Her number one fan

Dave Martinez

ESPN correspondent Shelley Smith loves her job – almost as much as she loves rooting for the Ducks on bone-chilling Friday nights at Papé Field.

She’s done voice-overs in her car and hunted for Wi-Fi hot spots in the back of her parents’ RV to send her projects while scrambling to Eugene.

Smith loves interviewing guys like Joe Montana and Michael Jordan, but bundling up with “The Quacks” and cheering for her favorite player – daughter Dylann Tharp – is 10 times as fun.

“We let (our daughters) do their part on the field and we do ours in the stands,” said Smith, who lives in Los Angeles.

While Tharp, a senior defender, anchors the Oregon defense, Smith calls the shots on the Ducks’ unofficial cheering squad, shouting while banging a drum covered with yellow and green memorabilia. When Oregon gains possession of the ball, she yells, “Which way is the ball going?!”

“That way!” the group yells back in unison, pointing simultaneously with green foam fingers.

“Our motto, I know (coach) Tara (Erickson) hates it, is we don’t care if they win or lose, as long as we have fun,” Smith said.

At the heart of all the hilarity is the story of a mom and a daughter who, 21 years later, still aren’t tired of each other.

Smith, who gets conference calls at 6 a.m. every Monday before flying out to do ESPN GameDay features around College Town USA, once got up at 3 a.m., drove from Notre Dame to Chicago, flew to Denver and then boarded another flight to Oregon just to see Tharp play two years ago.

The Ducks’ success on the football field has afforded both more time together. Smith has traveled to Eugene for GameDay twice this year, when Oregon played California and Arizona State. Luckily for the both of them, the Ducks’ soccer squad played at home and in Corvallis those same weekends.

“She actually happened to thank Mike Bellotti in her interviews last week for being so good so she could come up and see me more,” said Tharp, whose team concludes its season with a match against Stanford at 7 p.m. today and California at 11 a.m. on Sunday.

This week, Smith asked for time off to see Oregon play, which also has allowed her to play role of mom yet again.

“We went out to breakfast once, she drives me around. It’s like my freshman year of high school,” said Tharp, who’s played in 72 games at Oregon.

But life wasn’t always so good.

For better or worse, her estranged father was a critical man, a perfectionist. It forced Tharp to become all the great things she is today: strong, accountable, driven. It also made for “a lot of tough situations” growing up, she said.

“I kind of had an upbringing where if I made a mistake, I would always be reprimanded for it pretty harshly,” said Tharp, whose parents divorced when she was six. “I guess it’s helped being able to get through situations without making too many mistakes, and if I do, really making up for them. That has gotten me through all the tough times.”

Tharp and her father grew further apart – she hasn’t talked to him or seen him in six years. But Tharp and Smith became even greater friends.

“My mom was always the one who was there for me if I fell down and that is why we are so close,” Tharp said.

The two have always needed each other.

Pride and Defense

It’s been a while, but Tharp can still remember what it was like being a freshman.

“I remember thinking that year, ‘How am I am going to do this for four years,’ and it kind of creeps up on you,” said Tharp, one of two seniors on the team along with forward Tiffany Smith.

Tharp didn’t just survive four seasons either – she barreled through them like a cyclone, starting every match but one while somehow staying healthier than just about all her teammates. Tharp steamrolled her way into program record books with her durability. She had never missed a match during her Oregon career until a sprained left ankle kept her out of four and a half games this season.

Smith flew back to help out Tharp while she recovered.

“It was like back to the days of kindergarten, driving her to class, making her sandwiches,” Smith said. “You are always a mom.”

Against UCLA last year, Tharp cleared a shot that would have given the Bruins the lead with just a minute left in regulation; instead, the Ducks ended up winning 2-1.

“Dylann also plays with an enforcer type attitude,” Erickson said. “I think she must keep a tally of her tackles in her head.”

It wouldn’t surprise Smith. She watched Tharp get mad when she beat her daughter in tennis matches, or when grandpa hit the golf ball farther than she could.

“She was saying ‘Grandpa can hit farther than me’ at nine,” Smith recalls. “And he’s got an 11 handicap.”

“She’s the most competitive person I know.”

The fire and drive stuck, too. Tharp, who’ll graduate with an art degree this spring, flat out loves physical play.

“If girls are trying to get around me, it is either going to be them or the ball,” said Tharp in an eerily soft-spoken and collected voice. “And not both ever. If it happens to be the ball that goes and not the girl, then that’s fine with me.”

However, Tharp is also a very cerebral player, Smith said.

“She plays with tenacity, with fierceness, but has a calming presence,” Smith said. “People look to her for guidance. She has been so steady because she works her mind as much as her body.”

Mom’s Job

Tharp switched from a pre-journalism to an art major her sophomore year, but is still interested in documenting other people’s lives like Smith does.

“I’ve always been a little more camera shy and not good at speaking in public,” said Tharp, who’s currently ranked 10th in the Oregon record books for games played and 7th for consecutive starts. “I’d like to do more of the behind-the-scenes stuff.”

“She could be a producer because she’s been with me to so many shoots,” Smith said.

Tharp’s met many athletic stars as a result, plus she’s been to BCS bowls, NBA Western Conference Finals, NBA All-Star games and an Oakland A’s spring training. She met LeBron James at the ESPY Awards in 2004 while her mom was doing radio work for the network. “LeBron came over and I shook his hand and he paid no attention to me,” Tharp laughed. “But that’s OK. At least I got to shake his hand.”

Former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who Smith wrote the book “Just Give Me The Damn Ball!” with, used to baby-sit Tharp. NBA great turned TNT funny man Charles Barkley would lift her into the air, buy her Cokes and point her in the direction of the nearest swimming pools.

“I would kind of run to him, and it was like having a pseudo dad almost, but only twice or three times a year,” Tharp said.

But Tharp said Smith has always been there, and not just because she can always hear the drum that Smith found on eBay for $9.99.

“She’s been to so many amazing sporting events, yet she comes to all our games,” Tharp said. “It is hard to put into words how much she means. She has always been such a supportive person.”

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