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Wheaton, UO fans stay connected years after `The Pick'.

Byline: Ron Bellamy / The Register-Guard

THE FIRST LETTER found Kenny Wheaton in Detroit a few months ago, and to this day he's astonished by that, because who would have known he was in the Arena Football League, playing for a team called the Fury?

But there he was, "on one of my bad days," when he was reflecting on all that had transpired, from stardom at Oregon, to selection in the third round of the NFL draft, to three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, to injury and now to this - playing Arena Football, hanging on to his NFL dream by his fingernails.

And then came the letter. A fan letter, from an Oregon football fan who hadn't forgotten former Oregon cornerback Kenny Wheaton.

"It was `Wow,' it really picked me up," Wheaton said.

More letters from other Oregon fans would follow, eight to 10 in all over the course of the nine games Wheaton played for the Fury, a team that went just 1-13 this year, a team for whom Wheaton made 32 solo tackles and intercepted two passes.

"It was like being a little kid and not expecting to get anything on Christmas, but you end up getting eight to 10 gifts," he said. "That was unbelievable to me. ...

"I've always bragged on Oregon fans and said they're the greatest, because they have always treated me and my family with open arms. To this day, my mom still gets mail from Oregon fans. It makes all of us feel good to know that Kenny Wheaton was there, and that fans appreciate what I brought to University of Oregon sports."

Oh, the fans appreciate him. His game-saving 97-yard interception return for a touchdown against Washington in 1994, the turning point and defining moment of Oregon's Rose Bowl season, is still a fan favorite, so much so that when Oregon ran an abbreviated version in the pregame highlights on the MegaVision scoreboard earlier this season - as if to say that was ancient history - fans objected.

So now "The Pick" is there twice, the abbreviated version at the beginning of the highlights, and then the whole thing, and the play becomes the single moment that changed the dynamic of the Duck-Husky rivalry.

Until that victory, the Ducks had defeated the Huskies only three times in the previous 20 years and suffered more than a few heartbreakers, one of which was shaping up on Oct. 22, 1994, with Oregon clinging to a 24-20 lead and the Huskies driving, and virtually everyone in Autzen Stadium knowing that inevitably Washington would score.

The Ducks had lost five straight to the Huskies, and if they'd lost that game, there's no telling how long that streak would have gone.

But Wheaton, then a relatively unheralded redshirt freshman, saved the game and a lot more when he "jumped the out" pattern and stepped in front of UW receiver Dave Janoski to intercept a Damon Huard pass and run across the distant goal line with 49 seconds left, and run into a special place in Oregon history.

Starting with that game, the Ducks have won five of the last seven against the Huskies, and it can be truly said that UO football has never again been the same.

Wheaton played two more seasons for the Ducks, then passed up his senior year to enter the NFL draft in 1997. He stuck with the Cowboys through 1999, but hasn't played in the league since he suffered a knee injury that October.

The road back has been tough, with a second surgery required. It's also been a relatively solitary road for Wheaton, even with the support of his parents and older brother, and of his wife of more than a year, Franchell.

"These past couple of years have been very lonely," Wheaton said. "It would have been one thing if during my three years in the NFL I felt I couldn't compete and play at that level, but knowing that I could, and seeing how so many people have turned their backs on me, it was lonely.

"That's why I thank God, because He's definitely first in my life."

Now 27, Wheaton lives near Dallas, on money he saved from his contract with the Cowboys. He works with a personal trainer, whose emphasis is speed and who has Wheaton feeling confident in his knee and his game. The stint with the Fury - at the invitation of former UO defensive coordinator Rich Stubler - allowed Wheaton to prove that his knee is solid again, and a few weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs brought him in for a workout that left him feeling encouraged.

Still, he knows that the clock is ticking.

"I've sacrificed all these months and all this time to give it this last try this year," he said. "Worst-case scenario, if nothing happens before the end of the NFL season, I'll go into Arena again. After that, if I don't get a call, I'm finished. I'll have to walk away.

"I'll have done all I could do."

For Wheaton and his family, life since Oregon has brought tragedy. In November 1997, Wheaton's younger brother, Derrek, who was being recruited by Oregon as a defensive back, was killed in a drive-by shooting, in a case of mistaken identity. As Kenny Wheaton tells it, one man was convicted of the slaying and is serving life in prison, another got a 10-year sentence, another was acquitted and a fourth got immunity for testifying.

"I was bitter when it first happened," Wheaton said of the court outcomes. "Right now, I'm at a point where there's nothing I can do. What's done is done. We have to try to move on with our lives, and try to make the best of it.

"Do I agree? No. Do I lose sleep? No. As long as my mom and dad and older brother are blessed to wake up in the morning and talk to each other, that's fine."

Wheaton is still the only Oregon football player to pass up his senior year to enter the NFL draft.

"I don't regret my decision one bit," he said. "Even though the situation I'm in is the situation, I still don't regret it. If I'd done it all over again, I would leave also."

This season, two Oregon football players, running back Onterrio Smith and safety Keith Lewis, have indicated that they will consider leaving early.

"Lewis been putting up numbers like that, to think about coming out early?" Wheaton wondered. He did offer some advice, for those Ducks and any others.

"Number one, I would tell them to do what's in their heart and what they feel is right for them and no one else," he said. "And whatever decision they make, make it and don't look back; look forward and just go. Whatever happens is going to happen, but make sure it happens with you doing all you can do."

However, Wheaton said the Ducks also need to fully understand what they're getting into with the NFL.

"Oh man, it's a dirty business," he said. "It's very dirty. It's the real world. They're going to see a lot of people who are telling them now that they think so much of them, and they're behind them, and they're going to see those same people in a sense stab them in the back or turn their back on them.

"I mean, it's cutthroat. It's a lonely business when you're in, and it's even lonelier when you're out. But that's life. I've grown up so much, and I'm thankful to have a mom and dad and a big brother, and a wife who's been walking through this with me. I still feel lonely, but I'm a lot better because I have that support and care."

What Smith and Lewis must realize, Wheaton said, is the life-changing nature of that decision.

"That's a decision that as a young man you have to make, and that's a decision you have to live with for the rest of your life, and that's what I'm doing right now," he said. "I made that decision at early 20s, and now at 27 I have to live with that.

"That is what they really, truly have to understand, that there's no turning back. And if there's no turning back, don't even think about looking back. I can't continue to stress that enough. If there's any doubt, stay in school."

CAPTION(S):

Kenny Wheaton is remembered fondly for his interception that kept UO ahead of Washington.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Nov 12, 2002
Words:1419
Previous Article:Options plentiful for UO bowl bids.
Next Article:Injuries forcing Oregon State to consider redshirt quarterback.


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