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  • COLLEGE FOOTBALL

    Area players make their marks for Ducks

    Grants Pass' Stewart, Hidden Valley's Sager take on roll of Auburn players in practice
  • PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — In a well-orchestrated but very chaotic 60 minutes, hundreds of national media mingled in a hotel ballroom with all the players on the Oregon football team.
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  • PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — In a well-orchestrated but very chaotic 60 minutes, hundreds of national media mingled in a hotel ballroom with all the players on the Oregon football team.
    As the more well-known Ducks sat on podiums and tables throughout the room, the others sat anonymously on chairs off to the side, witnessing the spectacle that is "Media Day."
    Among them were two Grants Pass natives who realize how lucky they are to be members of a team playing in Monday's BCS national championship game versus Auburn.
    Jennings Stewart, a redshirt sophomore linebacker, is a 2008 graduate of Grants Pass High. Clint Sager, a redshirt freshman tight end, is a 2009 graduate of Hidden Valley High.
    "It's awesome, man, and stuff you dream about but you don't really think it's real," Sager said. "Only when I got on the plane to come here is when I really realized, 'Wow, we're playing for the national championship.' That made it all true."
    Even though Stewart and Sager know they probably won't play against the Tigers, they've embraced their roles. In practice, they wear the blue Auburn scout team jerseys, with Stewart playing the role of Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes and Sager mimicking Auburn sophomore tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.
    Stewart knows that Bynes will be a force to watch for the Oregon offensive line during the game so he's done his best to bring that intensity into practice — even if it sometimes ruffles some feathers.
    "It's kind of fun to make our starting offensive linemen a little angry at me at times," Stewart said. "I don't talk, but I just play full speed and show them how physical I am. They don't like it when you run into them and move them around a little bit during practice.
    "But it makes them better and I want to give them the best look I can."
    Sager is thankful to simply be wearing any jersey this week. After redshirting last season, he was excited to be a participant this season. He made his college debut in the season-opening win over New Mexico and also played in the games at Tennessee and at home against Portland State.
    But Sager was so excited about making the trip to Tennessee that he failed to disclose to coaches and trainers a concussion that he suffered in practice that week. He shook it off and said he felt fine during the game.
    But two weeks later, Sager suffered a second concussion in practice. After using his helmet to bang against the Ducks' defense, Sager felt numb and dropped to the ground.
    "It was really scary," Sager said. "I couldn't really remember what happened. It sucked because there's nothing you can do for the brain.
    "It took forever to heal because I didn't let the first one heal properly. The second one just made it worse."
    To add to his frustration, Sager was hit by a car a week later while riding his bike to practice.
    "A guy pulled out in front of me and I hit the front of his car and flew over the hood and landed on the other side," Sager said. "I flipped all the way and messed up my AC joint in my right shoulder. I had to be in a sling and still couldn't even dress down for games because of my head injury. It was just one thing after another. I was wondering what next was going to happen."
    Sager eventually improved and gained enough confidence to get back to playing full contact in practice. But more problems came to him in December when he suffered a stomach flu that caused him to drop from 230 pounds to 207, losing 12 pounds in one day.
    "But I'm back up to 224 now and feeling great," he said.
    The 6-foot-3 former three sport star at Hidden Valley knows he can't complain too much while being a part of this BCS experience. He remembers playing in some big OSAA playoff games for the Mustangs against Marist and Ontario.
    But when he steps into University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Monday, he'll be a long way from the Skyline Conference.
    "It's completely different than high school, no comparisons at all," Sager said. "Biggest game ever. Those games in high school were big. But this is huge. I cherish every moment and don't let anything slip away."
    Stewart has a similar appreciation for how far he's come since being a three-sport star at Grants Pass. This biggest of all bowl games will be different than the previous two he experienced as a player. Unlike the 2008 Holiday Bowl in San Diego and last year's Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Stewart won't be able to take in the scenery as much during the game.
    That's because his mind will need to be focused on each offensive play for Auburn. Along with Oregon junior linebacker Blake Thompson, Stewart "scripts" the offense, using a pen and a pad of paper to write down precise details of the formation of each play.
    Ducks linebackers coach Don Pellum gave Stewart the responsibility and he doesn't want to let his coach down.
    "I write down everything they do. Everything," said Stewart, whose Grants Pass coach, Tom Blanchard, was a Ducks quarterback from 1967-70. "It falls upon the people that coach Pellum trusts and knows that can get it done. Nobody gets a free ride on the sideline. We all have to be participating."
    Of course, Stewart would gladly hand that pen and paper to a freshman if his number is called Monday night. After making his first career tackle against Portland State and playing in a handful of other games, the 6-foot-3, 211-pounder can't wait for the chance to play more regularly next season.
    But as the recent past in Eugene has shown, no player can take his status as a college football player for granted. The turmoil began in Boise, Idaho, when Stewart was stoked to make the traveling squad for the Ducks' 2009 season opener.
    "That was really interesting and devastating at times," Stewart said. "But it was a good experience and it really helped build what we've been through to get here."
    The Boise game quickly became known for The Punch, as running back LeGarrette Blount decked a Broncos player afterward and was suspended for most of the season. Then came an offseason of missteps, highlighted by former quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's laptop theft and later dismissal from the program.
    With a few transgressions by a small number of players in a short period of time, a nationwide image of the troublemaking Ducks was tough to ignore.
    "It was hard to see because we really are a great group of guys and we do everything we can to help the community," Stewart said. "We had to show the nation that we aren't this big group of hooligans like they thought we were. But that's when you really have to put your nose to the grindstone and get back to work and prove yourself."
    There hasn't been an off-field incident since the spring as the team — starters and walk-ons alike — have banded together and followed Oregon coach Chip Kelly's orders to "Win The Day."
    The biggest day of all to win comes Monday, and Stewart and Sager are practically pinching themselves that they'll get to run onto the field as players.
    "We learned that the smallest thing can really break a whole team," Stewart said. "If you let something negative affect you, then it affects everyone. Learning from different situations that we've been through in the past year, we've let all the other distractions go away and stay in the past.
    "That's why we're all where we're at right now."
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