Oregon's Blount caps trying year with crucial TD in Pac-10 title game
On Sept. 3, LeGarrette Blount nearly ruined his college career with The Punch
Three months to the day later, Blount finally got a measure of vindication
Oregon will face Ohio State in the Rose Bowl -- a trip 15 years in the making
EUGENE, Ore. -- The regular season ended as it had began. Once again, LeGarrette Blount stood before a wall of screaming fans.
Only this time he wasn't snarling. This time, he held a rose in one hand. The other hand held an iPhone to his ear. "Where are you?" the Oregon tailback asked late Thursday night as he craned his neck to scan the crowd.
At the front of the green-and-gold crush amassed at the barricades outside the Ducks' locker room, a hand shot upward. "I'm right here," Merissa McCullugh screamed. Guards allowed McCullugh through the barriers, and fiancée and betrothed embraced. The look on Blount's face suggested something was still missing. Blount approached a police officer, whispered something in his ear, and the officer and McCullugh took off through the masses.
While Blount's teammates celebrated the spoils of a 37-33 win against Oregon State in the greatest of 113 Civil Wars -- a Pac-10 title and the school's first Rose Bowl berth in 15 years -- Blount celebrated the culmination of his team and individual goals by waiting patiently. Still in uniform, he signed autographs and politely declined all interview requests. The look on his face suggested he was waiting for something very, very special.
Waiting is pretty much all Blount has done these past three months. He waited to learn if Oregon coach Chip Kelly would reinstate him after the Sucker Punch Heard 'Round the World. He waited to learn when Kelly might reinstate him. Once back on the team, he waited to learn if he'd ever touch the football again as a Duck.
By the time Blount faced that wall of fans Thursday, it had been three months almost to the minute since his right hand had connected with the jaw of Boise State defensive end Byron Hout. It had been three months almost to the minute since Oregon receivers coach Scott Frost dragged an enraged Blount away from a wall of equally irate Boise State fans and stopped the Malice at the Palace: On-Campus Edition before it began.
Blount's cowardly punch played in a seemingly endless loop on SportsCenter and on YouTube. He became the face of the out-of-control college athlete. To millions who had never met him, Blount was the punch. Those who knew him prayed that punch wouldn't define him forever. "It was just one of those moments when he lost control," Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell said. "That's not who he is. I knew that."
Blount apologized until his tongue hurt for losing control. Kelly still suspended him for the remainder of the season, effectively ending the career of the 2008 junior college transfer from Perry, Fla.. Kelly had reconsidered and opened the door for reinstatement. Then, before the Ducks faced Arizona State on Nov. 14, Kelly reinstated Blount.
For two games, Blount stood ready, but he never crossed the white line. He had to settle for being the most muscular cheerleader on Oregon's sideline. A rusty Blount had come back at No. 5 on the depth chart and worked his way up. Still, coaches weren't sure if he could help the Ducks win. They didn't want to put him in to make an appearance. He had to be prepared to contribute.
Then, at 8:11 p.m. Pacific time Thursday, Kelly turned to Blount on the sideline.
"L.G., you're in," Kelly said.
"He threw off his cape," Campbell said. "And ran onto the field."
Campbell had prepped Blount for his return to the field. "Hey, whatever you do, just hang on to the football," he said. "Don't fumble. I don't care about you trying to make a big run. Just get us some first downs."
It was the third quarter, and Oregon trailed its rival by nine. Blount slammed into the line for a 2-yard gain on his first carry. He ran for two more on second down. The drive ended with Blount soaring over the goal line for a 12-yard score.
Blount sprinted to the sideline and bear-hugged Campbell. "Thank you," Campbell remembered Blount saying.
Blount wasn't much of an on-field factor the rest of the way, just as he wasn't much of an on-field factor this season. Thursday was a clash of Texans -- Texarkana's LaMichael James for the Ducks and Richmond's James and Jacquizz Rodgers for the Beavers -- and a duel of quarterbacks with clashing styles. Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli, the 5-foot-11 fireplug with almost zero chance of playing quarterback in the NFL, kept plays alive with his legs. Oregon State's Sean Canfield, a 6-5 philosophy major with a draft party in his future, would have done the original Stoic Zeno proud as he calmly stood in the pocket, oblivious to the Oregon rushers and the 59,000-seat mosh pit surrounding him.
In the end, it came down to three fourth-down plays. On the first, fourth-and-15 from the Oregon 27 with a little more than six minutes remaining, Canfield's pass sailed just wide of James Rodgers' arms and over the sideline. On the second, Oregon faced 4th-and-3 from the Oregon State 33. Beavers safety Lance Mitchell had Masoli stuffed short of the stick, but Masoli blasted through Mitchell and past the marker. Three plays later, Oregon faced 4th-and-2 from the 19 with 1:43 remaining. Oregon State had one timeout. Masoli faked a handoff and took off left. Just before he got creamed, he pitched to Kenjon Barner, who raced for five yards.
The mosh pit throbbed. The Ducks' yellow helmets bobbed as they hopped in celebration. When it came time for the victory formation, Kelly told LG he was in again. "LG's been through a lot," Kelly said. "I'm just proud of him. Really proud of him."
After the fans emptied onto the field with roses clutched in their hands and their teeth, Blount swam through the sea of humanity until he reached the locker room. After a search turned up McCullugh, he waited again. As he walked down a hallway, he finally saw what he was waiting for. LeGarrette Blount Jr., a bundle of tiny curls with his daddy's eyes, was born Sept. 17, two weeks to the day after Blount's punch landed. When Blount laid eyes on his son Thursday, the wattage of his grin could have powered the entire Pacific Northwest for a week.
"Hey, little man," Blount cooed to his son.
An Oregon employee noticed the crowd gathering around father and son. "LeGarrette isn't doing any interviews," she said. It didn't matter.
His smile told the entire story, from a Thursday nightmare in September to a dream come true three months to the minute later.
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