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From QB to DDS.

Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

If you were wondering how many dentists have landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated since the magazine debuted 60 years ago this month, well, Dr. Jason Fife thinks he knows the answer:

"I think I'm the only one," the former University of Oregon quarterback says with a chuckle, sitting in the office he shares with Dr. J. Michael Furgason on Coburg Road. "I think I can safely say I'm it."

You would think.

But a subsequent Internet search reveals there's at least one more: 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon of Louisiana State University - who graced the cover of an SI special issue in 2011, long after his playing days - also became a dentist after his football career.

Of course, when he landed on the magazine's Sept. 29, 2003, cover, Fife was not yet a dentist and, in fact, had never considered the idea.

He was a senior quarterback for the nation's 10th-ranked team who was incredulous that he was an SI cover boy after the Ducks upset mighty Michigan, 31-27, in front of a then-record crowd of 59,023 at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 20, 2003.

But that was really Fife, leaping into the end zone after a 15-yard touchdown run, the headline screaming "Dazzling Ducks: Rich, Cool and 4-0 (Quack, Quack)."

"What are you doing?"

Fife, though, was hoping that was just the beginning of better things to come for his football career. He had dreamed of playing quarterback in the National Football League since he was a boy growing up in Southern California, where he also did some acting as a child. (Google "Jason Fife Addams Family Values.")

After graduating in 1999 from Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore, Calif., where he quarterbacked the team to the division title game his senior year, Fife joined the Ducks as a redshirt freshman that fall.

He backed up all-time great and Heisman Trophy finalist Joey Harrington during the historic 2001 season that culminated in a final No. 2 ranking for Oregon; became the starter in 2002; and split time with fellow future pro Kellen Clemens in 2003.

After the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Fife graduated from the UO with a degree in general sciences, he was not drafted in 2004 but signed as a free agent with the Detroit Lions, the same team that had made Harrington the No. 3 pick overall two years earlier. Fife was cut before the season began, though.

He would pursue the dream for another four years, suiting up for the likes of the Dsseldorf Rhein Fire of NFL Europe before making the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints for two seasons and then playing for two Arena League Football teams.

But unlike lots of college and professional football players, Fife had a backup plan.

He remembers studying for the Dental Admission Test, or DAT, a prerequisite for applying to dental school, in the locker room of his last team, the Dallas Desperados of the Arena Football League, when a teammate said: "What are you doing? You're kidding, right? You're gonna play football, right?"

No, Fife eventually had no desire to play football until he was 40; to watch his body fall apart and take too many hits to the head until he wasn't sure of his own name.

After shadowing his brother-in-law, Dr. Adam Willis, a dentist in Broomfield, Colo., for a week a few years ago, Fife decided to apply for dental schools around the nation.

"It's right up your alley; it's something you'd totally like," he said Willis told him.

Four-year game plan

Fife applied at the School of Dentistry at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, at both USC and UCLA's dental schools and at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry in Oklahoma City, among others.

It was the latter that almost accepted him in 2008. He was the "third alternate," meaning at least three students who were accepted would have to decline in order to make a spot for him.

It didn't happen.

"That's the way my life has always worked," Fife said. "I kind of learned that from football."

He had to wait his turn to start for the Ducks. He waited for his chance to play in a regular-season NFL game, which would never happen. And he would have to apply for dental school all over again.

Told getting a job in the dental industry wouldn't hurt on his second application, Fife asked Furgason for some help.

A fellow OU College of Dentistry graduate who met Fife in 2002 at the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints on River Road, Furgason put him in touch with a company called Optident, a dental supplier firm. Fife got a job for a year as a sales manager in the Eugene-Springfield area.

He and his wife, Rebekah, who he met and married while both were UO students, and their two children at the time, moved in with her parents in Cottage Grove. Fife applied for the OU dental school the next year, and this time he was accepted.

Not that it would be easy.

"People who aren't used to stress and stressful situations don't do well in dental school," Fife said. "But I looked at it like fall camp in football." Only it would last four years, not four weeks.

Just like in training for a football season, he would be sleep-deprived and become drained emotionally and physically.

But four years and a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree later, Fife is once again living here in Eugene, having joined Furgason's practice in May.

"I realized it was the type of profession that would fit my personality and skill set," Fife said. "I love talking with people." And the "fine, little motor movements" of dentistry came naturally because he is somewhat ambidextrous, he said.

Although he throws a football right-handed, he writes and eats left-handed. He's also a left-handed dentist, sitting on a patient's left side, and mentions the oft-held notion that left-handers use the right side of their brains for creative and artistic purposes.

"There's a certain art form to it," Fife said of dentistry.

A silver lining

Giving up his NFL dream was, naturally, very disappointing, Fife said. It's something he worked hard for and dreamed about through high school and college.

"I feel very strongly that God had a path for me, and it wasn't going to be in professional sports," Fife said. "And I wasn't sure why. And then, a couple of years later, you look back and see, 'Wow, He was actually setting me up to be more successful.' "

Walking away from pro football would mean there would be no worries about sustaining brain damage from multiple hits to the head, or not being able to play with his four kids - Gwen, 9; Logan, 7; Grayson, 4; and Kal, 1 - because he had no cartilage left in his knee.

"I've been able to avoid an injury that would have seen lasting effects," Fife said. "You move on and find a silver lining. And that is definitely a silver lining."

Fife said he only sustained one concussion playing football, and that came in the UO's 2003 spring game when future NFL all-pro defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, 6-foot-5 and 345 pounds when he played for the Ducks, fell on his head after a play.

Back to Eugene

Mike Bellotti, Fife's coach at Oregon and now a college football analyst for ESPN and ABC, said he is not the least bit surprised that Fife made it through dental school and found another path for his life after football.

"He was a great young man (to coach) and people will like him. I can't attest to his dental skills," Bellotti said with a laugh.

"But he was the kind of young man who brought a smile every day, and I knew he would be successful."

Fife said he and his family are thrilled to be back in Eugene.

"You never really appreciate something until you know you don't have it," he said. "All the places we've been, you start appreciating the Northwest more. After being in Detroit, New Orleans, Germany, Oklahoma ... My wife and I quickly realized Eugene is where we wanted to be. And the people here are great."

Furgason is glad that Fife made the choice to pursue dentistry.

"I always wanted a partner, but he was the kind of person I wanted," said Furgason, 44, who grew up in North Bend before attending Oregon State University. "He's kind and compassionate ... a lot of fun."

They talked about working together, and joked about, during Fife's first couple of years of dental school in Oklahoma, but Fife was not sure if Furgason was serious about it.

All mascots welcome

Furgason said he actually had a "spy" at the OU dental school, checking on Fife. Reports came back that Fife was doing well, that he was a "good clinician."

They solidified their plan during Fife's final year of dental school.

By this time, Furgason said his practice was beyond capacity, so the timing was good.

Furgason has been slowly shuffling some of his patients, who are comfortable with making a change, into Fife's hands.

Patients like UO football fan Lindy Moore, who came to the office on Tuesday to have Fife check on a recent filling.

"He's a great guy and the schedule worked out better," Moore said. "And he's fabulous."

Fife wheeled up to her left side and used a mouth mirror and scaler to take a look at the filling on the lower left said of Moore's mouth.

Then he used a power instrument to smooth some rough spots on the tooth.

"That OK, Lindy?" Fife asked.

She gave the universal response for yes when in a dental chair and your mouth is open: "Gaww-huh."

And, no, he doesn't see only patients who are Duck fans.

"It's OK if they say they're a Beaver fan, because that's still the state of Oregon," Fife joked. "It's when they say 'Husky fan' that it's ... 'Get out of that chair!' "

Added Moore: "I'm especially a Duck fan when I'm in this chair."

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG. Email mark.baker@registerguard.com.
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 10, 2014
Words:1698
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