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Ex-Oilers guard tells Daffy story

Doug Pike, reprinted from the Houston Chronicle

After a Monday meeting on financial matters with Salomon/Smith Barney senior vice president Bob Talamini, conversation turned to the outdoors. Talamini isn’t an avid hunter or fisherman, but he knows I am and wanted to share a story.

For those who don’t recognize the name, Talamini played offensive guard for the Houston Oilers from 1960-1967, during which time the team won two league championships. The following year, in 1968, he played for the New York Jets and wears a winning-side Super Bowl ring to prove it.

He and his wife, Mary, live in one of those lakefront communities on the outskirts of Houston, which is where the story begins.

Early one morning several months ago, Talamini said, he heard a faint tapping at his front door. When he opened it, there was no delivery person, no salesperson, no person at all. Instead, at his feet, stood a newly hatched and most persistent duckling. It was only days old, Talamini said, offering an upturned palm and showing with his other hand how the little bird fit there.

Figuring the baby duck had become separated from its mother and nestlings, this once ferocious, barrel-chested NFL lineman scooped up the little bird and shuttled it to the lake across the street. He placed the ball of golden fluff and webbed feet into the water, then turned to walk home. The duckling swam a tight loop; struggled back onto land and waddled double-time to catch Talamini. It followed him across the street, into the yard, up the sidewalk and back to the front door.

Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Talamini. It’s a mallard.

At first, they fed it breadcrumbs. A couple of phone calls and a little research later, Daphne – a duck has to have a name – was eating high-protein food designed especially for growing waterfowl.

The longer he had the duck, the more Talamini became attached to it. And vice versa. They walked together; they swam in the pool together. Aware he was dealing with a wild animal, though, Talamini knew Daphne needed the company of her own kind.

He bought a toy duck. A yellow one, bathtub variety, about the same size and color. The two became fast friends. By day, Daphne’s loyalty remained to the football player. But at night, the little mallard would seek out its plastic playmate, nuzzle up to it, and fall asleep.

Talamini was so moved that he bought several more plastic ducks. He placed them in a small circle, and when she saw them, Daphne slept right in the middle of all the other ducks.

"You wouldn’t believe how fast that duck grew," he recalled. "It looked bigger every day. It would stand up and flap its wings, and they were always so stubby. And then one day, all of a sudden, they were really big. I looked down and said, ‘That’s great, but where do you think you're going?’"

Not long after Daphne’s last pinfeathers were replaced with permanent ones, she also started getting her adult coloring, not the least noticeable of which was a narrow band of dark green feathers coming in at the neckline.

Daphne, it turns out, was not a she but a he. As soon as the determination was made, the "n" was dropped from the duck’s name. Daphne was now Daph-e – Daffy.

Talamini knew a backyard swimming pool was no place for a young buck duck. He knew also that if Daffy hung out with him too long, he might just forget he was a duck. A rehabilitation specialist in Magnolia (Texas) was contacted, and she agreed to take Daffy under her wing.

"I couldn’t get him to do anything," Talamini said, "so I asked Mary to help. She got him to go into one of those little cat cages, and we took him up to Magnolia."

There, he was released onto a lake with many other ducks, each in a different stage of rehab from injury or abandonment or, as in Talamini’s case, kind-hearted placement.

The folks in Magnolia say that based on feeding-time observations, Daffy has a definite fondness for people but still knows he’s a duck. When feed is distributed, all the ducks rush in, eat their fill, then distance themselves quickly from people. All, that is, except one duck, a young mallard drake that tends to linger.

"I asked how they knew it was Daffy," Talamini said. "They said they just knew."

In time, with nothing but blue-sky overhead, Daffy might be lured by the sounds and sights of wilder waterfowl. Eventually, he might even migrate.

Which raises an interesting thought. Should a single green-head mallard appear over the decoys some time during the next few winters, there may good reason to set down the duck call and holler, "Here Daffy."

If that worked, of course, if that mallard responded and banked toward the decoys, there’s no way I could bring myself to shoot. No way.

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