The Secret Life of the Duck

First published in Around the O.

The University of Oregon’s beloved mascot never speaks. But those who have been the famous fowl have tales to tell.
Story By Sarah Lorge Butler
Photo Illustrations by Kelly Alexander

Over the years, the University of Oregon Duck has lounged in a lawn chair on the sideline of the Civil War game, coloring in a coloring book. The Duck has found himself (or is that “herself”? “Itself”?) in an impromptu dance-off against a cheerleader from the University of Southern California—and won, with a showstopping version of “the Worm.” The Duck has done countless pushups after touchdowns and served one very well-publicized suspension after the Houston Cougar ruffled those lily-white feathers. The Duck has gone to hospitals and made sick kids laugh, mastered social media with an unforgettable performance of “Gangnam Style,” and walked the entire six-mile route of the Rose Bowl parade. The Duck has turned up at countless university receptions, sometimes posing as a statue. When an unsuspecting guest walks by with a plate of food, the Duck suddenly moves—and the food goes flying.

Authority figures—head coaches, security guards, dignitaries—can’t govern the Duck. The Duck is going to do what the Duck wants to do.

In fact, there’s only one thing the Duck won’t do: speak.

But that’s about to change. For the first time ever, the Duck—or should we say, those who have been the Duck—is opening that big orange bill to share stories, memories, and laughs from over the years. What’s life like as the beloved bird? How hot is it in there? Has the Duck ever gotten into scrapes that might be almost impossible to get out of? What does it feel like when the crowd goes wild?

The alumni who follow were only too happy to share their tales as one of the nation’s most iconic collegiate mascots. We’re keeping them anonymous to protect the innocent—and also the mystique of the UO’s web-footed wonder. But one thing can’t be concealed: it’s a heckuva lot of fun being the Duck.

The Duck crowdsurfing

When Ducks Attack

We were playing the Houston Cougars [2007]. The first time Houston scored, their Cougar went out to the 10-yard line and started doing pushups on our field.

The guy in the suit—a number of us would be the Duck at any given time—was not having it. He starts yelling at the Cougar—the Cougar reaches up and pushes the bill of the Duck, and they start getting into a shoving match. Both student sections are going nuts.

At halftime, we’re up in the cheer room talking to the Cougar. And we’re like, “Look, that got a huge reaction out of the crowd, let’s plan something for the second half. The next time you score a touchdown, we’ll roll around a bit, you get a couple of blows in, we’ll get a couple blows in.”  

The Duck fighting with the Cougar mascot

Sure enough, they score, the Cougar comes out for pushups. But the Duck, instead of a couple of punches, he just kept going. He shoves the guy over, and the crowd is going insane. 

The university wanted to suspend the mascot but didn’t know who the mascot was. It’s anonymous. And the cheer coach said, “Well, it’s all of them. You have to suspend the Duck.” —Duck no. 1

Yeah, my first football game, I fought the Cougar. I’d had a few energy drinks called Whoop Ass. I’m pretty sure they’re not sold anymore. I don’t hurt him, he doesn’t hurt me. He took me down and tackled me. I fake-punched him. There were some inappropriate gestures. The team gave me the game ball. —Duck no. 2

We were suspended for two games. The second game of the suspension was the next home game. [Athletics] had me bring the suit up to the press box and they put me on the Jumbotron. I stuck my head out the window and as I looked down at the crowd in Autzen, I put my arms up, and everyone turned around to look up at me. I had a standing ovation from the crowd. I felt heroic. I felt like the greatest Duck on earth. —Duck no. 3

The Days of Daisy Duck

It was the spring of 1983 and I was part of an ambassador group welcoming people who would come to visit—alumni and prospective students. We were there to help with school spirit. 

Someone had stolen the male Duck costume. So I was wearing the girl Duck costume, Daisy Duck. It was a funny outfit—it came just to the top of my legs. I had yellow tights, some sort of duck feet, a feather carpet from the top of my legs to top of chest and arms. And I had a head with long eyelashes and green makeup on the eyes. 

There were no tryouts; I had no training, no guidelines. It bore no resemblance to the current Duck, but there was a reaction: laughter and silliness. It brought joy and smiles to people, even then.

The Duck in a big city

Love from the Little Ones

It’s 2002, and basketball and volleyball are still in Mac Court. The Duck goes in and out of the games, sits in the stands, walks the hallways.

This tiny girl with a little blond ponytail stopped me in the hall and motioned for me to lean over. So I did, and she whispered in my ear, “You’re my most favorite duck in the world.” She was saying all these sweet little things that a kid tells someone or something that they believe in. The way she was looking at me, it was like the way you see a kid going up to Santa. She was in awe.

I can’t say anything, because the Duck doesn’t talk. But I was getting misty-eyed in the suit. I just patted her on the head and let her have a moment.

A Sprint for Survival

In 2015, our football team gets to the national championship. I’m standing near the entrance to the tunnel. Someone activates the fog machines right in front of the cheerleaders, and I see the entire cheer team take off out of the tunnel. What is going on? I look over and see this guy yelling, “GO!” So I step to the side. And he’s like, “No, GO!” The last guy on the cheer team had just passed me and some were already at the 50-yard line. I look back in the tunnel and I see the football team coming. And I go, “Oh, s***.” They want me to run.

The football team was in cleats sprinting out of the tunnel and I’m in a big floppy suit. They’re going to truck me. I just took off as fast as I could, trying to catch up with the cheer team. It was a fight or flight instinct.

We looked at the clip later, it was the perfect timing of all of these things that happened. Fireworks going off while this awkward Duck comes sprinting out. One of the headlines the next day: “Oregon’s Mascot Was Ducks’ Lone Highlight in National Championship Loss.”

Top 40 Fame

The Duck on stage in a fur coat
Photo credit: @ericevansphoto

The hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis was coming to Eugene for a concert at Matthew Knight Arena in 2013, and their song “Thrift Shop” was really popular. 

I wanted to get on stage and perform with Macklemore to that song. I got in contact with his management. They were down for it as long as I could get a fur coat that would fit the Duck, because Macklemore wears one in the music video and he’d be wearing it on stage. I ended up going somewhere super sketchy and getting a giant $300 fur jacket that fit the Duck. 

As soon as the chorus dropped on “Thrift Shop,” I came out. I stayed on for the rest of the song, and I ended up giving Macklemore a piggyback ride. Everyone was going crazy. There aren’t too many opportunities in your life you can be with a guy with a song in the Top 40 and give him a piggyback on stage. 

“I ended up going somewhere super sketchy and getting a giant $300 fur jacket that fit the Duck.”

A Marcus Mariota Moment

I’m at an away game in California. It’s brutally hot, and it’s always 20 degrees hotter in the suit. 

Fourth quarter, I go into one of the tunnels and take off my head and try to rehydrate. I look like a hot mess. I’m sweating profusely, red in the face, I’m trying to catch my breath. We are doing well in the game, and they pull Marcus Mariota and the second-string quarterback comes in for him. 

So I’m there sitting up against the wall, having multiple Gatorades, and Mariota comes running down the tunnel. He looks at me and says, “Hey, you’re doing a great job, man.” I was like, what? Marcus Mariota, the Heisman Trophy candidate, is complimenting the mascot right now? He’s the nicest guy ever. 

Rubbing Feathers with Jimmy Fallon

The Duck in a locker room
Photo credit: Lloyd Bishop

The year of the national championship in 2015, there’s so much demand for the Duck. I get a call to go do a bit on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It’s my first time in New York, so I go to Central Park, I eat a hotdog in Times Square, and then I bring my suit to Rockefeller Center. I’m thinking, “This is not normal. I am 22 years old. I’m living this rock star life. This is all so crazy to me.” 

I have my own dressing room, and I’m waiting while they film the regular show. I get suited up without the head. They’re setting up the stage so we can do the bit, which is a music video, a power ballad about Oregon. And it takes them about two hours to fix up the set. 

Jimmy Fallon comes out and he is dressed head-to-toe with legit Oregon football gear, except for the helmet. He tells me to sit with him on the stage, where he usually interviews guests for Late Night. I’m a big Saturday Night Live fan, he tells me how he got to SNL, his career roadmap and how hard he worked to get to where he is. We talk for the whole two hours. He could have been doing anything else, but he talked to me. It was such a fun time.

Blocking Bellotti

I knew the basics of how football was played, but I didn’t know the intricacies of it. I was a theater kid in high school.

My first job is at the spring game for football in 2006. And Mike Bellotti, he’s the head coach at the time, and I don’t even know who he is. He’s sitting in a golf cart, and I walk up and cross my arms and lean on his golf cart, blocking his view of the field. Everyone around me thinks it’s hilarious. I had no idea who the guy was. It turned out to be perfect. It’s exactly what the Duck would be doing, blocking the view of the most important person on the sideline.

Walk a Mile in Webbed Feet

The first event I had to do was a fitness walk for university employees. I think they were walking a mile. My coach had told me, “You don’t need to walk the whole thing. Be there at the beginning and the end and pose for photos.” But being a new Duck, I really want to be there with those people doing the walk. It’s only a mile? I can do that. Well, I walked the whole route, and along the way, I got really hot and lightheaded. I made it back to the EMU. I had to run into the bathroom, into one of the stalls, and take the head off, which is the only way to cool off. If you walked into the bathroom, you would have just seen the Duck feet from under the stall. You’d have to wonder what was going on in there.

Capitol Crimes

We had to go to Salem a lot, to make appearances at the Capitol. And the stairs going in are very grand. But on the side of them there’s this groove, a marble slide. It’s not a slide, but to the Duck? It’s a slide. 

Security guards hated it when we did this. We’d slide down on our butt. We’d hear a “Hey!” And then we’d bolt to wherever we could go, lie low for 10 minutes. Then be back. And do it again.

We were always trying to make ourselves laugh. That’s the goal. If we’re having fun, it should make other people laugh.

The Duck goes skydiving
Photo credit: Oregon Athletics

Taking a Dive

It was November 2012 and we thought it’d be a good idea for the Duck to skydive into College GameDay. But the university was not going to let a student skydive. No way. ESPN wanted it to happen, though. They wanted the Duck to arrive to GameDay that way. So they decided to put a skydiver in the suit. 

They did a test skydive on a Friday. I had an appearance in Portland, so I wasn’t around as they were conducting the trial skydive. Suddenly I get a text: the mascot’s head fell off during the trial skydive. The head is lost. I call the woman in charge of operations. “What happened? Where’s the head?” She tells me, “We don’t know where it is. We have a search team looking for it right now.” 

Turns out, the head fell down on a branch, through the mouth. It was pretty beat up. We didn’t end up doing that bit. But I was running the Duck’s social media at that time and sent out a tweet about it. I wrote, “Literally had an out-of-body experience today. All is well #migraines.” 

Sarah Lorge Butler is a freelance writer in Eugene.


The Duck in a Victory pose