Prior to Oregon’s kickoff against Arizona State on Saturday night, outside linebacker Justin Hollins will walk through the tunnel and out onto the field with his family and friends by his side.
Surrounding him will be 50,000 screaming and clapping fans and more importantly, 80 of his teammates — teammates who will carry on the legacy that Hollins leaves behind when he walks out of Autzen stadium for the final time in his career later that night.
Saturday marks an annual tradition in Oregon’s rich history. It’s a night where everybody associated with Duck football — from athletic director Rob Mullens to the lifelong fans to major donor Phil Knight — celebrate the seniors who’ve given the last four years‚ and in Hollins’ case five years, to the program.
But if you look beyond the pageantry and the words spoken by Oregon announcer Don Essig, you’ll not only see the tribulations of the past but the triumphs towards the future. Oregon will honor its seniors — a group who’s been through the most roller coaster four years a Duck has ever experienced.
Hollins embodies that more than anybody in the program. As a freshman, he saw the Ducks at arguably its highest point in program history when they won the Rose Bowl, made the national championship game and saw quarterback Marcus Mariota win the school’s first Heisman trophy.
But a mere two years later, Hollins saw Oregon at its worst since the turn of the century. The Ducks were lifeless, limping to not only a 4-8 record, but doing so in the most disheartening of ways. Rarely did Oregon show any of the resilience that made them the perennial Pac-12 and national championship contenders a mere two years prior, but instead a team that quit when the going got tough.
Now Hollins, and the rest of the seniors, will walk out of Autzen for the last time around 11 p.m. on a cold and wintery Saturday night in Eugene, hoping to be remembered.
Ugochukwu Amadi and Jalen Jelks, along with Hollins, will be among those leaving who best embody what the Oregon program, under new head coach Mario Cristobal, is trying to become.
They are players who arrived in Eugene with very little fanfare and struggled throughout the early years. But through perseverance, grit and toughness, all three have turned themselves into players that fans will watch on Sundays, and more importantly, role models for the next class of stars.
Included in that next class are three juniors: quarterback Justin Herbert, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell and inside linebacker Troy Dye, players who’ve followed in the footsteps of their seniors but now have the most difficult decision to make.
Does Herbert, the hometown hero from Sheldon High School who grew up going to Oregon games with his grandfather (a former Duck football player himself), end his childhood dream early for the millions of dollars awaiting him in the NFL? Do Mitchell and Dye, starters since they stepped onto campus, leave Oregon early for the draft and give up the chance of becoming the standard all future Ducks must measure themselves by to be considered great?
Those are questions that can only be answered at the end of the season, but it’s one that according to Mitchell will be made together — one of the last lessons taught by the seniors.
Throughout the highs and lows of their tenure, this group of seniors refused to be torn apart by the uncertainty of the program and the revolving door of head coaches (three in three years) leading them. Instead, they rallied and bonded together to make sure a legacy was left — a legacy that revolved around brotherhood, accountability and toughness.
How their legacy is remembered will largely depend on how the next class, and the one after, does. But if Oregon is to return to conference and national relevance in the future, it will be because of the seniors who stayed and fought through the dark times to give light that the future.