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While some talk turkey, others pray

Holiday's bigger than party day for several Christian Ducks
by: OTTO GREULE JR., Duck return man Andiel Brown: “I’m pretty sure when I have children, I’m not going to tell them that Santa brought presents.”

EUGENE - It's Christmas time, and Andiel Brown is way past hoping to find a bike sitting in the garage or a Super Nintendo under the tree.

Brown, perhaps the most devout Christian on the Oregon football team and a minister's son, always is full of reflection around Dec. 25.

'For me, it's a time to reflect on the meaning of the season - the birth of Christ and the celebration of that time,' he says.

The Cleveland High grad and UO punt and kick returner plans to spend Christmas in Portland with his parents and siblings. Then he and the Ducks will gather Wednesday in El Paso, Texas, for the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against South Florida.

'I'm not really one that promotes Santa Claus,' Brown says. 'It's fun and everything, but I'm pretty sure when I have children, I'm not going to tell them that Santa brought presents. The whole day is about the birth of Christ, promises being fulfilled, a hope for salvation, a new beginning for everybody. I find it as no surprise it's so close to the new year that people say, 'Hey, it's a fresh start.''

Almost all of the religious young men on the UO team are Christians - Brown, running back Jonathan Stewart, defensive back Jairus Byrd, offensive lineman Jon Teague, and quarterbacks Justin Roper and Cody Kempt, to name some.

A large group gathers outside the Oregon locker room for pregame prayer.

'Out of respect for those who don't believe, and we don't want to offend anybody, we go out to the hallway,' Brown says.

After games, several players go to midfield for prayer - a typical gathering for sports teams.

Stewart, who lived with Brown as a freshman two years ago, got a keyboard for Christmas one year, his favorite all-time present.

'As I've grown older, I've understood the real meaning of Christmas, my beliefs and morals,' he says. 'I'm not focused on the Santa Claus deal anymore.

'It's pretty much being thankful for Jesus Christ, the things that he can provide for you - a physical, mental and spiritual strength.'

Brown's father, Roosevelt Brown, travels to several churches in the Portland area to spread the gospel. The family doesn't belong to one denomination.

'He's about spreading the love,' Andiel Brown says.

Andiel Brown, a senior, considers himself to be an 'extension' of his father's ministry, although 'when I was living at home I didn't always adhere to it,' he adds.

Brown hopes to be a minister, too, someday; at the same time, Brown has big plans in music. He'll finish school in June, and then maybe go to New York City to start his career.

'Whew,' he says, grasping the long-range career plan. 'I'll start out by being a singing artist, write my own songs, produce and create my own music, get established as a recording artist. Then I want to start writing for other people, like high school choirs, gospel choirs and Mass choirs. Then I want to start my own record label, sign people, make it prominent. Then I want to write scores for movies - it's really powerful how music can change or enhance the feeling in a movie. Later, I want to write a symphony.'

At the Sun Bowl, the Oregon players will have a talent show. Brown has written a song to perform in dedication of ex-Duck and current South Florida defensive back Ryan Gilliam. The two knew each other well at the U of O. It's called 'You Brought Me Out,' and it's about Brown crediting Gilliam 'for a lot of my personal growth as a man. He's a friend for life. Helped me out in ways nobody knows.'

The 5-10, 195-pound Brown has 17 punt returns for 177 yards and three kick returns for 63 yards this season.

What does he expect in the Sun Bowl?

'It depends on how my ankle holds up,' says Brown, who sprained his ankle against USC on Oct. 27.

But first comes Christmas, and prayer - and turkey and ham - await.

'Mom makes both,' Brown says.

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Oregon Ducks

Jonathan Stewart, who has asked the NFL to evaluate him for the draft, says he has about 50 credits remaining to get his degree. He discounts rumors that he promised his mother he would graduate before turning pro. 'There's nothing like that,' he says.

• Two things to consider about Mike Bellotti's future: He turned 57 last Friday and often has said he doesn't want to coach into his 60s, à la Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden. He also has expressed interest in someday being athletic director (and Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny is only at the job temporarily).

• Bellotti says South Florida QB Matt Grothe is 'a better thrower' than Washington's Jake Locker, 'but not quite as fast as Jake.'

• Oregon's conference schedule will be much tougher in 2008, with visits to USC (Oct. 4), Arizona State (Oct. 25), Cal (Nov. 1), Washington State (Sept. 27) and Oregon State (Nov. 29). The Ducks will be at home against Washington (Aug. 30), UCLA (Oct. 11), Stanford (Nov. 8) and Arizona (Nov. 15).

- Jason Vondersmith