HIGHS, LOWS OF BEING A DUCK
EUGENE — Doug Brenner's football career hasn't lacked for excitement and drama, both for himself and his beloved Oregon Ducks.
A whirlwind five years as an offensive lineman started with him playing during the stupendous 2014 season that led to the national championship game, and it will end Saturday as Brenner stands on the sideline with an injury as the Ducks seek to beat Oregon State in the Civil War game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.
There has been pain, both physically and mentally, and wins and losses. Oh, and Brenner eventually will add a master's degree to two UO undergraduate degrees, and consider attending law school — or becoming a sumo wrestler.
"I wouldn't trade my playing college football for anything. It's worth it," says Brenner, a Jesuit High grad and one of several Portland players on the UO roster. "I've had a very unique experience here. I have absolutely loved my time here. Best decision I've ever made, coming here. Love my teammates and coaches. It's been an awesome time."
It'll be tough not to play on Saturday. The Beavers, after all, ended an nine-game losing streak in the Civil War last year, rallying to win 34-24 in Corvallis. And no matter how poorly this season has gone for Oregon, in large part because of QB Justin Herbert's collarbone injury, "it's a game we for sure want to win," Brenner says.
Relegated to backup offensive lineman last year, the 6-2, 320-pound Brenner played mostly special teams — field goals, extra points — in his senior season before pain from bad hips forced him to hang up his helmet and pads. He has missed the past four games and has had surgery on his left hip.
"It wasa bunch of different hip injuries over the last year or so, and I was trying to play through it, but it got too bad, to where I had to get it checked out," he says.
It turned out that Brenner had torn labrums in both hips. In the left hip, he had to get a cyst removed and bone taken out and repair to a torn ligament. He needs right hip surgery at some point.
"It's been tough, not the way I wanted my senior year to end," he says. "I'm still involved with the team, going to practice and rehab and film and helping the younger guys."
Then again, bad hips and a QB injury and the Ducks flirting with not going to a bowl game again for the second consecutive season only add to Brenner's five-year story in Eugene.
Fairly highly recruited in 2013, he signed with the Ducks, where his sister Elizabeth played volleyball and other sports — his other sister, Mary Claire, played softball and track and field at Oregon State. He redshirted, with then-offensive line coach Steve Greatwood speaking fondly of him and saying Brenner could be the heir apparent to standout Hroniss Grasu at center.
Through most of the 2014 season, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota's final year and the Ducks' glorious College Football Playoff season, Brenner played as a backup. But when Grasu went out with an injury at Utah, it thrust Brenner into a more regular role (although, before the next game, coaches went with Hamani Stevens at center and used Brenner at guard).
Grasu returned, but Brenner still saw some action on the offensive line. Mariota won the Heisman. The Ducks won the Pac-12 title, destroying Arizona 51-13, after the Wildcats had dealt them their only loss. Oregon then routed Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl, the CFB semifinal. "We played Florida State, and (players) had told their families not to come to the game from the East Coast, because they were sure to beat us" and move onto the national championship game, Brenner recalls.
The dream ended in the title game, as the Ducks lost to Ohio State, 42-20. Brenner didn't play but he says the season rates as his best memory.
Then, things got interesting for Brenner. A graduate transfer, Matt Hegarty from Notre Dame, earned the starting center spot the next year, and Brenner took up backup guard and center duties. The Ducks had some tough losses, including 62-20 loss at home to Utah, but they played in the Alamo Bowl against TCU. Oh, the Alamo ... QB Vernon Adams got injured, Hegarty got injured, and struggling backup QB Jeff Lockie was taking snaps from backup center Brenner. Lockie made some bad plays, Brenner made some costly bad snaps, and TCU rallied from 31-0 down to win 47-41 in three overtimes. Worst memory with the Ducks?
"No, it doesn't bother me," Brenner says. "I wish we would have won the game, and played better."
Nope, the low points came in the next 12 months. Brenner's father died. Redshirt freshman Jake Hanson won the starting center job for the next season. And the Ducks, struggling with QBs again before going with true freshman Herbert, finished 4-8, with a 70-21 loss to Washington.
"That felt horrible," Brenner says, of the losing record. "We let the fans and everybody down. And there were some things happening off the field; there was a bad change of culture."
Oregon's "win the day" approach had digressed into a lack of player commitments and bad attitudes, and it all finally led to Mark Helfrich's firing as coach.
Enter Willie Taggart as head coach and Mario Cristobal as offensive line coach and Irele Oderinde as football strength coach — Oderinde replacing veteran Jim Radcliffe. In early January, during the first week of offseason conditioning, three players suffered training fatigue injuries, described as rhabdomyolysis ("rhabdo"), which occurs when soft muscle tissue breaks down and leaks into the blood stream. One of the players was Brenner, and all three — Cam McCormick and Sam Poutasi were the others — went to the hospital for extended stays.
Brenner was the first player released. He recovered to play and says he has no ill effects from the "rhabdo," including any kidney damage as of now.
Taggart, Oderinde and the UO program took a lot of heat for the incidents.
"I've moved on from that," says Brenner, not talking specifics about the incidents. "It was an unfortunate thing. Luckily, us three guys are healthy and not had issues. I'm not worried about it.
"We all love Coach O. He's one of my good friends. Everyone's moved on from that."
But then Brenner's screaming hips told him to stop playing football for the Ducks.
Asked about UO's slippage from national championship contender to fighting for bowl eligibility, a year after going 4-8, Brenner flatly says: "Just worry about lack of quarterbacks after Marcus, that was always a big issue. We never had anyone being groomed until Justin. Wow, he's special, I see a lot of Marcus in Justin."
That said, his last UO team and Taggart's first has developed "a workmanlike mentality," Brenner says, and it feels good within the program to somewhat bounce back from 4-8.
Brenner wants to train for Oregon's Pro Day tryout in late March for NFL teams. If some form of pro football doesn't work out, he'll take off on an extended journey around the world — literally. He has two undergrad degrees — in Applied Business and Economics and Psychology — and he is studying for his master's in Conflict and Dispute Resolution through the UO School of Law. He's been Pac-12 All-Academic.
He'll finish classes in the summer, and a master's project in fall 2018 with a law school scholarship. Then, he'll consider law school, hopefully with continued financial support from some source. "That was always instilled in me by my parents — no matter what, you've got to take advantage of being good at academics," he says.
But his future remains uncertain.
"I might even go to Japan and be a sumo wrestler," he says.
"Whenever I am done with football, I'm going to take a trip around the world," Brenner says. "I read Phil Knight's book, 'Shoe Dog,' the Nike story. When Phil Knight and his best friend graduated from Stanford with their master's, they went on a trip around the world to figure out what they wanted to do with their life.
"I'm going to do my own twist. I'll have a year for myself, and I want to explore. I don't know how serious I am, but I'm planning to go to Japan, and visit a sumo place."
Whatever happens, Brenner does vow to lose "football" weight, with a goal of getting down to 250 pounds. "Jake Pisarcik and I are going to do a weight-loss competition," he says. "I always want to work out and lift."
As he moves forward, Brenner has many memories of people in his past and present.
His multisport sister Elizabeth led the way to Oregon, and "she's one of the best competitors I know." She's been a volleyball, basketball and track and field coach for Jesuit and a substitute teacher.
His teammates have included seven other fifth-year players, including fellow O-linemen Pisarcik, Evan Voeller and Elijah George. He was friends with former Jesuit player and offensive lineman Matt Pierson and other O-linemen, and he's living with former Crusaders Charlie Landgraf (an O-lineman) and Henry Mondeaux (a defensive lineman). Pierson serves as an inspiration; he works as a financial adviser in San Francisco and Portland.
And every day, Brenner thinks about his late father. Douglas Brenner died at age 59 on Jan. 30, 2016. He was a longtime employee for Portland Parks & Recreation, serving in many capacities.
"He's still a huge inspiration for me," the younger Brenner says. "It's still tough to talk about him."
One day after his father's death, Brenner sat down with Helfrich, who had lost his father not too many years before.
"He told me, 'Doug, the better it was the harder it is.' That's especially true with my dad passing away. Such a good guy and dad, a role model, a quiet hardworking man who set an example with his life. I try to do a lot of what I do based off my dad. I was lucky to have him for as many years as I did."