Long before he became the biggest force on the Oregon defensive line, DeForest Buckner had a conversation that changed his life.
It was months after the worst night of his life, months after he would walk into the hospital room and see his father hooked up to machines, body bruised and swollen.
He was 13, and living in Hawaii, when his father was involved in a motorcycle accident on his way home from work, leaving George Buckner in a medically induced coma for six months.
The joy when George emerged from the coma was still heavy in the air one night as DeForest was leaving the hospital room with his mother, older sister Shantel and younger brother, Kenya. That’s when someone heard something.
It was George. In a pained whisper, he said he wanted to speak to DeForest. Alone.
“They had a man-to-man,” said Maria Buckner, his mom.
Broken and still fighting for his life, George told DeForest that no matter what happened, the family was now his responsibility.
He told him he had to become the man of the house.
“It was kind of like a scene out of a movie, you know?” Buckner said Saturday, tears streaking his face.
Seven years later, in Eugene, Buckner was pulled aside for another important conversation.
In the days leading up to this memorable Oregon football season, Ducks defensive coordinator Don Pellum said he pulled Buckner aside. A hulking figure at 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Buckner had emerged as a starter midway through the prior season.
But Pellum thought there could be more.
“I thought he just needed to be told ‘We need you to be that guy,’ ” Pellum said.
In a roundabout way, Buckner was once again being told to take on extra responsibility. He was told to become the man of the Ducks’ defense.
“And somewhere,” Pellum said. “It’s happened.”
• • •
Buckner this season was not just the man on the Ducks’ defensive front, he was a force.
He was named second-team all-Pac-12 after leading the Ducks with 12 tackles for loss. He was also fourth on the team in tackles with 69 — 25 more than fellow linemen Arik Armstead and Alex Balducci combined — and was tied for third on the team with four sacks. He also added three quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and forced a fumble.
And as anyone can attest who watched Oregon destroy Arizona at the line of scrimmage in the Pac-12 championship game, Buckner was the driving force of eliminating the notion the Ducks’ defense is soft up front.
Part of his dominance, Buckner says, can be traced to Pellum.
When the longtime Ducks linebackers coach took over as defensive coordinator this season, he not only challenged Buckner to become the man of the line, he also changed the philosophy of the front three to allow Buckner more freedom.
Instead of the Ducks’ traditional two-gap scheme for defensive linemen – which requires the linemen to clog two alleys to enable the linebackers to sweep up and demolish runners — Pellum wanted his front linemen to wreak more havoc. He wanted Buckner to penetrate, get up field and be more in the face of the quarterback.
Usually, defensive linemen are lost in the shuffle, doing the dirty work that frees up the linebackers and safeties to make big plays. But Buckner relishes the role, referring to his three-point stance as playing “with my hand in the dirt.”
“I like to say we are the first to the action,” Buckner said. “Every play you get to hit someone. And that’s what the game is about.”
As Thursday’s Rose Bowl approaches, he mentions the discipline it took to train for this moment. The pain and sacrifice it took to build his craft. And Pellum is quick to mention Buckner’s “madman” approach to practice.
None of it, Buckner figures, would have happened without that February night seven years ago, when a pickup truck turned left, unaware of an oncoming motorcycle.
“After the accident, I had to keep my head on my shoulders,” Buckner said. “I had to be how my dad wanted me to be, how he raised me. Having to do that definitely built me to who I am today.”
• • •
The worst night of his life, Buckner said, started innocently enough.
It was basketball season, the sport in which he would eventually become the Hawaii Gatorade state high school player of the year, and he had returned home and was showering before dinner.
From his bedroom, he could hear the phone ring in the next room.
“My mom was in the kitchen, and she answered,” Buckner remembered.
There was a hello … Who is this? … Where is my husband? … What! … I will be there in a second.
With each question, each statement, Buckner remembers his mom’s voice raising.
“She was being loud, so I went in the kitchen; I didn’t know what was going on,” Buckner said. “I sat there and she hung up and said, ‘Your dad was in an accident; I’ll be right back.’ And she just left.
“It happened so fast.”
Maria raced to the scene, knowing only that it happened just blocks from their home near the 76 gas station.
“I got there the same time as the ambulance,” Maria said. “My husband still had his helmet on, and I remember his head was very near to the truck’s tire. He was laid out.”
George says he has faint memories of the accident.
“I thought I was OK,” George said. “And I remember trying to stand up, but I collapsed. Then I asked the driver ‘Did you see me?’ He said no.”
He suffered a broken right femur, a crushed pelvis, broke all the ribs on his left side, punctured his lung, tore his aorta and ripped apart his shoulder, causing extensive nerve damage on his left side.
Back home, DeForest waited in silence. An eighth-grader with a million questions and nobody to answer them.
“The worst was going through my mind,” Buckner said. “I thought I could lose my dad.”
He was picked up by relatives and spent the night with his grandmother. But Buckner figures he never did close his eyes.
“I remember that whole night,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. Not at all. It was probably the worst night of my life.”
Their hometown of Waianae is on the west side of Oahu, and is considered the countryside of the island. George was taken to a hospital 45 minutes away. It would be a week until DeForest would finally enter his room to see him.
“I saw everything hooked up to him. He was in a coma. He looked beat up,” Buckner said.
It was a startling sight. His father was a pillar of strength; a standout athlete who played three seasons of basketball at Ole Miss and one season at Hawaii Pacific. He also served as the coach of his basketball teams.
“My dad, he was a strong guy. Nothing could take him down,” Buckner said, his voice breaking. “I remember grabbing his hand and just praying.”
• • •
For months, the family would be by his side, the kids usually on weekends, Maria every day. They would watch movies. Read. Just be there.
“I would just talk to him. We figured he could hear us, so we just talked to him, tell what we did throughout the day,” Buckner remembered. “It was hard.”
Buckner said he often found himself reflecting on the lessons his father would always preach.
“He was hard on us, and disciplined us, shaped us,” Buckner said. “He taught us about respect. That it’s not given, it’s earned. And that you have to treat everyone around you like you want to be treated.”
George, who is black, and Maria, who is Samoan, also instilled the Polynesian principles of family and humility.
“He would just remind us all the time, when we were out in public, that we are not just a reflection of ourselves, but also of our family,” Buckner said. “He wanted us to display ourselves like you wanted your family to be viewed.”
He was already a good kid, but when George came out of his coma, then later summoned DeForest for a talk, DeForest figures he became a man.
“I just took full responsibility,” Buckner said. “He kind of told me I had to. I didn’t know how much longer he had, because he had been in the hospital so long. He said that no matter what happens I have to take care of the family because I’m the oldest boy.”
DeForest said he started to understand the value of responsibility, work ethic and accountability.
Maria said DeForest started becoming a mentor to his little brother, Kenya, making sure he kept up on his chores and school work. He became diligent with his own chores, and developed into the handyman of the home, making repairs, doing yard work.
“DeForest had to grow up really fast,” Maria said. “He pretty much became the man of the house, and he handled it really well. He made sure he was always available and that he had done what he was supposed to have done.
“He did what his dad would have wanted him to do.”
• • •
In the coming weeks, Buckner says he will announce whether he is entering the NFL draft or returning to Eugene for his senior season.
He has made his decision, he says, but only he and his parents know the verdict.
“At the right time, I will make an announcement,” Buckner said.
If he leaves, the NFL will be getting one of the hardest practice players at Oregon, Pellum says.
If he stays, he has a chance to become the most dominant defensive lineman at Oregon since Haloti Ngata.
“I’m excited about the future, but living in the present,” Buckner said. “I’m worrying about the now. I definitely have to think a lot about next year.”
One thing he no longer has to worry about, though, is his father.
There have been eight surgeries and too many rehabilitation sessions to count for George Buckner since he woke up seven years ago.
He has graduated from a wheelchair to a walker and will be in attendance for the Rose Bowl.
“And the championship, too, if they win,” he vowed.
If the Ducks do get there, chances are Buckner — with his hand in the dirt — will have taken charge of the situation.
Since he was 13, responsibility has been thrust upon him, both on and off the field.
“At times, it can be tough. But it was instilled in me at a young age from my dad’s situation,” Buckner said. “Now, when somebody needs to take charge, or somebody needs to step up, I will take charge and do it.”
Source: Deconstructing DeForest Buckner: How The Man of the Oregon defensive line first became a man | OregonLive.com