Kenny Wheaton got “The Pick.”
Andy Nelson took the pic.
The most iconic play in Oregon football history, which for many fans marked the turning point of a program that would go on to major bowl games and play in two national championship games, is verbally recalled through Jerry Allen’s viral radio call as “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score!”
Visually, it was Nelson who best captured the moment when Wheaton surged forward in pass coverage and intercepted Washington quarterback Damon Huard before beginning his 97-yard journey down a sideline to the end zone, featuring an array of stunned spectators.
The sideline reporter jumping in the air, an assistant athletic director pointing Wheaton toward the end zone, a couple of ball boys with stunned looks and a father holding his daughter in one arm while pumping his fist with the other — those are among the images frozen in time from the photograph that ran in The Register-Guard on Oct. 23, 1994, following Oregon’s 31-20 win over the ninth-ranked Washington Huskies that spurred a run to the Rose Bowl.
Oregon led 24-20 when Washington reached the 9-yard line with just over one minute remaining in the game. Nelson was on the south sideline, prepared if the Huskies scored on that side of the field or celebrated on the way to their bench. Instead, Wheaton intercepted the pass at the 3-yard line and headed down the field as the atmosphere at Autzen Stadium suddenly turned to pandemonium.
If it was taken today, Nelson would have looked at the screen on his camera to immediately see if he got the digital frame in focus, but back then he had to drive to the newspaper office and wait for the film to be developed.
“The thing I remember more than anything is that those were the days of no auto focus, shooting film, and I remember thinking ‘I sure hope I have that in focus,' ” recalled Nelson, who remains a Register-Guard photographer. “I probably didn’t know for an hour and a half whether or not that picture existed. I was just happy when we got back that it was exposed properly and in focus because that would not have been good if we didn’t have a picture of that. When I saw the picture of the interception, I circled it and just wrote down ‘Pick.'”
A frame of fame
“Where were you for the The Pick?” has remained a familiar refrain from Duck fans during the past 25 years. Nearly 75 people — including maybe a dozen in purple — can point to Nelson’s photo and document their viewing spot for perhaps the most important moment in Oregon football history.
Mike Barrett, an Oregon Sports Network sideline radio reporter at the time, gained probably the most fame from the frame when he was captured in midair while raising both of his arms.
“It was not until I saw the picture that I realized I leaped in the air,” said Barrett, who went on to be a television broadcaster for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and is now the managing partner for the Portland Diamond Project baseball organization. “I went to Oregon State and grew up in Albany, but a lot of my Beaver friends don’t know that’s me and I won’t tell them. Then I’ll be at someone’s house, even these days, and this (photo) is hanging up. It’s cool to be part of that.”
It’s a similar feeling for Michael Holsapple, whose father, Hunt, was the director of ticket operations at Oregon from 1982 to 1998. Holsapple was a 16-year-old ball boy in the photo with a football in each hand and his mouth agape as Wheaton ran past him.
“I’ve gone to meetings with clients and, now and then, one of them will have that picture, and I go through the meeting before saying ‘That’s me on your wall',” recalled Holsapple, who is a senior account manager for Dysis in Phoenix. Arizona. “Whenever you talk to somebody who has been an Oregon football fan for a while, the first thing they bring up is The Pick. I tell them ‘I’m the ball boy'.”
Doug Gubrud was preparing to beat the crowd out of Autzen Stadium when he headed down to the walkway behind Oregon’s bench with his 3-year-old daughter, Emelia, in his left arm. He then raised his right hand as Wheaton intercepted the pass directly in front of him.
“I recall the next morning thinking ‘I was right there where he was running',” said Gubrud, the owner of Imperial Flooring. “I opened the paper and saw the picture. I couldn’t believe it.”
Emelia Gubrud, a nurse anesthetist in Portland who will be married later this year in Eugene, was attending her first Oregon football game.
“I just remember being in my dad’s arms and when he jumped up, he had these big binoculars that came up and hit me in the mouth and cut my lip,” she said. “I remember bleeding. That’s my memory of The Pick. I guess it is a small price to pay to be part of Oregon football history.”
Dave Heeke was an assistant athletic director for the Ducks who was photographed pointing toward the west end zone.
“I wanted to make sure Kenny was running in the right direction,” joked Heeke, who is now the athletic director at the University of Arizona. “An amazing moment.”
'Here we go again'
Washington had won five straight over Oregon entering the 1994 game and 17 of the previous 20 matchups. Both teams were 2-1 in Pac-10 play, but the Huskies had nonconference wins over Ohio State and Miami while the Ducks had losses to Utah and Hawaii.
Oregon went ahead 24-20 when senior quarterback Danny O’Neil led the team on what appeared to be the first fourth-quarter game-winning drive of his career. Then the Huskies converted a couple of third downs and a fourth down to move inside the 20-yard line, where running back Napoleon Kaufman seemed likely to find the end zone.
“Here come the Huskies methodically moving down the field, and I remember passing by Hunt Holsapple and he looked at me like ‘Here we go, they are going to score on us',” Heeke said.
A similar feeling led Doug Gubrud to leave his seat and get a head start toward the exit.
“For years, I would go to football games with my dad and he’d say that the Huskies always beat us on some funky, fluky turnover and take it away from us,” he said. “This time, we had the turnover that won the game.”
The Huskies were in field goal range, but needed a touchdown to beat the Ducks.
“Growing up watching the Pac-10 and seeing Washington as the powerhouse it was, they would always seem to rip your heart out one way or another,” Barrett said. “Then Kaufman and Huard started the drive and you are almost preparing mentally for ‘Here we go again.' Then out of nowhere, instead of handing off to Kaufman a couple more times and punching it in, they throw to the side and Kenny reads it and steps in front.”
Marques Green was a 10-year-old ball boy who usually worked on the visitors’ sideline, but he switched over that day because one of his coworkers knew a player for the Huskies. He’s carrying a large ball bag over his shoulder while staring at Wheaton in the photo.
“Listening to the crowd’s crescendo as Wheaton ran it back was very intense,” said Green, a former football and basketball star at Willamette High School who owns a basketball training company in China called SKooo Hoops. “I also remember trying to get that ball back to the refs and let’s just say that ended up being a loss.”
There was no social media at the time, but Oregon found a way to pass Allen’s radio call along to its fans.
“We made it our voicemail greeting,” Heeke said. “It was ‘Thank you for calling Oregon athletics, press one to speak to a representative, or to hear the great call by Jerry Allen, stay on the line.' That Monday afternoon, the whole phone system crashed because everyone called to hear it.”
The win over the Huskies turned out to be the second of six straight to close out the conference season and wrap up Oregon’s first conference title in 37 years. The Ducks have won or shared eight conference titles since that time while going 18-6 against Washington.
“The legacy of Oregon football comes from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti and that progression started with the interception,” Michael Holsapple said. “If that interception doesn’t happen, Oregon football is not on the map as it is today. It’s not the brand it is now.”
Heeke had been at Oregon for almost eight years at the time of The Pick and stayed an additional 11 before leaving to become athletic director at Central Michigan.
“That was a big game for flipping things at Oregon,” he said. “There are moments in time that help you jump over big hurdles and that was definitely one of them. People started to believe, and the way the season played out in the Rose Bowl, it continued to build. Now you look back at it as such a monumental year.”
Nelson’s photograph is a snapshot of a different era in sports.
“The thing I love about that picture is how everybody is in the moment,” he said. “Nobody is recording the game on their phone, there are no distractions. People are wearing jeans and T-shirts and some are in yellow or green, but it’s not like ‘Today, we wear green.' It is very much a throwback. It shows pure joy. To me, the purity of that picture is that people are going bananas and really enjoying that particular moment.”
Barrett noted the difference when he was on the call for another shocking sports moment five years ago as Damian Lillard made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Portland Trail Blazers past Houston 99-98 in Game 6 of an NBA playoff series that sent the Blazers into the second round.
“Wheaton was pre-camera phones, but Lillard’s wasn’t, so everybody had their own vision of it,” Barrett said. “All the views on YouTube and all those different angles. That’s why the Wheaton picture is so revered because there weren’t many pictures like that, a click literally at the moment that catches everyone in the background in shock. We don’t see that anymore because everyone is a photographer. Back then it took great timing and focus to grab a shot like that so maybe that is why it is so special.”
The Ducks and Huskies face off Saturday in Seattle, three days before the 25th anniversary of Wheaton’s interception that is still played on the videoboard before or during each game at Autzen.
“When we go to Oregon games and they play the highlight reel to get the crowd amped up, it always gives me goosebumps when they show The Pick and Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score,” Emelia Gubrud said. “I didn’t know it then, but I was right there with my dad, so that is a piece of UO history we can look back on and say that we were a part of.”
The photo still hangs in bars and restaurants around the state. The Gubruds have the picture framed in their home, as does Barrett.
“It’s a conversation starter,” Barrett said. “Everyone says ‘I heard about that, I was there, or this is what I was doing at that time.' It’s neat the amount of conversation and relationships this has sparked and continued through the years. Scanning the picture, which I’ve done on every face, the agony on one side and the joy on the other, you see the true emotion and human element of sport. Where else do you see that in daily life? Close a business meeting and make a deal and jump in the air like that? It doesn’t happen. It takes a moment like that in sports.”
The photo remains one of the most memorable ever featured in The Register-Guard.
“Most people wouldn’t know that I took the picture, but when they find out, I think it’s neat that they recognize the fact it was a cool moment that I was able to capture,” Nelson said.