- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
On Saturday, the college football nation will be focused on Columbus, Ohio, and rightfully so. The No. 12 Oregon Ducks, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, are traveling east to face the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, practically everyone’s choice to top the Big Ten. It is a rematch of the 1958 and 2010 Rose Bowls, as well as the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game in 2015, with a likely inside lane to this year’s CFP on the line.
It’s a big game, as big as the Horseshoe itself, filled with drama, expectations and, yes, metaphors. So many metaphors. None greater than the living, breathing, sweating, dancing, strutting, feather-and-paint-adorned, real-life head-to-head showdown metaphor that will play out between plays and during timeouts.
The Duck versus Brutus Buckeye.
It’s a mascot melee on every level that sums up the game itself. West versus East. College football royalty versus new money. Classic anthropomorphic mascot (big head, human body) versus, well, OK, the same thing, just with more feathers. The gridiron equivalent to a millennial dot-com billionaire showing up at Warren Buffet’s bridge game in a Nike hoodie and flip-flops. Let the smack quacking and nut cracking begin!
“I think of Freddy Krueger first. He’s got the sweater. Scary old man,” Teigh Bowen says with a chuckle when asked about Brutus. Bowen took on the life of the Oregon Duck (you don’t dare say he put on the costume; this is much more serious than that) from 2005 to ’10. “No, Brutus is great. He is that old-school mascot. He’s the guy on the sideline with a big head and … if you just wanna look at a big nut, doing whatever a big nut wants to do, then sure some people enjoy that.”
“The Duck is very Disney-like to me. There’s a really sweet quality to the Duck,” observes Tracy Stuck, a 27-year Ohio State employee and noted Brutus historian. “When I look at mascots, there’s mascots that seem to be mean and growly, but that is not what I experience with the Duck. It’s so much fun.”
Um, Tracy isn’t really going for this trash-talk thing, is she? Let’s check in with Ray Sharp, aka Dancing Brutus, who donned the scarlet and grey stripes from 2010 to ’13. “Oh gosh, just iconic. The Duck is probably one of the most entertaining, funniest mascots out there. He just seems to hit the moment every single time and really make the most of it. … Think of College GameDay when the Duck did the picks and, I was like, ‘This is brilliant.’ He’s one of our biggest inspirations.”
Hey, Buckeyes, help me out here. Because the Duck guys are waddling all over you.
“Brutus is a good mascot. He’s a winning mascot. But, um, he’s a nut. He’s a nut,” says Malachi Williams, the 1999-2003 Duck. “Brutus is a proven entity when it comes to winning the big game, but the marketability, the understanding, the far-reaching capability of Brutus versus the Duck? Now, there is a match to be decided.”
“Does the Duck do pushups? Does he work out? Maybe he needs to do some pushups and work out. He might just be swimming,” says Sandy Foreman. She was Brutus in 1977 and, finally, someone from Columbus is turning up the heat. Right? Wrong. This was a head-fake bigger than Eddie George in the open field. “The Oregon Duck is really cute, and I think fans really follow him, too.”
Forgive the folks from Eugene in the Duck-letter sweaters (for real, that’s what they get after their years of service behind the beak) for bringing much more fowl attitudes to this pregame conversation. Anti-establishment is their whole persona, and Saturday’s game is the perfect pond in which to swim that stroke. The same holds true for the collectively chill attitude among the Brutus crew. They know who they are in this narrative, be it playing on the field or gyrating along the sidelines.
“Underduck, the greatest underduck story of all time,” says Mike Doherty, former longtime senior creative director for Nike, local resident, right-hand man to Nike founder/Oregon alum Phil Knight and the force behind stunts like Oregon QB Joey Harrington’s Times Square Heisman billboard in 2000 that made Ducks football cool. “At Nike we called that ‘irreverence justified.’ Now, I think underdog can be replaced by the Duck. Underduck.”
As is always the case with the Buckeyes, they will be portrayed as the program with the high ground Saturday, backed by winning that has taken place at a high level since World War II. Their high society résumé includes eight national titles, eight Rose Bowl wins, seven Heisman Trophy winners, unsurpassed game-day pomp and circumstance and a run of recent success that has led to four appearances in seven editions of the CFP, bookended by that 2015 title over Oregon and last season’s runner-up finish. And is always the case with the Ducks, they will be portrayed as the outsider team from the West Coast, the flashy squad with the glitzy uniforms that has zero national titles, one Heisman Trophy and winning ways that didn’t start until the 1990s.
This is the statistic you will hear the most: Beginning with a 10-7 loss in that ’58 Rose Bowl, Oregon has compiled a lifetime 0-9 mark against Ohio State, including an 0-5 effort in Columbus.
“To win in Columbus, it takes a knowledge of the history. Not to run from it, to embrace it,” preaches Mikey Navarro, Duck 2008-11, co-author (with the Duck) of “An Oregon Duck Tries to Fly,” a work he is holding while he speaks to us like it’s the Good Book itself.. “Every amount of history, every amount of aggression, every amount of preparedness. It’s a huge responsibility to go to Columbus and represent the university, to represent the football team, to represent all those people, in the state of Oregon, not because we’ve lost nine in a row historically to Ohio State, but because of this one game. Think of the legacy of that mascot.”
Though the college football world writ large might not have been aware of the Duck until the past couple of decades, the University of Oregon has employed the bird as its sports symbol for a century. The school’s original mascot, dating back to the 1890s, was the Webfoots, a nicknamed carried all the way from Massachusetts transplants, descendants of a group of New England fisherman who’d earned the moniker for their heroics during the American Revolution. Eventually, Oregon fans made the connection between Webfoots and the most famous animal with webbed feet. During the 1920s, one Oregon loyalist started bringing a live duck, named Puddles, to football games. Eventually, it was deemed to be a bad idea, because it was also deemed to be bad for little Puddles.
In the 1940s, Webfoots started giving way to Ducks and the Oregon student newspaper’s renderings of Puddles began to closely resemble the world’s most famous duck, Donald. It didn’t take long for that to catch the attention of Donald’s owner, Walt Disney. But athletic director Leo Harris leveraged a friendship with a Walt Disney Studios animator and got a meeting with Mr. Disney, who gleefully granted Oregon the rights to Donald as Puddles, so long as the Walt Disney Company maintained some say in what the Duck did in the form of appearances, business dealings and whatever else a duck might want to do.
Meanwhile, Oregon football was very, very bad. It didn’t win a conference championship between 1957 and ’94 and went 29 years without a bowl game appearance. The coaches of those very, very bad teams didn’t believe being Ducks was doing much to frighten the likes of Trojans, Bruins or even the hated Beavers up the road at Oregon State. Recalls Doherty: “A friend of mine, who played professional football for a long time, who started at the University of Oregon, he said they went to Nebraska, and they looked across the field and he said, ‘We’re going to play those guys?!’ I just remember Oregon was the joke, and now they’ve been good for so long, you just expect them to do well.”
Doherty’s boss, Phil Knight, could sense the green-and-yellow tide rising in the early 1990s and wanted the Duck riding atop that wave. The Duck got a redesign. He took comedy classes. He was occupied by actors and athletes. When coaches Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly got the program going, the Duck had the crowd rolling. Duck was starring in TV commercials. Duck was riding onto the Autzen Stadium field on a Harley-Davidson. Duck was on College GameDay. Duck could do no wrong! Wait, what’s wrong in that sentence?
In 2002, the Duck conjured a giant silver egg at midfield and out hatched a new Duck, a sidekick who was covered in muscles and had a serious, streamlined face. Its official name was Mandrake, but it is remembered by most as Duck Vader or, more infamously, Roboduck. And none of those memories are good.
“I suggested they get a gymnast, somebody that could really move around stealthily, like a superhero kinda thing, and he would crawl over seats and things like that,” Doherty says. “Well, he scared kids to death. Honest to God, little kids were hiding behind their parents when Roboduck would come in the stands, to get them. They didn’t want to get their picture taken or anything.
“I think we got two games out of it. People thought we were replacing the Duck, which we weren’t. The suit wound up in my office at Nike in the drawer. I lent it to somebody for Halloween and it never came back.”
Five years later, when Oregon opened the season at Houston, the plan was for the Duck to do a little skit with Shasta the Cougar as the Houston mascot would come over and mock the Duck when it did its traditional post-touchdown pushups. But a rookie Duck who may or may not have been a little hopped up on energy drinks took issue with Shasta’s act and a fight broke out. It went viral. The Duck was suspended for two games. That was bad. But there was also a phone call from Los Angeles. The folks at Disney were getting a little tired of keeping up with the Duck, so they told Oregon it was free to fly wherever it wanted without prior permission from them.
As the Duck went wild, so did his team, led by Chip Kelly to a pair of Rose Bowls and the BCS title game. They lost all three, but Oregon was consistently on the big stage with the Duck standing in the spotlight.
Saturday he will be there again, on the sideline at the Horseshoe, his wings crossed once again in the hopes Oregon football might finally get over the hump and win the biggest game on its schedule, against a team it has never beaten before, all while looking across the field at a mascot that is in so many ways the yin to its yang. But Brutus might have more in common with the Duck than one realizes.
First, Brutus isn’t that old. He first appeared in October 1965, when Ohio State fans had tired of having to see Big Ten foes trot out their mascots while they had none. (Badgers and Wildcats and Gophers, oh my!) The buckeye nut derives its name from its resemblance to the eye of a deer, but no one wanted to try to drag a live deer out onto the Columbus sideline. Instead, a pair of students fashioned a paper mache buckeye head and wore it to a game. It looked terrible and was replaced after just two weeks by a larger fiberglass model. From there, various forms of round, dark, spherical costumes were used to varying degrees of aesthetic success. In 1975, Ohio State debuted a human person with a giant plastic head that was shaped into a weird, wrinkly, winking face. The horrifying “Popeye Brutus” lasted two games, an epic fail nearly three decades before Roboduck did the same.
In 1981, the first iteration of today’s Brutus made its debut. Only 26 years later, he was inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana, a part of its third-ever class and one of only seven college mascots among its 20 current members.
The Duck is not one of them. And though those who have spent their lives experiencing real-life Duck Tales might act hurt by that fact, deep down the Ducks totally dig the diss. It just makes them work harder behind the scenes while they also try to keep their cool in public, where we can all see them. They will take that approach again on Saturday afternoon in Columbus.
“What’s Brutus’ game plan? What is Brutus gonna bring? How is Brutus gonna come out on his home turf and face a duck he has never seen in his stadium?” Navarro is so fired up he is about to go full Donald. “Yeah, there is a home-field advantage. There’s an Autzen advantage. The Duck knows sound. The Duck knows decibel levels very, very well, so you can be as loud as you want. You can have a solid football team and the game can be close, but the Duck’s gonna perform. The Duck’s gonna keep the crowd going on his end and the Duck is going to do his pushups.”
As Navarro sits in a log cabin in the mountains above Eugene and points toward the window, the Duck is running up and down hills outside and chopping wood. Navarro smiles and speaks one last time about the creature whose body he once occupied.
“His body language right now, what he’s telling me right now, he’s ready for this. He’s ready for this next year. The Duck is ready to be a champion.”
You know, like a duck on a pond.
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