Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
EUGENE, Ore. — A year ago, after she helped him move into his dorm at Oregon, Todd Doxey took his grandmother, Gladys, to Autzen Stadium and fantasized about his first game as a Duck.
"We stood there on that empty field," Gladys said, "and he pointed at the tunnel. He talked about how exciting it was going to be to storm into that stadium in front of all those fans.
"I told him – I promised him – that I would be here to see it."
Gladys looked away. Her voice began to tremble.
"Today," she said, "was supposed to be that day."
One year later, true to her word, Gladys made the trip from San Diego to Eugene for last Saturday's season-opener against Washington. But a few hours before kickoff, she and Doxey's closest relatives and friends were nowhere near Autzen Stadium. Instead, 13 miles away, they gathered on a bank of the McKenzie River. Kneeling one by one, they dipped their hands into the cold water and gazed at the bridge 40 feet above.
"We needed to see it for ourselves," said JayDee Luster, Doxey's best friend. "We needed to see where Todd took his final breaths.
"We needed to see where he died."
Eight weeks have passed since Doxey, 19, drowned during a float trip down the McKenzie River and everyone, it seems, still is struggling to cope.
Nearly 3,000 people crammed into the pews for Doxey's funeral in his native San Diego, where he carried a 3.5 grade-point average and became the first person in his high school's history to have his football jersey retired.
In Oregon, tears trickled down players' cheeks Saturday as video clips of Doxey flashed across the JumboTron during a pregame ceremony.
Doxey, who redshirted last season, was expected to see significant playing time in the Ducks' loaded secondary this fall. Still, ask his friends and former teammates to tell stories about Doxey's life, and football isn't the first the thing they'll mention.
They'll tell you about kid who, each week last season, gave his four complimentary Ducks tickets to a young fan in a wheelchair.
They'll laugh about how Doxey bellowed Chris Brown songs in the shower, and they'll beam with admiration when explaining how Doxey emerged from a neighborhood infested by gang members, drugs and prostitution to become the first member of his family to attend college.
"The impressive thing is that, for the last eight weeks, we've heard all these people talking about Todd," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "But they're not talking about how he died. They're talking about how he lived."
'IT'S BAD, COACH'
Oregon secondary coach John Neal was pulling into his driveway July 13 when he received the call that will haunt him forever. On the line was Ducks strong safety Patrick Chung, who informed him that Doxey had been in an accident.
"It's bad, coach," Chung said. "It's really bad."
The impressive thing is that, for the last eight weeks, we've heard all these people talking about Todd. But they're not talking about how he died. They're talking about how he lived.
— Oregon coach Mike Belotti on Doxey
Float trips long have been a tradition for Oregon football players. Each year, a few weeks before the start of August two-a-days, about 30 gather at the McKenzie River, tie their inner tubes together and let the current take them on a relaxing two-hour ride.
This was Doxey's first time to make the trip, and friends said he was pumped.
"He'd been talking about it for a couple of weeks," teammate Will Wallace said.
While they were waiting for others to inflate their tubes, Doxey and some of his friends decided to enter the 62-degree water in an unconventional manner. Instead of wading in at ground level, they decided to plunge into the river from a 40-foot bridge.
It was a daunting leap, to be sure, but one that is practiced routinely by river-goers.
After gazing down at the water, Doxey turned to Wallace and suggested they say a prayer.
"We got done praying," Wallace said, "and Todd just smiled and said, 'God is on my side.' And then we jumped."
Wallace said about eight players made the leap. Once they hit the water, the current carried most of them to a dock, where their floats were waiting. Doxey, though, never made it that far.
Javes Lewis, Doxey's former roommate, watched Doxey struggle from a boat dock.
"Most of the guys were paddling and moving forward," Lewis said. "But Todd – he was paddling, but he was staying in one place. He wasn't moving. It was like something was pulling at him and keeping him from going anywhere."
Doxey eventually went under. According to published reports, he was submerged for about 10 minutes before a passing boater pulled him from the water. Witnesses – strangers – jumped into the boat and began administering CPR on Doxey until an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital.
"I was back there with the doctors when they were trying to revive him," Neal said. "You could watch their body language and tell that it wasn't good. The pulmonary specialist came up to me and said, 'I don't think we can keep him alive until tomorrow.'
"The power of the machines kept him going for a little while, but the bottom line was that Todd was dead in the river. He had no chance."
Around 8:15, nearly five hours after he jumped into the river, Todd Doxey died at Sacred Heart Medical Center.
As Neal walked toward the waiting room, he looked through a glass window and saw about 50 of Doxey's teammates.
"Their heads were buried in their hands," he said. "The hospital had ordered about 30 pizzas for everyone, and they were just sitting there, untouched. The guys were there in their swimsuits. No shoes, no shirts.
"I didn't know what to do. Finally, I just gathered everyone around me and said, 'Todd's dead.' "
Neal paused and looked away.
"I still wish I would've handled it differently, you know, but it's just how it came out," he said. "The reaction – it was just horrible. It was like I dropped a bomb in there. Everyone just scattered. There was screaming and yelling and doors pounding.
"I'll remember those sounds forever. You see these kids – some of them are these mean old oxes, these big strong football players, these tough guys. They were just crushed."
There are so many people that feel blessed to have known Todd. But then there's the rest of the world – the people he would've come in contact with one day. Those are the ones who are being cheated.
— Ollie Goulston, Doxey's high school basketball coach
The following week, Oregon booster Phil Knight provided a plane for about 15 coaches and players to fly to Doxey's funeral in San Diego. Others who didn't get seats made the 15-hour drive on their own.
For weeks after Doxey's death, Neal said there were those who continued to "beat themselves up" over what transpired.
"There's no reason to do that," he said. "That's like me saying, 'If I hadn't recruited him here, none of this would've happened.'
"No one knows exactly what happened to Todd. Maybe it was the current. Maybe he hit that cold water and panicked to the point where his body shut down. All sorts of things could've happened. It was nobody's fault."
Oregon wide receiver Jeff Maehl, who had moved in with Doxey about two weeks before his drowning, said he's trying block out the images of his friend's final moments.
"I was replaying it in my mind for about two or three weeks, but it's starting to fade away now," said Maehl, who also jumped from the bridge. "When I think about it, it brings back so many emotions.
"I'd rather remember Todd for the way I was used to seeing him and for all the fun times we had together."
ESCAPE FROM SAN DIEGO
Shortly after her grandson's death, Gladys Doxey found a bundle of his memoirs. One in particular stood out.
"He wrote that, in six years, he wanted to be in corporate America wearing a suit and tie to work," Gladys said. "He wanted to own his own business."
Such lofty ambitions were rare for someone who grew up in the Logan Heights section of San Diego. Doxey's basketball coach at Hoover High School, Ollie Goulston, said Doxey's neighborhood was "as bad as it gets."
"Most kids that come out of there aren't making it," said Goulston, who began coaching Doxey in youth basketball at age 9. "That's one of the reasons Todd stood out so much. He was a shining light amid a lot of darkness."
And folks in San Diego took notice.
At Hoover High – also the alma mater of baseball legend Ted Williams – Doxey was a class favorite and a mainstay on the honor roll. Shortly after he committed to play football for the Ducks, Neal flew down to visit Doxey during an economics class.
"The principal escorted me in," Neal said. "He waited until there was a break in the lecture and then said, 'Everyone, I just wanted to let you know that Todd will be playing football for the University of Oregon.'
"Every student in the room rose from their chair and gave him a standing ovation. That's when I really knew what kind of kid we were getting."
Those closest to Doxey said his character was molded by family, mainly his grandmother. When he wasn't staying with his father, Doxey lived down the street with Gladys throughout most of his childhood. Almost every day after enrolling at Oregon, his roommate overheard him making calls home.
"And I'm not talking about 15- or 20-minute calls," Lewis said. "He'd be on the phone with her for an hour at a time.
"He loved his grandmother. He was always quoting her, saying, 'Grandma said this, and Grandma said that.' She's obviously a special lady."
Almost every month as a freshman, Doxey found a way to round up enough money to fly back to San Diego. Sometimes he'd arrive unannounced and sneak into Gladys' house to surprise her. Other times, he'd drive around the neighborhood with gifts for all of his relatives – Oregon wrist bands for his 13-year-old cousins, a Ducks mini-football for his niece.
"Even if he was only in town for two days, he'd make it a point to stop by each and every house," said Doxey's cousin, Wade, who is 21. "We have a lot of young kids in our family, and they're all into sports. Todd made an impression on them. He was their role model."
Wade recalled a recent trip he and Todd made to a San Diego convenience store. Todd noticed a young woman in the parking lot, looking distressed. She told him her father had kicked her out of the house and that she wanted to return to her mother's place in a different city.
"Todd reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of money and told her how to get to the Greyhound station," Wade said. "I don't know how much it was, but there was a $20 on top. I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'Hey, she needed help.' "
Wade also said Todd – unbeknownst to his coaches – befriended a young boy in a wheelchair last season outside of Autzen Stadium.
"Todd was redshirting, so none of us were flying up to the games," Wade said. "So each week, he'd give his four tickets to that little kid."
That's why no one was surprised when so many people filed into The Rock Church in San Diego for Doxey's funeral – friends, relatives, classmates, football fans, sportscasters, even strangers. They cried, they laughed, then they cried some more.
A similar scene took place Saturday at Autzen Stadium, where All-American candidate Chung took the field wearing Doxey's No. 29 for Oregon's 44-10 victory. A different player will don the number each week. Other team members wore tape that read "T.D. RIP," and every helmet was adorned with a sticker bearing Doxey's initials and number.
Maehl, the former roommate, said he had tears in his eyes when he ran out for the opening kickoff. After the game, players wrote Doxey messages in a notebook that will remain in his locker stall throughout the season.
"I'm going to tell him that we played our hearts out for him," said Maehl, who pointed toward the sky after scoring a touchdown. "He was here with us. I could feel it."
So, too, could the 10 or so friends and family members who traveled to Eugene from San Diego. Some of them sobbed as Doxey's highlight tape lighted up the JumboTron.
At one point, footage was shown of the postgame celebration that followed Hoover High's city basketball championship in 2006.
"Our whole team is on the court going crazy," Goulston said, "but off to the side, you can see Todd motioning toward his teammates to go shake the opponents' hands."
Goulston dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
"That's one of the things making this so tough to take," he said. "There are so many people that feel blessed to have known Todd. But then there's the rest of the world – the people he would've come in contact with one day. Those are the ones who are being cheated."
A scholarship fund in Todd Doxey's honor has been established at his alma mater. Contributions can be sent to: Hoover High School c/o Todd Doxey Memorial Scholarship Fund, 4474 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego, CA 92105
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.