Eighteen years old, with an eyebrow piercing and poor interpersonal skills, walking across the Autzen Footbridge, every piece of green and yellow clothing on him soaked, smiling to no one but himself. Twelve hours earlier, the stadium rim had come into view through the trees amidst a pre-dawn gray ripe with personal uncertainty. I was headed to my first Cal-Oregon game.
Many of you out there were born Duck fans. You might have been a child of UO alumni, the newest member of a family with deep Oregon roots, or a duckling by other means. But regardless of reason, your first Duck game at Autzen got its own page in your first photo album. You were tucked into bed at night in green and yellow sheets. You never wore purple, or orange. You sat in front of the TV with mom or dad and watched them agonize over losses, and scream out with joy after big wins. You were, and always will be, a Duck. This was me, only I was a Golden Bear, and my allegiances ran deep. My grandfather played center for Pappy Waldorf in the early 1950s. My uncle was a walk-on for the 1982 Cal team, and watched The Play from the bench. My parents met and got married at Cal. My dad has worked at Cal since he graduated in 1979, and would take my sisters and I to even the most dismal of games (the Tom Holmoe era). When I picked up trumpet in the fourth grade, it became a dream of mine to play for the Pride of California, the University of California Marching Band. When I started thinking girls were attractive, I thought the Cal Dance Team was the most attractive of all the girls. in 2004, as a high school senior, I went insane with happiness when Keith Allen dropped a wide-open fourth down pass, keeping Cal's BCS bowl hopes alive. Four months later, I visited the University of Oregon campus for the first time. In May of 2005, I turned down UC Berkeley's offer of admission, and accepted Oregon's.
Even after arriving in Eugene, spending my first three nights in college sleeping on a couch in the Omega house from Animal House, enduring two weeks of preseason marching band camp, and taking field at Autzen in front of 60,000 screaming lunatics, I still wasn't sure how I'd feel rooting against Cal. I'd never done that before, absolutely never. I didn't really know until I got to Autzen the morning of the game. The OMB rehearses before games, so we get there generally six or so hours before the game starts, just us and the stadium for a short while before the RVs start to file into the parking lot, and the first wave of students cascades down the bleachers. It was vintage Eugene in November; drab, moist, and electric, and always threatening to dump rain on any poor sap who dared test the clouds by brazenly leaving the house without a jacket. There's an energy that hits you when you walk into Autzen Stadium, an energy I'm sure you've felt if you've been fortunate enough to attend a game there. You feel the excitement of the crowd, the anticipation, and the echoes of past crowds seem to still resonate throughout. Well that energy is magnified when the stadium is near-empty, almost as though there's a finite amount of magic to go around, and if there's extra, you can have as much as you want. Your footsteps echo. You smell damp concrete, and the rubber pellets in the turf, not popcorn, burgers, and the guy next to you who finished his cigarette on the way in. You can take a moment to bask in the serenity of the place that is, for four hours a week, the loudest place in the state. That morning, walking into the sleeping beast, all wisps of doubt left me, all traces of Cal fandom left stuck outside the Autzen east gate. There would be no part of me that would be rooting for the team I spent 96% of my life rooting for.
And good thing too, because Joe Ayoob stunk the place up something awful that day.
I'm now getting my Master's degree at Cal, living walking distance from Memorial Stadium, a Cal season ticket holder who has watched nearly every minute of the Golden Bears' surprising start to the season. But on Friday, when I enter Levi's Stadium (with my Cal student ticket), my Cal fandom will just have to wait in the parking lot, because above all else, I am, and will always be, a Duck.