The night before having his Achilles tendon stitched back together, Justin Hollins wasn’t thinking about football.
Hollins was a freshman at Oregon having surgery for the first time. Before the anesthesia kicked in, his primary thought was, “I hope I wake up.”
Hollins went on to become one of the stalwarts on Oregon’s defense, accumulating 11 1/2 sacks in three years as a starting defensive end and outside linebacker. Before his final game at Autzen Stadium, Hollins tweeted a note of thanks to Don Jones, the team surgeon who saved his football career by repairing his Achilles.
“Without him I probably wouldn’t be in the position I am today,” Hollins said. “I probably wouldn’t even be here right now.”
Jones is retiring after nearly 40 years providing sports medicine for Oregon athletes. Last week was his final game on the sidelines of Autzen Stadium, and Friday will be his last Civil War.
As the team orthopedist, Jones specializes in lower extremities. Ruptured Achilles, fractured tibia, dislocated ankle — any Oregon football player unfortunate enough to suffer one of those injuries was likely to know Dr. Jones on a first-name basis.
The job gave Jones a unique perspective on the rise of Oregon football, from the Independence Bowl in 1989 to the College Football Playoff in 2014. He has 25 bowl and conference championship rings in his display case, and countless other memories from four decades of Duck football.
“It’s been memory after memory after memory,” Jones said. “It’s been a great run.”
Ironically, it was an ACL injury — his own — that brought Jones to Eugene the first time. Jones blew out his knee playing high school football in Shreveport, La. That was the 1960s, before knee surgeries were routine.
“It was just an injury,” Jones said. “You had a big, swelled knee and you continued to play.”
Jones went to medical school at LSU and was completing a residency in San Antonio when one of his supervisors noticed the limp. The supervisor ordered him to visit Don Slocum, a pioneering orthopedist in Eugene who specialized in sports medicine and reconstructive knee surgeries.
Jones flew to Eugene and had his knee repaired. When he was offered a chance to join Slocum’s practice at the end of his residency, Jones quickly accepted.
“Without that ACL injury in that particular stadium at that particular time, we never would have ended up in Eugene,” Jones said.
Slocum was renowned for his work with Oregon athletes and his collaboration with track coach Bill Bowerman. When Jones joined the Slocum Center for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in 1979, it was natural for him to start treating Oregon athletes as well.
Jones started working with the women’s basketball and track programs and shifted to football in the 1980s. As a diehard LSU fan, Jones was shocked the first time he was invited to a game at Autzen Stadium and saw 17,000 people in the stands.
“I said, ‘Where do you sit?’” Jones recalled. “They said, ‘Anywhere you want.’”
That quickly changed as the Ducks rose to prominence. Of all the defining moments, Jones cites the 1989 Independence Bowl — played at the same stadium in Shreveport where he injured his knee — as the sweetest one.
There were others, of course: Dino Philyaw’s touchdown reception in the 1994 Civil War, or Danny O’Neil’s drive to set up the famous Kenny Wheaton interception earlier that season. There were painful moments, too, none more so than the knee injury to quarterback Dennis Dixon in 2007.
Dixon injured his knee against Arizona State but elected to play against Arizona after a bye week. When Dixon’s knee buckled on the grass in Tucson, everyone knew the worst had happened.
“I remember seeing that happen on the field,” Jones said. “Without a doubt, we would have won the national championship that year.”
In sports medicine, Jones said, there’s a constant balance between players’ competitive drive and the medically prudent course of action. He spent his career counseling players and their families about injuries and recovery, and while the decisions weren’t always clear-cut, he feels fortunate in one respect.
In 40 years, Jones said, he never felt pressure from a coach to rush a player back from injury.
“I can honestly say that during my tenure at the University of Oregon, the player has always come first,” Jones said.
Jones will have one more Civil War and one more bowl trip before he retires from Slocum in mid-January. As he moves from the sidelines to the stands, he’ll have no shortage of rooting interests: His son-in-law, former Duck Peter Sirmon, is an assistant coach at Cal, and Peter’s son Jackson is a freshman linebacker at Washington.
And No. 1, of course, will always be the Ducks.
“It’s been a really great ride,” Jones said. “Our plate really will be full.”