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Photo by Eric Evans / Oregon Football
Oregon Football

30 for 30: #12 – Directing His Story

July 19, 2021
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The frustration in his eyes told the story. It's a look we've seen far too many times, displayed between breathtaking runs, shattering blocks and megawatt smiles.

The eyes are the window into the career of CJ Verdell. His three active seasons have included moments of greatness, but also frustrations -- many of them beyond his control.

The foot. The thumb. The fumble.

But then there was the 70-yard TD in 2019 to end Utah's playoff hopes. And, most memorable, the overtime gallop up the gut to shatter Washington's dreams in 2018.

Somewhere between those highs and low lies the story of a player who has been unable to remove fans' negative labels. A player fully capable of creating new highlights that would cement his status as one Oregon's all-time greats.

Now, entering his fifth and almost certainly final season in Eugene, the junior's legacy is at a tipping point. His career is soon to be judged as one of greatness – or failure.

And in many ways, the fate of the Oregon football program stands right beside him.

***

The story is known; no detailed retelling is necessary.

Verdell's late-game fumble against Stanford in 2018 cost Oregon its first shot at redemption following three years of national irrelevance. The next week, he played an integral part in the bounce-back against Cal, then capped off the triptych of memories by running through the soul of the Huskies.

Verdell was just a freshman, stout and steady. He was ready to run into the record books – and maybe into the Oregon football hall of fame.

But ever since that time, as nagging injuries piled up, it's been easy to think of Verdell more for potential never fulfilled. As Oregon stockpiles talent around him, both in the backfield and at receiver, Verdell remains -- still stout, still filled with potential, still smacking into would-be tacklers yet dodging the injury bugbear.

However, Verdell has never lost hope -- despite eyes that have said otherwise in the past.

"I feel I can get it, and my coaches feel like I can get it," Verdell said this spring. "It's just up to me."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. It's also up to a body that tends to betray him. To the offensive line to create room for him. To his mind not losing hope when adversity hits.

For lady luck to smile on him, just once.

"My main goal since I've been at Oregon," Verdell said. “and since (Mario) Cristobal has taken over the program and we've been going in the direction that we've been going – definitely want to get into that playoff and win a national championship

"We feel like we got the guys to do that."

If Verdell were to stay healthy and fulfill his 4-star promise, it would tie a bow on his career. And for Oregon to make the playoffs and win the whole thing, his production is almost certainly going to be a necessity.

Because Travis Dye is fun and squirrely, but too small to carry the team.

Because Sean Dollars is talented, but injured for much of the fall.

Because Trey Benson is a promising enigma, but still unknown.

The future of the position may be bright, but it's still that – the future. Oregon and Verdell, have one more chance to make the present count. To make up for past failures and heartbreak.

To rewrite history.

After the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2020, watching from home after another injury, Verdell knew his career was at a crossroads The lifespan of a running back is fleeting, and his body has already been through so much.

Still, watching his teammates celebrate that night in Los Angeles was a reminder of why he came to Oregon in the first place.

"I was going through it, especially the Pac-12 championship," Verdell said about missing the game. "It was good to see them take home that championship.

“I called to FaceTime the whole group after, and we all talked and celebrated."

Verdell wants Oregon to win titles, yes. But more importantly, he wants to be one reason why Oregon wins them.

Due to the pandemic and a hand injury, Verdell missed that chance in 2020. Now healthy and ready for his swan song, Verdell can write a happy ending to the story that began that night in September 2018, when the ball slipped to the Autzen turf on what should have been the game-clinching play.

Many factors will determine how his career ends. Verdell will be at the heart of them.

The look in his eyes will tell the story.

 
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