Imagine walking through the streets of Eugene without seeing a Ducks jersey. Impossible.
Children, teenagers, college students and professionals alike take pride in representing their home team. Some locals even have jerseys older than the athletes playing these days. It’s a piece of clothing that isn’t only worn but also hung up on walls as memorabilia.
Flashy, ever-changing jersey’s are a hallmark of Oregon football uniforms, but the history of the Oregon jersey is greater than a different helmet here and bright socks there.
“They are bold pioneers breaking standard conventions,” said Todd Van Horne, Vice President Creative Director of Nike Special Projects. “Color, graphics and stories are all in play within their uniforms. Innovation has no limits for the Ducks.”
Van Horne is the head of a team that not only focuses on trendy designs and logos, but the practicality and safety of the new equipment before it reaches the field at Autzen stadium.
“Before any aesthetics, we focus on performance for the athlete first,” Van Horne said. “Uniforms are tested and proven in the Nike Sports Research lab and with on-field testing. Designing a uniform is a combination of art and science.”
The history of the Duck’s paradigm-shifting uniforms can be traced back to 1996, when Nike co-founder Phil Knight began a partnership with the Ducks in an effort to better attract future players to the team. The designs became flashier and changed evermore quickly, with the Ducks often switching uniforms on a weekly basis. But that’s not to say that the jersey’s before were unremarkable.
In the 1920s, white leather helmets were all the Duck’s could get to protect their heads. Yellow helmets came a few decades later, accompanied by white jerseys with dark green stripes. Every so often, the Ducks would switch it up a bit and wear dark green shirts with white stripes or some combination of green, white and yellow. This wasn’t atypical for college football teams of the time. The colors were the only distinguishing characteristic between schools.
In 1994, wearing a Donald Duck laden uniform, safety Kenny Wheaton ran 97 yards for a touchdown that cemented their win against the Huskies. In 2014, on the 20th anniversary game, the Ducks brought the uniform back as a slight taunt to the Huskies as well as an homage to one the most important games in Duck history.
The Ducks have a reputation for pushing the limits of what’s possible in regards to uniform changes and the symbolism attached to the colors and design. According to OPB, in 2013 UO raised upwards of $200,000 for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund by auctioning off the pink helmets worn as part of a uniform dedicated to breast cancer awareness.
But meaning comes in different forms. For players, it’s a physical reminder of dreams they’ve realized. Tony Brooks-James, a senior running back for the Ducks, can still remember his favorite jersey from when he was a teenager.
“I had a Dwayne Wade jersey when I was younger,” Brooks-James said. “I didn’t really wear too many jerseys, but he was my favorite basketball player.”
For Brooks-James, the jersey was more than a thin layer of clothing. It represented a possibility. The dream of being a professional athlete seemed distant until it could be seen, felt and worn.
“Every time I put a jersey on, I represent my passion and my future. It helps me be better because I don’t want to represent that in a bad way,” said Brooks-James.
For Oregon, designing the uniforms is a team process. Everyone’s voice is heard, from the players to the coaches.
Since 2010, Kenny Farr has been the Football Equipment Administrator, in charge of ordering apparel and equipment for the team. Farr also acts as a liason who coordinates meetings between Nike’s design team and the players and coaches. Farr said players offer suggestions for future uniforms, whether it’s color and pattern design or functionality. For Farr, the most important suggestions always concern comfort.
“I want a player to be as protected and as comfortable as possible in the uniform and equipment so that he can focus on being the best player he can be on the field,” Farr said.
Farr’s personal contributions range from simple accessories to the color of the socks.
“I work with the players every day so I get to know the things they like and don’t like,” Farr said. “Things like the color of the cleats, gloves, socks, helmets and wristbands.”
While it may appear that players get a new jersey every week, it’s actually somewhere around four per season. According to Farr, the uniforms are designed in order to be mixed and matched as to appear brand new on a week-by-week basis. This unpredictability has become the centerpiece for how the Oregon Ducks have changed the way college football uniforms are viewed.
“Some schools have the tradition to never change their uniforms and I have a lot of respect for that,” Farr said. “At Oregon, we have developed a tradition of changing uniforms, which has coincided with our program performing well on the field.”
Placing value in an ever-changing wardrobe of uniforms might seem pointless to some viewers who are more concerned with a player’s stats rather than a quarterback’s socks and helmet matching. Farr argues that taking pride in external appearance helps players and fans alike feel confident about the game.
“I think Oregon and Nike were on the tip of the spear for the evolution of multiple uniforms in college football,” Farr said. “Due to our success on the field and its popularity with recruits, a lot of other teams have adopted that same philosophy.”
Jerseys aren’t only for the players. A fan buying a favorite player’s jersey is perhaps the single most effective way to show support for the individual as well as the team. It acts as a constant reminder that without the fans, the players wouldn’t exist in the same way.
UO graduate Michael Jordan (not the former NBA player) owns two seperate Ducks jerseys. A dark green Josh Huff jersey and a Royce Freeman apple-green “fighting ducks” jersey. His favorite jersey of all time was the “fighting Ducks” jersey worn against Cal in 2011. The fighting Ducks was a special logo featured on a select number of Jerseys and helmets that year. For Jordan, the jersey symbolizes a chance to be part of something larger than himself.
“The Jersey is a way for the fan to feel like a member of the team,” Jordan said. “It’s nice that it supports the athletic department, but I didn’t buy them with that in mind. It’s like a miniature role play situation for me. The jersey is a fun part of the gameday ritual.”