For Vernon Adams, transferring to Oregon is a gamble on himself

CHENEY, Wash. -- The distance between the cherry-soda turf at Eastern Washington and the football Taj Mahal of the Oregon Ducks is 448 miles, and it took quarterback Vernon Adams seven months to make the trip.

Seven months in which Adams tried to make the bold leap from the height of FCS football to the height of the FBS, only to trip over a math class.

Seven months in which Adams left the womb of the locker room that had nurtured and sustained him for four years only to arrive in limbo. He couldn't join his new team until he hurdled the math class that stood between him and the undergraduate degree he needed to transfer without redshirting. He failed to pass it in the spring, and had to retake it this summer.

Seven months in which his former coaches and teammates wouldn't get on the field with him, and his future coaches and teammates couldn't.

Not that seven months is a long time, but Lewis and Clark made it back to St. Louis in six.

Adams' expedition concluded Thursday, when he took his math final and then posted a photo on Instagram that included the news: #EWUalum. That night, Oregon added him to its 105-man roster.

Adams has been painted as the savior of the Ducks, the Russell Wilson-sized playmaker who will replace Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and perform the magic Wilson has created five hours north with the Seattle Seahawks. Adams, his believers say, will do in the Pac-12 what he did while leading the Eagles to three consecutive Big Sky championships. He moves around the backfield like a squirrel on roller skates, and he can drop a football over a receiver's back shoulder at 40 yards.

He will do all of that and more, unless he doesn't.

Unless Adams doesn't beat out Jeff Lockie, Mariota's best friend in the locker room and heir apparent. Unless Adams can't learn the offense and his teammates and the campus and be comfortable two weeks from Saturday, when Eastern Washington, his former team, comes to Autzen.

Unless Vernon Adams gambled on himself and lost.

In the end, that's what the transfer is. Adams pushed in all his chips -- his career, his friendships, his comfort zone, his time with his 13-month-old son, who remained in Washington with his mother -- and told the dealer to deal.

"It can either work out really good for me or it can be not so good for me, you know?" Adams said. "Either I'm not ready for the speed of the game and I was meant to stay at Eastern, or I am and it's going to boost everything else and it's going to help me get to where I need to get to."

That place that Adams needs to get to may be a professional career, or a college coaching career, personal goals that he believes will be more attainable at Oregon than at Eastern Washington, where he has been the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS equivalent of the Heisman) in each of the past two seasons.

Dean Herrington, Adams' coach at Mission Hills (California) Bishop Alemany High, thinks Adams will win his bet.

Herrington floated the idea of a transfer to Adams at the end of last season. Herrington suggested UCLA, but Adams thought there would be too many distractions at home. Herrington called Oregon graduate assistant Joe Bernardi, who had played high school football for Herrington's brother. That moment is forever etched in Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich's memory. Or not.

"I don't remember," Helfrich said, laughing. Turns out his staff gets calls from players interested in transferring to Oregon almost every day.

Adams, on the other hand, remembers the class he was in (budgeting), the time (11 a.m.), the building (Physical Education) and the Ducks assistant who called him (receivers coach Matt Lubick) in January.

"On the iPhone, it said, 'Eugene, Oregon,'" Adams said. "I was showing everybody in class. 'Look! Oregon called me!'"

Sometimes a Ducks assistant will remember the player from high school recruiting. Adams needed no reintroduction. The Ducks' offensive staff and players had seen Adams take apart two Pac-12 defenses on coaching video. He opened the 2013 season by accounting for 518 yards of total offense and six touchdowns in leading the Eagles to a 49-46 upset of No. 25 Oregon State.

Last season, Adams threw for 475 yards and seven touchdowns when the Eagles pushed Washington to the brink of an upset before succumbing 59-52.

Or, as senior wide receiver Bralon Addison recalled saying, "'Oh, that's the guy we were watching ripping guys on film!' Before I actually knew his name, we knew him by No. 3 on Eastern Washington. We would see him play against guys we were scouting. He's a good player. When we heard the name, I put two and two together. Oh yeah, this guy can help a lot."

"Marcus was really impressed with him," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "I remember that. I didn't know much about Vernon as a kid. It's so different talking to a guy that's been playing for three years as opposed to a freshman because they get it a little more. They understand. I've been impressed with him. I think he's going to fit in real well."

Still, Frost described the transfer as "a little dangerous."

Most graduate transfers are looking for a fresh start or a last chance to play the game they love before their eligibility expires. Wilson, who four years ago left North Carolina State and led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl in the 2011 season, was the rare A-level talent to take advantage of the graduate transfer.

Adams, who grew up in Pasadena, California, went to that game with his family before he returned to his freshman year at Eastern Washington. Adams, like so many high school football players, had fallen in love with the offense installed at Oregon by Chip Kelly. To this day, it's the only team he uses on PlayStation.

"Me and my mom were Oregon'd up," Adams said. "We were throwing up O's [the two-hand sign beloved by Ducks fans]. It was just crazy."

The Ducks won 45-38, but Adams couldn't get over the Badgers quarterback, who threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third.

"Man," Adams remembered thinking, "he's short like me but he's gettin' it done!"

A couple of years ago, Wilson held a quarterback camp in Spokane near the Eastern Washington campus. Adams worked as a counselor.

"I thought you were taller than me," Adams said to Wilson. "I might have you by a little bit."

"You don't have me, Vernon," Wilson informed him.

Whoever's taller, Adams said, "All I know is I feel like our game is very similar. He can extend the play well. I extend the play pretty good. He has a very good deep ball and a strong arm. We're both 5-11 and scramblers, so I just felt like my game is just like his or Drew Brees'. I'll run when I have to, but I like to sit in the pocket."

Wilson tweeted Adams congratulations after the Eagles upset the Beavers two seasons ago. Neither that game nor the loss to Washington is Adams' favorite. He still thinks of his first home start, in 2012 against Montana, the Eagles' archrival. Adams' performance provided a clue why this current gamble just might pay off.

It wasn't the two fourth-quarter turnovers, an interception and a fumble that gave the Grizzlies a 26-17 cushion.

"Us and Montana is UCLA and USC," Adams said. "Man, I'm sitting on the sideline, thinking, 'They're going to hate me.'"

They, as in everyone at Eastern Washington. Instead, Adams shook off his mistakes and drove Eastern to two touchdowns in the final 2:19 for a 32-26 victory. At 19 years old. In his first home start. Against Eastern's biggest rival. After that game, Adams said, he has never been nervous again.

"You got to realize wherever you are -- UConn, Florida, Eastern, Portland State, Oregon -- you are there for a reason," Adams said. "You're not just there because you're not any good. You're there because that's where God wants you to be. He wants you to show off the talents He blessed you with."

Adams has provided many examples of physical toughness while leading the Eagles. He put on that show at Husky Stadium despite cramps brought on by his sickle-cell trait. The more humid the day, the more liquid he needs. Adams' gamble that day, that he didn't need a halftime IV, went against him. He drank so much water that he twice had to leave the field to urinate. But the Eagles still almost pulled off the upset.

He broke two bones in his right foot last season against Idaho State and kept playing to the game's end. That injury cost him four games and, in all likelihood, the Walter Payton Award.

Football is a game that demands physical toughness, yet rewards mental toughness. Physical toughness hasn't helped Adams endure the last seven months. Physical toughness isn't necessary to leave behind coaches, friends, everything that is comfortable -- "I'm going to be in these guys' weddings," Adams said of his Eagles teammates -- for nothing more than a chance.

"Things aren't always going to go right. You know?" Adams said. "You've got to control what you can control and you've got to understand what is best for you, what's best for you and your team, what's best for you and your family. We did a lot here at Eastern these past three years with me being starting quarterback. I just thought, like, 'Man, I can do only so much.' I just really thought this move to Oregon would really help me either be a college coach or an NFL player."

Herrington flew up to Spokane in April and drove Adams down to Eugene for a few days at spring practice. Adams bought sweats and shorts for himself and T-shirts for his family at the Duck Store in the athletic complex. Addison gave him a couple of pairs of cleats to take back to Washington and work out in. And Adams began to soak up the Oregon offense.

"When we sat down and we watched some clips and we're just talking X's and O's," Addison said, "you could say something to him once, and if you asked him again, he would know it just like that. He's a guy that's definitely a step ahead as far as being able to comprehend information."

Herrington remembered a loss to Oaks Christian in Adams' junior year of high school. The next summer, his quarterback walked into his office, Herrington said, "and brought in a book with every play of that game, the defense they ran against, the success of the play, the non-success of the play, just in detail with perfect writing. It was amazing. He watched, I don't know how many times, the video of the year before.

"Needless to say," Herrington said, "we beat them that year."

So there's a pattern: Adams lost to Oaks Christian and came back and beat them. He failed the math class and came back and passed it. But he has only one shot at playing for Oregon. His arrival in Eugene also created challenges for Lockie, who is faced with having his dream job snatched from his grasp. It's also a test for Frost, who must give Adams a crash course in the basics while preparing Lockie, who could run the offense in his sleep, all the while defusing whatever tension may arise in the meeting room.

"It's going to be a little prickly," Frost said. "I foresee that."

They're competitors. Of course it could be a little prickly. They both say the right things.

"Probably the best advice I've gotten is the same," Lockie said. "I've gotten it from my dad, my high school coach, even Coach Helfrich. It's just to be yourself. Don't try to be something you're not or do more than you need to. Just be yourself and everything will kind of work itself out."

"Even if I don't get the starting spot," Adams said, "we're all after one thing. And that's the national title. So if Jeff Lockie gets it, I'm going to push Jeff to be the best quarterback. I'm going to teach him things that I know. He's going to teach me things that he knows, help me learn the offense faster. Whether we split time, whether I'm the starter, either way, we need to push each other to leading our team to the national title."

We lionize competitors who gamble, admire their moxie even if they lose: the golfer who goes for the green rather than lay up; the baserunner who tests the outfielder's arm; the coach who refuses to send in the kicker on fourth-and-2.

Those are plays that decide the outcome of a single event. Adams has put his final season of college football on the table. His self-confidence is exactly what American sports fans have treasured for generations. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne went for two points and the national championship against Miami in the 1983 season. We loved him for it, and 11 years passed before he won a ring.

Adams doesn't have 11 more seasons in college football. He has one. If he fails, the rest of us will move on to the next athlete who gambles on himself. Adams will have only what might have been.