Ducks of a feather
• B Jason Fife, linebacker Kevin Mitchell make the most of friendship
On Interstate 5's Grapevine in California, close to the appropriately named town of Lost Hills, the engine blew. Two intrepid Oregon football players and the future Mrs. Kevin Mitchell looked at one another.
'It was a big ol' 'kaboom!' ' Kevin Mitchell remembers.
'Sounded like a grenade went off,' Jason Fife adds.
The oil pump had gone out in the 1978 Chevy Blazer. Smoke billowed from the engine as the three sat by the road waiting for help.
Fife and Mitchell tried talking with migrant workers digging an irrigation ditch in the field nearby. 'Do É you É have É any É oil?' Fife said, trying to communicate.
A trucker stopped, and thoughts of horror-movie murders ran through their minds, freaking out Mitchell's future wife, Melanie. 'Looked like a creepy guy, and he says, 'Got stuff in my truck if you want to follow me up there,' ' Fife recalls.
' 'I don't want to go, you want to go, Mitch?' ' Fife said. 'Melanie starts crying, 'Don't leave, Mitch!' I say, 'Mitch, you stay with Mel.' So, I go up there and turns out all he had was water.' '
No guns or knives, thank goodness, but no oil.
About seven hours later, a tow truck arrived and took the stranded travelers into Lost Hills, dropping them off at Denny's. Mitchell's father showed up soon with another vehicle.
The Oregon students headed back to Eugene, while Mitchell's pop drove back to Orange County with the tow truck driver. Mitchell made it to campus an hour before class.
That unforgettable trip, from their freshman year of 1999-2000 and the first of many road excursions together, consummated a now-deep friendship between the two Ducks.
The smart aleck and the 'stick'
Fife and Mitchell call each other best friends, and they mean it. They met as members of Oregon's recruiting class of 1999, living in the same dorm together. When Mitchell saw that Fife never partied, he knew the kid probably could be his buddy. They hung out, watched television, went bowling and saw movies, anything 'without getting wacky,' Fife says.
The two shared an apartment for 2 1/2 years before Mitchell moved in with his girlfriend and Fife moved into a garage Ñ literally, a garage converted into a living space.
Great friends but complete opposites: Fife the clean-cut Mormon from Lake Elsinore, Calif., a quarterback with the kind of wit that could impress Jay Leno; Mitchell the linebacker from Orange County with the bald head, gnarly beard and tattoos, a guy who keeps to himself and admittedly hardly matches Fife's smart-aleck mouth.
'I'm dumb as a stick,' Mitchell says.
In the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31, they will play their last game together. Mitchell, a three-year starter, probably will play the whole game. Fife may not play at all, having lost his job to Kellen Clemens after starting all 13 Oregon games in 2002.
Sentimentality hasn't quite set in, because the players realize their lives started to change when Fife and his fiancee, Rebekah, married in March and Mitchell wed Melanie, his longtime girlfriend, in June.
The two recently went to a -Korn concert, along with some other teammates, and it felt just like old times. The wives also hung out. 'They're best friends,' Fife says.
On Monday, the Mitchells will move back to Orange County. The Fifes plan to move to the Los Angeles area in January. Both players aspire to play professional football.
They won't miss practice or school Ñ Mitchell leaves with a sociology degree, Fife with a degree in general science. The Southern California natives definitely won't miss the weather, but they'll miss seeing each -other every day.
'He's a normal person. He doesn't buy into the 'I'm a football player thing,' ' Mitchell says of Fife. 'He doesn't walk around like he's a tough guy, using football as an advantage. He's a family man, a religious guy.
'It's weird, because they say opposites attract, and I guess we just click.'
Once Fife got to know Mitchell, he looked beyond the 'grizzled look' and saw a young guy devoted to his family back home and his girlfriend. The jovial, free-spirited Fife often fed off his stern friend.
'He'll always give it to me straight,' Fife says. 'Like with girl trouble I had, where you're smitten by someone, and you don't see the truth. He did that for me.
'And I was there for him when he had troubles. We've both had so many lows, not just with football, where you need to talk with a friend.
'It also helps we're on other sides of the ball in football.'
It's a long way home
Fife and Mitchell figure they have made 18 to 20 trips together to Southern California and back. The round-trip journey is about 1,800 miles.
Mitchell eventually progressed from the '78 Blazer to a 1995 Dodge Ram but still had problems on another road trip. The fuel pump went out, and Mitchell ended up spending about twice as much money on gas as normal. 'Could have bought my wife two wedding rings,' he says.
Fife drives 'The Dot' Ñ a '96 Toyota Camry that got its nickname from the film 'The Fast and the Furious.'
'I was going to pimp my car out like theirs, with new rims, lower it, new exhaust,' Fife says. 'Nah, not really.''
Fife, who had a bit part in 'Addams Family Values' as a kid, always kept Mitchell rolling on the highway, spewing out a movie line or something from his favorite show, the cartoon 'SpongeBob SquarePants.'
One day, Fife whipped out what the two call 'The Happy Driving Song.' It was Earth, Wind & Fire's hit 'Let's Groove.'
Says Fife: 'My mom was a big Earth, Wind & Fire fan, and I always heard it growing up, so I introduced it to Kevin one day. 'We need a song that will lift our spirits,' and we laughed for -20 minutes. Gotta love the old-school stuff.'
'Old school' Ñthose words appear on a Eugene billboard that also features Mitchell's picture. Fife, of course, teases him about it. Mitchell can come back with 'SI Boy,' ribbing Fife about his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but Fife always comes back strong. 'Baldy,' Fife will say. Although it's not true anymore: Mitchell has about one month's hair growth and doesn't plan to shave until after the NFL draft.
The two, on a road trip, profess to be something similar to Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in 'Dumb and Dumber.' Asked whether Fife has presented him with the most irritating sound ever Ñ Carrey's infamous line and subsequent scream-screech in the movie Ñ Mitchell says, 'depends on whether he's fartin' or burpin'.'
Settling down feels right
Mitchell, 23, and Melanie had been dating for six years, going back to their days at Mater Dei High School.
'We both realized that things happen, and life won't last forever. Why don't we take life and run with it?' Mitchell says.
Fife, 22, met Rebekah at church in Eugene three years ago.
'I tried to resist it Ñ 'Don't want to get married now, there's a lot ahead of me, don't want to think about taking care of a family without a job,' ' he says. 'But I let my heart decide for me. I love her and would be with her anyway. We'll be able to take care of each other.'
Until their wives came along, Fife and Mitchell had lots of opportunities to counsel each other. This year, Mitchell could have had a clinical case on his hands, but Fife never really vented much about playing behind Clemens. 'I wasn't as frustrated as most people think,' Fife says.
'He's a man,' Mitchell says. 'It's been tough on him, I know. It's not my place to step in and try to help him out, unless he asks for it Ñ same thing he'd do with me. I don't know what he went through, so it's hard for me to try to help him.'
Mitchell, the classic overachiever, has become one of Oregon's all-time great defensive players, bucking the odds at 5-11 and 220 pounds. (He's actually closer to 5-10, 205.) Fife, on the other hand, has classic QB size at 6-4, 222, with athleticism, and he can appreciate Mitchell's play.
'Mitch is the perfect example of size doesn't matter,' Fife says. 'He's always shocked everyone, the naysayers who said he -couldn't play college ball.
'He knows where he needs to be on the football field all the time, doesn't need to think about it, just reacts. To this day he can sniff out a screen better than anybody I know or have seen.'
The two plan to keep in touch after next week, when Mitchell rolls out of town. That's why there are cell phones.
'He better keep in touch with me,' Fife says.
Says Mitchell: 'Sometimes we just talk about nothing Ñ just because.'