s former subordinates from Skateworld--the Eugene skating rink he managed for some 20 years on the side, moonlighting along with his chaplain duties--took up several minutes singing his praises. I didn’t think there were that many avid roller-rink skaters left in the world, let alone Skateworld employees.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Steve was the oldest kid in the greater Libby family (including my dad’s two siblings, their families, and our grandparents) and I was third in line, with Steve’s sister Susie between us and their brother John a year behind me. (Various younger siblings came several years later.) Early on as a kid, I remember hearing how smart Steve was, and how his parents wondered if he might one day become a doctor. It’s actually only for the first time does it occur to me as I write this that, in a sad ironic twist, he could have used that expertise. But back in childhood, I both admired and wanted to beat Steve. He was very tough not to like, effortlessly charming but with a favoring for bad puns and cheesy ghost stories that made his very sharp intelligence--the kind that made him tough for even the adults in the family to beat at chess-- from ever being oft putting.
Since I was an only child in those days, many of our family camping trips included him, as we backpacked into places like the Strawberry Mountains in remote eastern Oregon. I recall Steve and I trying to find gold by panning the river by our campsite, as our great grandfather had done in the Black Hills of Dakota three quarters of a century earlier. We even made a divining rod out of a tree branch, and wound up finding a few inches underground an old animal bone. Somewhere in one of my mom’s photo albums there is a snapshot I always remember, of Steve in a golden velour shirt and a fishing net on his head.
When I was about eleven years old, Steve came up to McMinnville and stayed with us for a week. I’d been developing a crush on one of the girls across the street, who was a year older than me. Naturally, it was never acted upon. Steve, on the other hand, actually became her boyfriend during the brief time before his dad picked him up on his motorcycle.
But Steve is only half the reason I’ve been down. The other reason is not even remotely comparable to the tragedy of losing our 39-year-old cousin, husband, father, friend, grandson, son, brother, and all else that Steve was. It was just one meaningless football game. But no matter how ridiculous it may sound, it is the Oregon Ducks’ loss to Arizona a week ago this evening--and the related season-ending injury to their quarterback, Dennis Dixon--that pushed me over the edge into full-blown grief.
When something truly tragic or fearsome happens in real life, it’s a natural tendency, I think, to steel yourself. In Steve’s case, I thought not about my own sadness, but instead focused mainly on the young family he was leaving behind, or his parents losing their first-born. After that, losing Steve causes me less to feel outright morose than to sort of stare off into space and wonder how this alters the way I view the world. But after Oregon came crashing down to earth last week, when they’d over the course of the season risen to arguably the highest level of both on-field prowess and national media notoriety in the team’s entire 113-year history, I’ve spent the last seven days going through all the different stages of grief, from disbelief and anger to bargaining and sadness.
Each morning I stand in the shower shocked anew that it’s actually really happened. I just can’t get used to the fact that the glorious ride the Ducks were on to the national championship game and a Heisman trophy could turn out so suddenly just like I’d seen in nightmares crouched in the corner of my mind: in injury and loss. Lost games, lost awards, and the lost opportunity of a lifetime.
When Oregon defeated 5-time defending conference champion USC a few weeks ago, I remember Oregonian columnist John Canzano writing that Dennis Dixon's habit of pointing with two fingers to the sky after each touchdown was a message to his mother, who passed away when Dixon was young. Naturally her passing is a far greater tragedy than her son's injury, but pointing to the sky naturally felt as good to Dennis as it did to us.
But the days thankfully continue to roll on. And something my former colleague Zach Dundas said in a Willamette Week cover story on Oregon’s tragic demise (“A Ducking Shame”), though, has stuck with me. I actually figured prominently in the story, particularly in the second half when he talks about the loss. I talked about how even though you try not to get your hopes up in a situation like this, with the national championship and a Heisman unquestionably within reach, it happens anyway. And as I also said in the article, there’s no getting around the fact that this was shaping up to be Oregon’s greatest season since the team began in 1894. And now it’ll amount little more than a toilet bowl and an eternally lingering sense of what might have been. Yet one very simple phrase that Zach used to talk about sport and fandom, “continuing narrative”, represents my first glimmer of hope.
It’s helpful to remind myself that whether it’s Steve or Dennis, the chapter I and they just went through is over. But the narrative continues. Steve can’t come back, nor can the Humpty-Dumpty season Dennis and the Ducks experienced ever be put back together again. But the key to sports fandom in particular, which is also instructive for the rest of life, is to always look ahead to the next season. A season to continually celebrate Steve, to embrace his family all the more. And a chance to keep hope alive that someday the Ducks can fulfill this season of incredible promise.
Even now, I see how ridiculous it can look to put Steve’s tragedy beside a sports loss. Maybe what Zach wrote is true: "He is now subject to a level of neurosis that can only come through near-DNA-level identification with a team." But I’ve been reminded through this experience, and how Steve and Dennis Dixon have been paired in my thoughts and grief, how much sports exist for me and so many others as permission to hope and dream. No Heisman Trophy will bring back a loved one, but hoping for it--and the prospect perhaps someday seeing it come true--are an integral part of my DNA. Sports, and particularly the Ducks, are something to which so much of my emotions have, for better or worse, been grafted. Steve’s surviving family needn’t care what a college football team does on Saturdays; they’ve got enough to concern themselves with. But if I’m to carry on, whether in the name of Steve, his family or anyone else, I need to be able to envision that what Dennis Dixon and the Ducks lost can be someday won back again.