The Legend Of Marcus Mariota Grows

When the persistent moisture at the corners of my eyes at last abated after Marcus Mariota was named the Heisman Trophy winner, I went back and looked at the MidWeek cover story I did on him in the Oct. 24, 2012, issue. (And as I wrote at the time, all the credit for foresight goes to our publisher Ron Nagasawa, who early recognized the sensation Marcus was becoming on a national stage and sent me back to my alma mater in Eugene to do the story, and to company president Dennis Francis, who agreed and picked up the tab.)

Anyway, reading through that story again, and in light of all he’s done since — including throwing at least one touch-down pass in each of the 39 games he’s played at Oregon — a few things jumped out and seem worth repeating now as Marcus and the No. 2 University of Oregon Fighting Ducks prepare to play Florida State in a national semifinal playoff game New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl. Direct quotes from that story are in italics.

Heisman Mariota Football

Heisman Mariota Football
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Marcus Mariota has thrown a touchdown pass in every game he's played CHRIS PIETSCH / AP PHOTO

When Marcus Mariota was a fourth-grader at Nuuanu Elementary — in the days when his regular school uniform was a No. 22 Emmitt Smith Dallas Cowboys jersey and denim shorts — he was assigned to write an essay about how he imagined his future path.

“He wrote,” says his mother Alana, “‘I’m going to go to school at Saint Louis and play football, then move to USC, then the NFL, and I’ll marry a soccer player.'”

“In that order,” adds his father Toa.

“He had a plan all along,” says Alana, “even when he was struggling at Saint Louis.”

Plans are good. Details may change — when he visited USC on a recruiting trip, both the campus and L.A. were too big and busy for the young man who says he’s from “a small school on a small island” — but not the ultimate goal.

Some UH fans were grumbling at the time that Marcus had not “stayed home.”

“I want to put this on the record,” his mother says. “UH did not offer Marcus anything. They never spoke to him, no conversation, no offer. Nothing.”

Adds Toa: “When UH had its Junior’s Day (when promising local prep football players in their junior years are invited to Manoa for a football camp), Ron and Cal Lee asked the other Saint Louis boys, ‘Eh, where’s Marcus?’ They just shrugged. ‘Oh, he was never invited.'”

“It wasn’t until Marcus committed to Oregon that Rolovich (Nick, then the UH quarterbacks coach under head coach Greg McMackin) called,” says Alana.

Does anyone really think he’d be a Heisman winner if he had stayed home?

Despite directing the Crusaders to two touchdowns when called upon as an underclassman, on both occasions he was sent back to the bench by coach John Hao, who preferred Jeremy Higgins, who was a grade ahead.

“That was so frustrating for Marcus,” Alana says. “We’d pick him up after games, and on the drive home he was on the verge of tears sometimes.”

“He loves the game so much,” Toa says.

Alana says she approached Punahou coach Kale Ane about Marcus transferring after his sophomore season.

“We talked about it with Marcus, but he decided to stay and tough it out at Saint Louis. Plus, he loves the school.”

(Give Hao credit for this: “He was the one who put us in touch with Oregon,” Alana says.)

“It was hard, but Jeremy was playing really well,” Mariota says of those years. “But I learned from it and it made me stronger.”

And give credit to Oregon’s coach at the time, Chip Kelly, and current coach and then-offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, who recognized Marcus’ abilities before he started his senior season at Saint Louis and offered him a scholarship.

Says Mariota: “When (Kelly) was on the phone, I was like, ‘Coach, are you sure?’ I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m respectful they gave me the opportunity, and I’m glad they did.”

When Marcus accepted the scholarship to Oregon, Johnny Manziel — who’d attended a Ducks camp with Marcus and earlier had accepted a scholarship offer — decided he’d head to Texas A&M instead. Both are now Heisman winners. I’m of the opinion Oregon got the better quarterback, and better person.

Despite his winning a state title his senior season at Saint Louis, Oregon redshirted Marcus in his freshman year, meaning he was on the team but not playing in games.

Being the third-string quarterback his first year at Oregon wasn’t easy.

“You practice and practice, and not being able to play was tough, just standing on the sidelines,” Mariota says. “But it was also good because I was able to learn the offense.”

As with sitting behind Higgins, Marcus can find positive life lessons and motivation in difficult times.

As much as he likes his new surroundings, he does look forward to “care packages” from home.

“He’s not so much into the cuttlefish and crack seed,” Alana says. “His thing is the dipped cookies — the white chocolate kind.”

Marcus was 10 and playing flag football with Kalani Pop Warner when he switched from wide receiver to quarterback.

“I went online,” Toa says, “looked up how to throw a football, and Marcus was already doing it naturally.”

In one of the most ridiculous things ever said on TV, which is saying something, an NFL scout this fall was actually quoted that Marcus might be too nice to play in the pros. The guy obviously missed the inner fire that drives Marcus. I saw a photo of him getting off the team bus before the Oregon State game last month, and the look on his face was almost scary in its intense focus.

“Marcus is so competitive, he has to win at everything,” Alana says. “He competes with Matt in everything even though he’s four years older. Now it’s video games. I told him, eh, can’t you let Matt win just one time? He says, ‘Losing is good for him.'”

“Yeah, that’s what I tell him,” Mariota says. “My mom used to harp on me, why don’t you take it easy on your little brother? And I’d say, ‘Mom, that’s not the kind of lesson to teach him, and I don’t ever want to accept losing.'”

Marcus graduated earlier this month with a degree in general sciences — yes, despite quarterbacking one of the elite football teams in the country and all the time that requires, Marcus graduated with a tough major in less than four years. It’s all but certain he will declare for the NFL draft whenever his season ends, hopefully following a win in the national championship game Jan. 12.

While the NFL is certainly a possibility, Mariota says a career in physical therapy could be in his future.

“I like being around sports,” he says, “so if I can continue being around it, I’ll be happy.”

What about following his dad into law enforcement? (Toa is with Homeland Security.)

“We talked about it,” he says with a laugh, “and he didn’t think I have the personality for it.”

It was clear from his acceptance speech how important Marcus’ family is to him.

“They’re the best; I wouldn’t be here without what they taught me,” Mariota says of his parents. “They taught me to be the person I am today, and they’re always there for me. I miss my family and love them to death.”

The kind of person he is today: After practice, Ducks players get an energy bar and sports drink. Marcus gives his to a homeless guy he sees every day on his drive back to campus.

ESPN analyst Matt Millen said after Mariota threw yet another touchdown pass against Washington: “And he hasn’t even scratched the surface.”

And you get the feeling, even with a Heisman Trophy on his resume, he still hasn’t.

Though as he said in a column I wrote in September after attending a game in Eugene: “I’ve come long way.”

He has indeed, with much more to come.

dchapman@midweek.com