The Lucky Hat

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I went for a walk at half time and smoked a cigar.

It wasn’t a victory cigar.

It was a cigar of reflection.

I kept telling myself it’s only a game. It’s only a game. It’s only a game.

When I was good and cold, I walked back into my neighbors’ house to take a peek into that crystal ball and see what the future held.

The future still looks bleak.

It looks big and physical. Not pretty, just tough and gritty and textbook playbook. The way football has been played for more than a century.

Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I don’t hurt as much anymore for myself. I have too many other things to worry about than what a football team does week in and week out.

But I hurt for my boys, who have attached themselves to the team from the school I graduated from.

I could certainly be a better fan. But I’ve pulled back in the last few years, afraid of what can happen when your self worth becomes wrapped up in the fortunes of a bunch of college kids.

At dinner we boasted about our lucky Duck gear. A ratty old jersey my son has been wearing for almost five years. A hat faded to jade green with a tear on the bill and strings hanging down in my eyes. I bought it the day I graduated from the University of Oregon with a gift certificate for being a top graduate in my class.

It’s interesting that the football program started to return to prominence the year I first attended. By the time I graduate, they were starting to poke at the ceiling of the BCS.

When I graduated with a degree in journalism, the job market looked bleak. There were layoffs everywhere, and my friends were scattering themselves across the landscape looking for any place to land a starting job.

Armed with a degree, a few clips from the Oregon Daily Emerald and some computer assisted reporting classes, we set out to make our way in a world that was changing rapidly.

The Oregon Ducks were changing the football world rapidly too. They were entertaining audiences with their high-speed, high-flying offense. Light and fast with tricks the old traditionalists just couldn’t read well, the Ducks started winning some games in the then Pac-10.

That offense caught the eyes of players, coaches and the money people, and innovation was the word of the day.

It was the same in my journalism career.

With newspaper circulation drying up, they needed something fast and entertaining. They needed MySpace accounts and Facebook and eventually Twitter.

They needed videos on YouTube and forums and slideshows.

Like the Duck offense, it was a blur.

It was efficient and fast. We were able to reach a new audience.

But they were fickle, and they had choices.

A few years back, the Ducks lost a National Championship to the Auburn Tigers. They lost by a field goal, but they lost by a lot more than that. They were outmatched. Outsized Outplayed.

They went back to work the following year with a commitment to get bigger, more physical. To look like the guys that beat them.

It was admirable, because they understood what beat them. You can have all the speed, all the awesome uniforms in the world, all the finesse, all the amenities of a world-class practice facility, but at the end of the day, you have the results of 60 minutes of playing.

I was going to tell my boys that it’s okay, we have a consolation prize. We have the Heisman trophy winner.

But I think even Marcus Mariota would give that hunk of bronze back for another chance at a National Championship.

Some friends of mine take a perverse pride in pointing out that while my Ducks have been beating up on their Dawgs for the last ten years, the Dawgs still have a crystal football in their trophy case.

I think this is where I have to change my view of the playing field.

I’ve viewed the National Championship as the thing that could finally end the obsession. When you get it, you’ve got it, and nobody can take that away from you. Even if you lose for the next ten seasons.

But that’s the wrong view.

It took journalism and the digital world to teach me that lesson after all these years.

I have fought for innovation in newsrooms for so long, I started to lose focus on the long game.

Every time I would get within site of that crystal football, it would be snatched from me by a management change or a new digital policy from the corporate overlords.

But like the Ducks, I control my own destiny.

You keep going back to the goal line. Keep running it up the middle. Keep up the relentless pace, because in the end, that might be all you get to show. And it’s a helluva lot better to dance on the turf at AT&T Stadium and lose than to never have the chance.

Yeah, my heart is breaking tonight for two boys who’ve bled more yellow and green than I ever had to give. As they were when we lost to Auburn on a bitterly cold day in January when we still lived in Alaska, they went to bed tonight without consolation. I could not give it to them.

And tomorrow, when all the little bandwagon fans have ripped their green number 8 jerseys off their backs and gone on to the next big thing, my guys will still drip a little yellow and green on the ground. If I know them, they’ll sulk for a few days, perhaps for the last dregs of winter.

Then it all begins again. The analysis, the projections, the potential. The hope.

For me, it’s time to retire this lucky Duck hat.

It got me through a lot of hard times, through big moves and wide open spaces. Through cold and loneliness and through many heart-stopping second quarters. It got me through big third quarters, when I could read the outcome on the faces of the players on the field.

But it’s time to start a new era. Time to don a new cap and start a new streak.

My birthday is this week, so if anyone wants to buy me a new Oregon Duck hat, I’m pretty sure they’re on sale.

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