Author’s note: ESPN stole my thunder with their exposé on pot smoking among football players at the University of Oregon, but I, too, have spent some time in the dark underbelly of Eugene. What I found is shocking.
It was a clear, black night in Eugene, with a clear, white moon shining in the February sky. A 19-year-old University of Oregon football player—let’s call him Cliff—stopped on the sidewalk outside of his apartment and bent down to re-tie his shoelaces. Before standing up he patted the “Nike” emblazoned on the tongue of his shoe. Three times.
“For luck,” he said. “Us JWs live life on the edge.”
“JW” I now knew, is street slang for “jaywalker.” And in Eugene, this dangerous practice has gone from an underground cult to a dangerous mainstream obsession thanks to the success of the Oregon Ducks football team and the backing of a corporate juggernaut, Nike, whose roots—I can now report for the first time—are found not in track and field but in jaywalking.
In places like Seattle, Los Angeles and Phoenix, jaywalking is nothing more than an urban legend, a vile practice that some refuse to even name. “Nobody does any of that “j-word” here,” said a prominent coach who prefers to remain anonymous. “Our players know it’s dangerous and addictive. We want to do things the right way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to a secret meeting with another team’s assistant coach that I want to hire during recruiting season.”
North of Eugene, in Beaverton, folks on the Nike campus like to say that the company is named for the Greek goddess of victory. But a source deep within the company knows the truth. “Phil Knight was straight up addicted to jaywalking as an Oregon student in the ‘50s. And amongst jaywalkers, Nike is their patron saint. So it was only natural that he name his company for the talisman that kept him safe.”
Further, according to my source, Knight’s coach while at Oregon, Bill Bowerman, is the person who introduced him to this insidious practice. The two would later partner up to create shoes for runners, but that was just a front. “Almost all of Bowerman’s runners were into jaywalking,” says the source. “The shoes they were making and selling weren’t for winning races at Hayward Field, but for dodging cars on Agate Street.”
Eventually the company had to go mainstream to survive, so they branched out into basketball and other legitimate sports. But Knight’s passion for jaywalking still burned, and in the mid-‘90s he decided to throw his significant financial weight behind the University of Oregon football team. “He has a lot of school pride,” my source says. “And he knew that jaywalking was still big in Eugene. So big that it was affecting the players’ performance on the field. They weren’t jaywalking properly, or they didn’t have the proper equipment. That’s where the Nike R&D labs come in.”
According to the NCAA, only 2% of STUDENT-athletes jaywalk. But in Eugene, that number is closer to 110%. How can more than 100% of their athletes jaywalk? The unusual number is due to the practice of “double jaywalking” perfected on Oregon’s campus, where a person will cross the road only to double back before reaching the opposite sidewalk. Only the most daring of jaywalkers will ever attempt this dangerous feat, but in Eugene, where that Nike money flows like water, everybody, it seems, is daring.
As we walk to campus, Cliff is telling me about his latest Nike gear. “This stuff is so lightweight and futuristic that I actually weigh less with it on. Phil Knight is a genius.” All of a sudden, he’s gone. I seem him cross the road without a crosswalk in sight, but in mere seconds he’s back at my side. He’s so fast I’m not sure the driver of the Prius he jumped in front of even knew of the danger he was unwittingly involved in.
“The whole world is my crosswalk!” Cliff shouts in jubilation.
While Cliff goes to class, I make a couple of calls to NFL scouts to get their thoughts on jaywalking. One says his team would never take a jaywalker. “We want more guys like Tebow. You think he ever jaywalks?” Another says they don’t care. “First of all, that NCAA number is bogus. It’s more like 90%. It’s almost weird to spend time with a kid who doesn’t jaywalk. Seriously, who has time for crosswalks?”
Later, Cliff and I make our way to a dealer’s house. Of course it’s on Polk Street (James K. Polk: 11th president, served only one term due to his extreme pro-jaywalking views). Dealers sell the stuff that Nike can’t, items outlawed by the federal government in its war on jaywalking. Car-proof pants, shoelaces blessed by the priestesses of the jaywalking cult of Zihuatanejo, and waterproof black paint guaranteed to cover crosswalk lines in one coat. The dealer tells me that he’s sold stuff to and jaywalked with just about every football player to come through Eugene since 2009.
“Of course Chip Kelly jaywalks. That dude is all about getting somewhere in a hurry.”