The Duck is awake, forever.
It is 5:55 a.m. Pacific time. He sits on the back of a motorcycle in the dark, pointed down the middle of a long tunnel made of Oregon band members. TV people push sleep-zonked students and randos away to clear room for the camera crew. An empty Rolling Rock can is on the ground.
The Duck should be awake. He has no eyelids and no need to sleep. His energy is inhuman, literally and figuratively. He showed up at a band meeting at 5:15 with the same expression he wears forever: pupils flared almost to the limits of his eyes, a thin margin of white outlining them, and the broad permagrin of his bill leading the way at eye level. The Duck could be about six feet tall, but I would be lying if I said he didn't feel a whole foot taller because of the mouth staring you right in the face.
He will make no fewer than four major appearances today, rolling out on the motorcycle twice, leading the football team through a walk-through, wandering the tailgates pre-game, and finally working the entire game in 93-degree heat without a break. The Duck will jump out of a bus and onto a platform. He will shadow-box with the Michigan State mascot. He will not fight today, but he could. In 2007, The Duck and Shasta, the Houston Cougars mascot, engaged in a very real brawl on the field during a 48-27 Oregon win.
After each Oregon score, he will do as many pushups as his team has points at that moment. Oregon will score 46 points today. He will do 179 pushups.
The lights go on. The crowd is cued to cheer. The Duck grabs his rider, and the bike lunges at a disturbing speed toward the set. The second college football Saturday of 2014 begins with that image: a giant duck riding a motorcycle through the woods in the dark, his eyes bolt-open and looking like madness on the wing.
The Duck is only The Duck.
There is this kind of effect with any mascot: 50 feet away it is funny, at 10 it is mildly off-putting, and at six inches from your nose a mascot is the very Platonic ideal of soul-estranged terror. The Duck up close can be this kind of terrifying, because there is a real question of what to do when, after he notices you, he walks up and begins mean-mugging you and ... wants to fight? Or something?
Somehow, chest to chest with a duck, you feel like the interloper in the scene, the one who makes no sense whatsoever.
Then, at the moment you feel like backing away, he does some light twerking against the wall of an adjacent port-o-let.
The Duck knows all this, and how each move fits into the scene. Oregon's mascot might have originally been taken wholesale from Donald Duck, and secured in rights for life via a handshake deal between Walt Disney, a cartoonist, and the Oregon athletic director. Yet this is not Donald in a suit, or even a thing your brain recognizes as "clearly a person wearing a suit." It is a self-actualized character, a thing that knows exactly when to appear without warning in a group selfie.
If there are people inside the suit, they don't choose The Duck. The Duck chooses them, and they are merely along for the ride. The Duck is The Duck. If he's firing Voodoo Doughnuts into the "College GameDay" crowd with a slingshot, he's not waiting for anyone to turn around. He sure as hell isn't giving any warning about incoming pastry.
There are no people inside the suit, though. There is a real, giant duck sleeplessly roaming Eugene at all times. He does exactly what he wants. He asks no permissions.
The Duck is a listener.
And he's a good one, despite having no visible ears. One older Oregon fan shakes his hand like he's meeting an alderman and congratulates The Duck on doing a great job today. The Duck cannot respond. He does not talk, and can't, despite whatever rumors you heard about him whispering to Lee Corso on the ESPN set on Saturday.
People tell stories to The Duck. Like, long stories, both about Oregon football and just about life. They ask for selfies, an endless stream of selfies. They hug, manhandle, and duckhandle him in crowd situations. He's game. The Duck, because he is a giant, man-sized waterfowl walking the earth pantsless, has no fear of crowds. He barges through them with an insistence bordering on the comedically antisocial.
For example, post-"GameDay," The Duck is posing for pictures on one side of a crowd by the stage. He needs to get back up to the stage for more photographs. What you or I would do would be a long chain of pardon me's, excuse me's, and gentle partings of the seas with a hand. You would nudge, cajole, and murmur politely. You would people the hell out of the situation.
What The Duck does: he puts his hands to his side and shuffles forward silently. It is important to note here that West Coast people usually have a very specific and exagerrated notion of personal space. Bump into a New Yorker, and he or she will assume you are just as terrible a human being as he or she is, maybe mumbling a profanity or two before sprinting away. Bump into a Best Coaster, and you have A SITUATION, BRO. Hands will be thrown apart in wide disbelief; apologies must be made.
The Duck does neither. He butts his way through without raising a hand, slowly inching his way through the crowd with only his manic, fixed facial expression as apology. It works, too. You are being pushed aside in tiny, stuttering increments by a giant waterfowl. Asking for any explanation makes you the asshole, not him.
The Duck is a head of state.
"We're going this way," says one of The Duck's handlers. He travels with two or three of them at all times, since while The Duck does not get lost, he doesn't exactly stay on task, either. He stops to jump into a crowd to live-heckle a Michigan State fan. He falls back 50 feet to take yet another selfie.
He has his own Secret Service, and he periodically enjoys almost losing it in crowds.
"We're going? Okay, we're going."
The handlers don't guide The Duck so much as follow him at a half-jog through a pair of double doors into the Moshofsky Center, Oregon's gigantic indoor practice facility. This is Oregon's version of the stadium walk: a tunnel of human hands extended out, the team and the band walking through exchanging high-fives, and bounding ahead of them all, The Duck, slapping hands and boinging along like a linebacker fresh off a violent sack.
And this is all pure illusion, but running along behind The Duck's executive staff and trying to take pictures and not get caught up in the moment, this feels like something entirely different. This feels like the anchor leg of a political campaign, with the leading candidate running through a photo-op with the wind of a 10-point lead at his back. The Duck has been confessional, public heckler, totem, and cuddler-for-hire today. For these two minutes, the rest of the football team, strangely humanoid and vulnerable-looking without pads, is some kind of unattached afterthought to a few minutes of open animal worship.
The Duck in full.
The bus door opens and The Duck, wearing the kind of paper crown a kid gets at Burger King, tries to jump out majestically onto a waiting golden platform held by cheerleaders.
He catches the edge of a webbed foot on the edge of the platform and bellyflops onto it with a heinous, loud *THWACK*. The cheerleaders lurch, but The Duck recovers, stands up, and fights his way through some tree limbs before surfing onto the set of "GameDay" as the week's guest picker.
The Duck has to make every pick without speaking, yet somehow manages to derail the segment completely on several occasions. He nudges Kirk Herbstreit with a horse mask on a stick. He pokes Desmond Howard with a giant green foam hand. There is no less than five pounds of sugar The Duck has shoveled everywhere: into his face, all over the desk, at and over Chris Fowler, and into a giant bowl he stops to eat from while the other four cast members struggle to stay on track.
(From the wings I hear someone yell out: "That's how you get ants!")
That's appropriate. This is, from a television perspective, pure "Archer," a series of interactions devolving into accelerated chaos centering on one character who cannot be put on script.
The Duck starts a "U-S-A" chant on-air. His props fail, then work, with delayed comic effect, like when he bashes at a toy rocket until it finally pops off the launch pad and into the ceiling. When Herbstreit picks Michigan State, The Duck opens fire with a toy gun and begins heaving cereal across the desk. When he is asked to make his pick, The Duck pulls out a cubic, "Minecraft"-looking version of his own head.
Corso gets a gift-wrapped Duck head of his own, and the two embrace as Fowler pulls a glass of red wine from thin air, toasting the event as the Oregon Cheer team rushes the stage. The Duck is fist-pumping and hugging a 79-year-old man wearing a duck head.
The show ends. The crew dashes off set to the airport. Herbstreit and Fowler have to call the USC-Stanford game, and the others have to scramble to Bristol and parts unknown. The set is empty except for The Duck. He sits at a chair in the confetti and the sugar and the littered toys and props he's thrown all over the set. He has no reason to leave. It's his now.