Hope remains for Ducks
It happened in one violent collision.
Oregon captain, defensive back and kickoff returner Walter Thurmond III took the 61-yard kickoff from California kicker Vince D’Amato and headed towards the right side of the field.
It’s scary how much force players generate on kickoffs. One team is sprinting at full speed down field to try and hit the opposing players as hard as they can. They get up to 40 yards of momentum behind their hits.
On this particular play, it was the opening kickoff of the game, and players were even more amped than usual. So when Thurmond made his way just past the 20-yard line, and he was met by Cal defensive back Chris Moncrease with exceptional force. Moncrease led with his shoulders and hit Thurmond square in the right knee, flipping the preseason All-American into the air and causing a fumble, which the Golden Bears recovered. Everyone held their breath, and all breathed a little easier when Thurmond popped up on his own and half-jogged, half-hopped off the field on his left leg.
“He’s fine,” a few Duck fans said. “He walked off under his own power.” And although he didn’t return to the game, no one expected him to miss more than a game or two.
Unfortunately, that hope has come crashing down around everyone’s ankles. The life of the defense, the vocal leader of this team, has to have surgery in his right knee to repair the injury and he will miss the rest of the season.
It’s a big hit to Oregon. The team is still riding high after completely demolishing the then-No. 6 Bears, but now that feeling is replaced by a sense of loss. Very few people meant more to Oregon than Thurmond did. He was the one that shouldered the responsibilities of talking to the media almost every day. He was the one who would help other guys during practice, and he was one of the first people on the field in the morning and one of the last to leave.
Head coach Chip Kelly raved about Thurmond’s passion for football. Every day this fall, I saw Thurmond taking extra reps after the final whistle to work on his returning abilities, and he would stay and help cover receivers so they could work on running routes with someone on them. He was selfless, and that’s why this injury is tough to see.
Thurmond is a senior this year and on numerous watch lists for preseason awards. He’s become such a vocal person on this team that everyone — including the media — gravitates to him a bit. It’s rough to see that his chance to play this year with all the hype has been taken away from him. We see it all the time when a player goes down with a serious injury, but it hurts just a little bit more because Thurmond is such a nice person.
Despite the injury, however, this Duck defense will be OK. Thurmond will still be a leader; he will just do it from the sideline. He came in late to practice yesterday after treatment with injured defensive back T.J. Ward, and as he walked onto the field, he was surveying the drills and commenting on different things and yelling out words of encouragement. And the replacements for he and Ward have really done an outstanding job. John Boyett, Javes Lewis and Willie Glasper have all played tremendously, and were in part why the Ducks looked like they didn’t even skip a beat on Saturday in holding Cal to three points. Boyett and Lewis are both underclassmen, so experience is still the biggest factor for those two, but so far their greenness hasn’t shown. At his Monday press conference, Kelly even said that Boyett has been playing like a wily veteran.
I’m not trying to marginalize the fact that losing Thurmond for the year is big — it is. What I’m saying is that everyone should take a deep breath and realize the Ducks will be fine in the long run. The Ducks have a tendency of stockpiling talent at different positions, and the secondary is one of them.
This is another watershed moment for the Ducks to prove what they’re worth. With eight more games to go in Pac-10 play, they can either make excuses or continue to play with the intensity and passion they played with against Cal.
My bet is for intensity and passion. Thurmond wouldn’t have it any other way.
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