It was a typical fall Saturday afternoon in Eugene- leaves had turned color, the sky was overcast, and there was a slight wind. Most importantly though, Duck fans were coming out in full force, ready to cheer on their beloved Ducks. Their arch rival, the Washington Huskies, had come to town, ranked ninth in the nation. The Oregon Football program, coached by Rich Brooks, had been struggling and fans were started circulating “Ditch Rich” bumper stickers. Nonetheless, this was game five, and things were looking up after a recent unexpected victory over USC.
On this day, October 22, 1994, fans were rushing into Autzen, not terribly optimistic, but desperately thirsty for Husky blood. Little did they know a young, fairly unknown, freshman, who had already earned PAC 10 Defensive Player of the Week in the win against USC, would make a split decision and help pave the way to Oregon’s modern day gridiron dynasty.
Earlier that morning, Kenny Wheaton and his best friend and teammate, Jaiya Figueras, joined the team and bussed to Autzen from a local hotel. As a redshirt freshman, Kenny had played a bit but wasn’t a starter. As he explained, he would only play when 5-6 defensive backs were needed for a particular defensive play. That didn’t matter. Kenny and Jaiya, also a defensive back, would be ready, having pushed each other to get better at all times, whether it be challenging each other to push up contests or studying more film-something that would prove vital, later that day.
Like most players, Kenny spent the morning getting into a “zone”. He remembers grabbing his new cd player, a gift from his parents as he left for Oregon, and throwing on his headphones. “I was really into Tupac at the time, I’d listen to How Long Will They Mourn Me about 10-15 times that morning.” As the team pulled into Autzen, Kenny explained something was different. Being from Arizona, he had no idea the Oregon-Washington rivalry was so heated. He always assumed Oregon State had been the Ducks favorite victim. “Ya Know, I was from Arizona. It was always Arizona and Arizona State, so I had no clue.” As the team unloaded, Kenny remembers both sides of fans just going crazy, “Using choice words all over the place and just yelling.” The crowd intensity would never die down, until just briefly at the tail end of the game.
After keeping the game close, Oregon had failed on what it believed to be its final drive. Washington had regained possession and was marching down toward the end zone. It looked as if Oregon’s Husky hunt had all but failed- an all too familiar outcome. Even the most devote fans had accepted defeat and started heading out. Not even they could predict what would happen next.
See, that young, shy, freshman, who had film study challenges with his best friend, suddenly saw something familiar. He had a feeling Washington’s Quarterback, Damon Huard, was preparing to send him a gift. At that moment, Kenny had two choices- run one way and get in front of the receiver, or run the other way. If he chose incorrectly, the game was over, giving the Huskies bragging rights for the next year. Fortunately, Kenny listened to his gut, and took off, cut right and snatched the ball before the intended receiver even had a chance. You know the rest. Well, at least you should. Kenny took that ball, running it back 97 yards for a game-winning touchdown, as radio announcer, Jerry Allen (now “The Voice of the Ducks”) yelled those iconic words,
“Huard gonna go back to throw the ball, sets up, looks, throws toward the corner of the endzone and it’s…Intercepted! it’s intercepted! Kenny Wheaton has the ball! Down to the 35, the 40…Kenny Wheaton is gonna score! Kenny Wheaton is gonna score! Touchdown! Touchdown! Kenny Wheaton, on the interception…The Most improbable finish to the football game!”
As Kenny crossed the goal line, Duck fans young and old, exploded with joy, turning Autzen its own Happiest Place on Earth. After years of the Huskies leaving the Ducks in a pile of feathers, they had finally been hunted and stuffed, and Kenny had taken the iconic shot. He would become an instant hero for years to come- a hero that just wanted to hug his teammates and immediately call home.
While Duck fans continued what would become a decade’s-long celebration, Kenny ran to the locker room and called his family- his parents and two brothers, Robbie and Derrek, who would later become the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting. The family of five were incredibly close and had spent years supporting each other’s sporting events. Typically, the family would arrange for one of them to be present for Kenny’s Oregon games, but this time, they weren’t able to make it. As an added disappointment, their local network had opted not to air the Oregon game- something Kenny knew. After the win, he couldn’t wait to share his excitement with his family. In a twist fate, however, as his family sat watching another team grind it out, the network switched over to the end of the Oregon vs. Washington game- just in time for them to witness Oregon Football history. Just before Huard’s snap, Kenny’s older brother apparently told the family, the ball was “headed Kenny’s way.” “He was just like that,” Kenny said. “He always expected me and my little brother (Derrick) to be stars.”
In that quick call, Kenny’s mother congratulated him, yelling over the family’s celebration noise, and gave him all he needed before heading to celebrate with his team in the locker room- a locker room that had become its own erupting Autzen Stadium. “It was just crazy,” he recalls. Looking back, the one thing Kenny said stood out was just how differently the young players celebrated compared to the seniors.
“As freshman, we were happy we won, but for the seniors, it was something different. They understood what it meant. Now, looking back, I see where they were coming from, but back then, I had no idea.”
19 Years Later
19 years later, the rivalry has only become more intense. As a Duck fan, you are to absolutely hate the Huskies. . . or else. The match-up is always a brutal blood bath with both teams seeking either redemption or continued victory. Tomorrow will be no different with Oregon hoping to keep its National Championship dreams alive and a pack of Huskies wanting nothing more than to turn those dreams to plucked feathers.
As Duck fans prepare to cheer Mariota and Company into battle, there’s no doubt many will be reflecting on Kenny’s “Pick,” a moment that has forever changed the course of Oregon Football. A moment that lives on in the hearts and minds of not only the fans who were there, but future fans, who would grow up to watch the iconic play over and over again on Autzen’s Duck Vision. Or, in the case of Kenny’s young son, on YouTube in their Dallas, Texas Home. “He gets so excited, I think he watches it at least once or twice a week.”
He’s not alone Kenny, he’s not alone.