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Don Chapman

Leader of the Quack Attack

Click to read more Things Are Just Ducky

Freshman Marcus Mariota, a Saint Louis alum, has Oregon at No. 2 in the AP Poll and chasing a national title.

Marcus Mariota, the first freshman quarterback to start at Oregon in 21 years, has the Ducks up to No. 2 in the AP Poll, and chasing a national championship. Here’s an exclusive look at the Saint Louis grad as well as seven other Ducks who call Hawaii home

“Mariota makes it look easy!” -ESPN’s Joe Tessitore after Marcus Mariota threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to give No. 2 Oregon a 28-0 lead over Arizona in his Pac-12 debut

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.”

Today, Mariota is the quarterback of the second-ranked (AP Poll) University of Oregon Ducks, and an out-of-nowhere fan and media sensation who is drawing raves on a national stage. And he won’t turn 19 until Oct. 30, just days before he’s scheduled to lead the Fighting Ducks against USC.

And no wonder he has the nation’s attention. Starting for the Ducks as a redshirt freshman (meaning he practiced but did not play last season, and maintains four years of NCAA eligibility), he led the Quack Attack to touchdowns the first nine times he was on the field. In the first 30 drives he led, Oregon scored 19 touch-downs – all on national television.

Through seven games in which the Ducks went 7-0 – including a 43-21 win at Arizona State last Thursday – Mariota had a quarterback efficiency rating of 155, had completed 123 of 180 passes with five interceptions and 16 touchdowns (while sitting out most of the second halves of the first three games and the Arizona game as Oregon raced to big leads). He’d also run the ball 53 times and averaged 7.6 yards per carry (that stat enhanced by his 86-yard TD sprint against Arizona State). In that game he actually ran and threw for touchdowns, and caught a pass for another. And the Ducks scored their 43 points in the game’s opening 19 minutes.

Most impressively, he’s looked as placid as the glassy surface of the Mill Race, a historic slough near campus, while accomplishing all this.

Mariota, who stands 6-foot-4 and has been timed at 4.4 seconds over 40 yards, was recently added to the Maxwell Trophy “watch list” – the award going to the country’s best player.

“I’m just trying to get the ball out to my teammates and let them make plays,” he says humbly of his performance through the first half of his first college season.

He’s made a few plays as well, with his arm and his feet.

“I’ve never seen a player show such obvious, marked improvement from one week to the next,” says Rob Moseley, the Oregon football beat writer for the Eugene Register-Guard who has been covering the Ducks since 1997. “Mariota is literally growing up as a player before your eyes. Against Washington State, he forced a couple throws into tight coverage and took a couple of big hits at the end of runs, and afterward said he knew both were things he needed to clean up going forward. Well, sure enough, literally the next week against Washington, he threw two touchdowns on which he checked down to his third or fourth options in order to avoid throwing into coverage, and he stepped out of bounds at the end of a couple runs to avoid big hits. Very impressive.”

The R-G‘s banner headline the morning after Mariota threw four touchdown passes against UW: “My, how he has grown.”

Before we go any further in the story of this young man who has persevered through years of setbacks and insults to now lead one of the most popular and recognized teams in the country, let’s set the record straight on one thing – and perhaps calm those University of Hawaii uber-fans who grumble on various blogs that, after leading Saint Louis to a state title in his senior season (2010), Mariota didn’t stay home – as well as counter some of the misinformation that’s leaked from Manoa on the subject.

“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.

While we’re setting records straight, and in answer to questions fans in both Hawaii and Oregon are asking:

First, regarding ethnic heritage and family background: Toa was born in American Samoa, and came to Hawaii after some years in the Bay Area caring for his ailing grandmother, to attend Chaminade University. There he would earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice. Today he’s a criminal investigator with the Department of Homeland Security, assigned to the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force, and just made 25 years in federal law enforcement.

Alana – pronounced with a long sound for the middle a – is of mostly German descent. She spent early years in Alaska as her father and grandfather worked there during the oil boom years, but the family settled on Kaua’i and she graduated from Kapa’a High. Her father Ardel Deppe still resides at Anahola. Alana, who spent 18 years with Kaiser Permanente in sales, is now district manager for Follett Library Resources, working with schools on books and curriculum. A competitive swimmer in high school, she turned down a scholarship to Pepperdine – “I was tired of swimming laps, it’s boring” – and instead enrolled at Chaminade, where she met Toa.

Second, regarding the family name: Contrary to what the aforementioned and otherwise quite competent Tessitore said during Oregon’s first game of the season – repeatedly pronouncing Marcus’ last name MarioTA, misinforming the nation by practically shouting the last syllable – Toa says “it’s a soft ‘ta,’ not a hard ‘ta.’”

Until his breakout performance in the Oregon intra-squad spring game this past April on ESPN – in which he passed for 202 yards and one touchdown, and scored on runs of 14 and 82 yards – Mariota was something of a mystery to Ducks fans. Oregon Coach Chip Kelly closes practices to media and fans, so whatever Mariota was doing last season and in spring practices was done largely in obscurity.

And having played football at Saint Louis since seventh grade without ever starting until his senior season, he also was something of a mystery to Hawaii fans.

Despite directing the Crusaders to two touch-downs 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.”

To his credit, Higgins was named all-Interscholastic League of Honolulu first team his junior season and second team his senior year. But during those years (’08-’09), while the talented Crusaders reached No. 1 in state rankings, they failed to make the state championship game (which, adding to the sting, were won by ILH rivals Punahou and Kamehameha). Higgins would enroll at Utah State, but transferred to UH, and after sitting out a season is currently a reserve, playing in two of the Warriors’ first six games this season in mop-up duty.

Some observers say Hao’s handling of Mariota and the failure to win even a league title with Higgins led to his firing – and to former Saint Louis quarterback/coach Darnell Arceneaux being brought back to coach Mariota in his senior season. After winning the ILH, in the state title game Mariota led the Crusaders to a resounding 36-13 win over Waianae.

(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.”

So when Oregon’s Kelly called and offered Mariota a scholarship even before his senior season, you can see why fans on both sides of the Pacific were baffled: “Who is this guy? He can’t be that good if he never started before, right?”

They were not alone in their puzzlement.

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