EUGENE — Andre Yruretagoyena knew it was time to make it official. 

For months, doubt brewed. Even as he made his way up the depth chart and found himself in favor with Oregon’s coaches, he couldn’t deny that something didn’t feel right. After four years at Oregon, the offensive lineman had finally earned a starting spot. He was no longer out of shape like he was his freshman year and no longer timid like he was as a sophomore. He made it on the line, in place for one of the biggest nonconference games in team history against Michigan State, tasked with protecting a quarterback who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy. 

But even then, Yruretagoyena had feelings that football might not be for him. He wanted to see more and to do more. He wanted to have some of the normal college experience and prepare himself for a life outside of the game. 

He already had these thoughts before he crumpled to the Autzen turf with a broken leg in the third quarter of Oregon’s eventual win over the Spartans. 

Four months later, still with pain in his leg, Yruretagoyena was done. He had made his decision. After spending most of the 2014 football season trying to come back from the broken leg, yet never returning to the starting lineup, Yruretagoyena knew it was time to acknowledge the R word.

It was time to retire. And unlike players who retire because of injury or due to performance, Yruretagoyena decided to go out conceivably before he had played his best football. If healthy in 2015, Yruretagoyena would have likely been a starter. Instead, he chose to walk away.

It was a tough decision and one that he dreaded telling his coaches and teammates. He wondered what their reactions would be. But first, before them, and even his parents, Yruretagoyena had to tell Tyler. 

• • •

The dream was always for Yruretagoyena and Tyler Johnstone to one day go into the trenches side by side for Oregon. The two offensive linemen went to elementary school together in Vancouver before reconnecting in high school in Arizona. When they committed to Oregon, they quickly became best friends. They roomed together, went out together and joked together. 

But their Oregon careers couldn’t have gone more differently. Johnstone quickly became a mainstay on the Ducks’ offensive line, starting 26 consecutive games over his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. He was outgoing with the media and one of the more vocal players on the team. But as Johnstone flourished, Yruretagoyena struggled. He showed up to camp out of shape his freshman year and then battled through confidence issues. The two had always dreamed of starting together on the line, and Johnstone had done his part. It was a matter of whether Yruretagoyena would take the next step. In 2014, he did. He was better in practices and more prepared. But during camp, he was still on the outside looking in. His actual ascension into the starting lineup came when Johnstone went down with a torn ACL. 

If the two were to ever play together, it would have to come in the 2015 season, when both players would have been expected to slot into starting positions. The dream, assuming everything went smoothly, would be realized. 

But Yruretagoyena was about to end that dream, and he dreaded having to tell the one teammate he had known for most of his life.  

Johnstone was playing video games in his bedroom when Yruretagoyena walked in with a sullen face. Never were the two serious with each other, only on the rarest of occurrences. So when Johnstone saw his friend walk in, he knew something was wrong. 

“It was just his face,” Johnstone said. “We’re always messing around. We’re always joking around. You could tell right away.” 

Yruretagoyena met his eyes and unloaded. 

“I’m so sorry,” Yruretagoyena said. “I just can’t do this anymore.” 

• • •

Johnstone didn’t like what he heard. He didn’t really understand it. The majority of his life has been football. It took up his summers, falls, winters and springs. He’s twice suffered knee injuries and grinded the last two years just to get back on the field. The goal has always been to get onto the field, never to leave it.

As a football player, he hated what he heard from Yruretagoyena in his room in February. Johnstone was nearly 100 percent healthy, finally, and he and Yruretagoyena were expected to be two returning pieces on a drastically changed offensive line. The Ducks had graduated Hroniss Grasu, Jake Fisher and Hamani Stevens. They had a new quarterback taking the reins from Marcus Mariota, and the Ducks needed some stability.

From a football standpoint, Johnstone made his pitch. 

It’s just one more year, he said. It will be worth it to finish. Don’t make a brash decision. 

But Yruretagoyena’s decision wasn’t made on a whim. Heading into the 2014 season, he began to feel like his heart wasn’t in it. Make no mistake, playing college football, especially for a program like Oregon, is a full-time job. Between practices and meetings and workouts, players are left with little time for school or anything else. 

“It’s a triangle and you can pick two,” Johnstone said. “It’s school, sport and social life. You can’t pick three. You don’t have time.” 

Yruretagoyena wasn’t looking forward to the football season like he had in the past. He dreaded the time it took up and the commitment. That feeling only grew after he broke his leg against the Spartans and faced a long rehabilitation. 

After the season, another year seemed like too much. His heart wasn’t in it, his leg was still in pain and he respected his teammates too much to give less than full effort. 

“I just couldn’t see myself fulfilling the role of being a senior in this program,” Yruretagoyena said. “Going into last season, I told myself I would do everything to win a starting job and I did, then I got hurt. I was discouraged after that. No matter how hard I forced myself to do it, my heart wasn’t in it. Football isn’t a sport where you can just go through the motions, especially with this program where it is so fast-paced and everyone is depending on each other. I just didn’t have it anymore.”

And though Johnstone couldn’t relate to the feeling, he took his friend’s word that it was the best thing for him. He didn’t like it, but he respected it.

And with Johnstone out of the way, Yruretagoyena could move on to telling the coaching staff. The only problem was head coach Mark Helfrich was away for a week. Yruretagoyena texted Helfrich to request a meeting when he got back. Helfrich, sensing something was wrong, called him.

“I told him I’d rather talk in person,” Yruretagoyena said. “It needed to be a man-to-man conversation.”

So for a week, Yruretagoyena waited. And while he waited, Johnstone covered for him. The Ducks were in the midst of offseason workouts and Yruretagoyena created a noticeable absence at the gym.

“I kept telling everyone he was sick,” Johnstone said. “But I don’t want them to get the idea that if you’re sick you shouldn’t show up, so I said he was really, really sick.”

Eventually, the week passed and Yruretagoyena met with Helfrich. Yruretagoyena said he received a response similar to Johnstone’s. And Helfrich, who has his thumb on the pulse of the program, wasn’t exactly surprised. 

“At no point do we ever want anyone here that doesn’t want to be here. They won’t operate at a level they’re happy with and that we’re happy with,” Helfrich said. “There are some things that teenagers, young people, make decisions that we all scratch our heads and go, ‘Hey, why do they do that?’ But if you have a pretty good relationship with the guys, and I think we do, you can kind of see some things coming. You just try and support them whichever way it goes.”

• • •

Since retiring, Yruretagoyena’s life is suddenly without structure. It’s something he’s never really experienced. This spring, instead of practices and meetings, he took up golf and set his own schedule. Weight has melted off his once 300-pound frame. He’s eating for one instead of four. In just three months after the national title game, Yruretagoyena had already dropped 25 pounds. 

There’s been a bit of an adjustment phase. At home, Yruretagoyena would watch Johnstone eat whatever he wanted while he tried to keep his portions down. At the gym, he noticed a difference between working out with purpose and working out for show. 

“It’s weird, people just have normal workout gear and I’m in all my Oregon-issued stuff,” he said. “With the team, we’re all just there to work out. It’s not like a fashion show like it is at the Rec.” 

It’s been different, but good different. He feels like some former teammates and coaches don’t understand his decision, but he doesn’t hear about it. The worst he’s gotten was some glib remarks from some anonymous online commenters calling him out for quitting. 

Duck fans have been polite and have wished him well. He doesn’t feel like it’s a sour note to end his career on. 

“I’m extremely happy and don’t regret anything,” he said in April before finishing school. “I don’t miss being out there right now. I miss being around the guys. I put my time in. I’m focused on getting my degree.” 

And though Yruretagoyena would have likely been a starter this season, he knew that his chances of making it to the NFL were slim to none. He wanted to focus on the next chapter in his life. This spring, as the Ducks worked out and practiced, Yruretagoyena met with job recruiters. He made trips to Portland for interviews, trying to dip his toes into the commercial sales and financial advising world.

This fall, as the Ducks attempt to return to the College Football Playoff, Yruretagoyena is considering backpacking through Europe. He isn’t exactly sure. His schedule is open.

Johnstone and others think he’ll start missing the game around then. Yruretagoyena disagrees. If anything, after choosing to step away from the game before reaching his peak, he’ll miss the people, but not the sport. But most important to Yruretagoyena, he still has Johnstone on his side, even as his friend will be on the line this fall as Yruretagoyena suddenly has a world of options to explore.

— Tyson Alger
[email protected]
@tysonalger

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