By Connor Buestad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you have ever found yourself in a conversation with a University of Oregon student or alumnus, one thing becomes abundantly clear from the get-go. Duck fans are obsessed with their football team.
Void of a professional sports franchise for hundreds of miles, the small town of Eugene treats its football team like a precious crown jewel. Football as religion is typically reserved for SEC country, but Autzen Stadium is more like a place of worship as opposed to a venue to watch a sports event. Oregon football players are treated like royalty and the holy grail of sportswear companies, Nike, treats Chip Kelly like a Messiah.
For the past three years, little Eugene has been the epicenter of west coast football. In 2010 they lost in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State, in 2011 they lost in the National Title Game to Auburn, and last year they went back to the Rose Bowl and beat Wisconsin. Dion Jordan was on the team all three years. Not a bad run by anyone’s standards.
When I first met Dion Jordan, it was on the turf where he grew up. Youngblood-Coleman Playground in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point District. It was early August and Jordan was just days away from heading back up to Eugene to begin Fall camp and the 2012 season. If I wanted to talk to him, he suggested I meet him at his hometown football field. Fair enough.
The football field at Youngblood Playground is the home field for the San Francisco Brown Bombers Pop Warner football team. With ages ranging from 7 and under (Tiny Mite) and fifteen and under (Midget), the Bombers are one of the most accomplished Pop Warner programs on the west coast. Today was the first week of practice for the 2012 campaign, and it certainly didn’t look like the coaching staff had made cuts yet. Seemingly every inch of the 100 yard gridiron was occupied by an undersized kid in an oversized helmet.
Out at mid-field, amongst all the madness of a Pop Warner practice, Jordan stood calmly, quietly offering tidbits of advice to San Francisco’s next generation of pigskin superstars.
“I love being out on the football field,” Jordan explained. “Even though it is a violent and crazy game sometimes, I’ve always thought of the football field as my sanctuary. A place where I can clear my head and just focus on playing and having fun.”
Standing at 6 foot 7 and weighing 240 pounds, it is almost striking how long and athletic Jordan looks in person. Slated to be a first round pick in next Spring’s NFL draft, Jordan looks every bit like a San Francisco 49er. At one point one of the Brown Bomber Tiny Mite’s ran up to Jordan and asked him point blank, “Are you in the NFL?” You couldn’t blame the 7 year-old running back for asking.
Now in his Senior season, Jordan is again leading the Ducks’ defense in sacks. With 4.5 speed in the 40 and an awe-inspiring wingspan, virtually all the Mel Kiper Juniors of the world agree Jordan is a can’t miss NFL Defensive End in the making. However, five years ago, Jordan’s NFL dream looked to be over before it started.
After growing up in San Francisco, Jordan’s family moved to Chandler, Arizona where he would play his high school football. With breathtaking speed and dominating length and height, Jordan starred as a wide receiver and eventually grew into a Pac-10 blue chip recruit at wide-out. Following a game during his senior year, Jordan was involved in a gruesome car fire accident inside his friend’s garage. Jordan was airlifted to the hospital and was lucky to survive the life-threatening episode. Luckily, former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti honored Jordan’s scholarship offer, and he set off to play receiver for the Ducks.
If there is one constant theme that surrounds Chip Kelly’s Oregon football team, it is the program’s unquenchable thirst for speed. There is speed at every position, even quarterback and offensive line. If you aren’t fast, you don’t play at Oregon. In Jordan’s case, with so much speed on Oregon’s offensive skill positions, he was moved to Defensive End early in his career.
“I enjoyed wide receiver, but my speed really allows me to do well in Oregon’s fast-paced style of defense,” said Jordan. “Coach Aliotti (defensive coordinator) wants us to be extremely fast on the defensive side of the ball and we try to take pride in that.”
As far as Jordan’s NFL hopes, starting to learn a brand new position in the middle of college was a risky proposition, but the fact was that it was best for the team. And for the soft-spoken Jordan, if it was best for the team, he was willing to do it.
“The reason why guys come to Oregon is because they want to win National Championships,” says Jordan. “People think guys come because of the Nike uniforms or the locker rooms, but it’s not that. It’s the chance to play on the best team, with the best players. Coach Kelly is really competitive and recruits the best guys he can, and great players want to be a part of that.”
Now in his Senior year, Jordan is leading a team that has a legitimate shot at bringing the U of O its very first football National Championship. As Jordan carries the weight of Oregon fans’ hopes and dreams, he certainly doesn’t let it show outwardly. His violent defensive position on the field has produced the likes of Bill Romanowski and John Randle, but somehow Jordan exudes the quiet calm of a buddhist monk rather than a crazed hitman. Out on the field Jordan drives blindsided quarterbacks face-first into the turf, but off the field he is rarely caught without a relaxed smile on his face.
Jordan makes it clear that he is focused on bringing an historic Championship to Eugene, but he also admits to striving toward his lifelong goal of the NFL. When I asked him if he watched the NFL combine last February to compare himself to the best draft prospects of 2012, Jordan quickly grinned. “I did. I watched the combine closely,” laughed Jordan. “I actually made a little chart of what guys at my position were doing. How fast their 40 time was, how much their bench press was. I wanted to work toward being at the highest level out there.”
When Jordan takes the field next Saturday against the California Golden Bears, he will be back home in the Bay Area in front of his hometown friends and family. An Oregon degree in Sociology, a National Championship ring, and a handshake on stage with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell all wait in the wings for the skinny kid from south side of San Francisco. If it is up to Dion Jordan, he will tackle all three accomplishments with a full head of steam. Once number 96 gets going, he’s not easy to stop.