Leader of the Quack Attack
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.”
Kelly had been tipped off by Oregon offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich, who’d attended a Saint Louis practice during Mariota’s junior season. It was a particularly breezy day as the wind whistled down Saint Louis Heights and, as Toa puts it, “Marcus was throwing dimes through the wind.”
That earned Mariota an invitation to a Ducks football camp in Eugene. Johnny Manziel, the No. 8-rated prep quarterback in the country according to scouting services, attended the same camp. Despite Mariota’s impressive performance at the camp, Kelly offered Manziel a scholarship on the spot. Mariota took it hard.
“I think his feelings were hurt,” says his mom. “He didn’t say a word on the flight back home.”
And you couldn’t blame him for being reminded of the three high school seasons he’d endured on the bench.
Funny thing, though. When Kelly offered Mariota a scholarship, Manziel accepted an offer from Texas A&M, where this season he’s leading the Southeastern Conference in passing yards as a redshirt freshman.
(Similarly, it’s said among Ducks cognoscenti that Darron Thomas, who over two seasons led Oregon to the last Pac-10 and first Pac-12 championships, the 2010 national championship game and a win in this year’s Rose Bowl, saw Mariota gaining in his rearview mirror and departed a year early for the NFL. Undrafted there, earlier this month he was signed to the practice squad of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders.)
Still, 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.”
While his heart had once been set on USC, when he’d attended a camp there he didn’t like it. Both Los Angeles and the USC campus were too big, too impersonal. But between fourth grade and high school, he started thinking of other schools. As his teammate, roommate and high school classmate Bronson Yim says, “Me and Marcus started liking the Ducks in about eighth grade.”
“I like the school, the small campus (at Oregon),” Mariota says. “Coming from a small island, a small school, and then coming to a small community in Eugene (population 160,000), it reminds me of home. This is a good fit for me.”
And he’s adjusted to the weather.
“My freshman year, after it started raining and it got cold, I was calling home and telling my mom I need a couple of rain jackets,” he says. “But now I’m used to it. It’s not like home, but I like it.”
Well, mostly. After Thursday practices, all Ducks players must jump into ice-water tubs, floes of ice cubes bobbing on the surface, outside the locker room – part of the scientific approach the team takes to nutrition, training and recovery.
“It’s really, really cold. I don’t really like it,” Mariota says with a shiver. “Last year when (the outdoor temperature) was getting down into the 30s, that was tough.”
But he smiles when he says it.
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.”
Though he stands 6-foot-4 today and is still growing, according to the family doctor, Marcus Ardel Taulauniu Mariota (both middle names after his grandfathers) was an average-size baby.
“He wasn’t huge,” Alana says, “21 inches, 7-pounds-10.”
“He didn’t hit his growth spurt until his freshman year,” adds Toa.
And if he had his way, his eldest son never would have strapped on a football helmet.
“In Samoa, I played every sport there was – volleyball, rugby – but my mom wouldn’t let me play football,” he says.
Following that family tradition, when Marcus wanted to play football, Toa consented only to the flag variety.
“He played wide receiver – that was the ‘cool’ position,” Toa says. “At 9 he was starting wide receiver for Kalani Pop Warner. So I’d throw him balls, playing catch at Kahala Park. And when he threw the ball back to me, I was, wow, he throws a perfect spiral!
“The next year, the quarterback moved up to the next division. I told the coach, eh, Marcus can throw.”
So he changed positions. “I went online,” Toa says, “looked up how to throw a football, and Marcus was already doing it naturally.”
He won the starting quarterback job.
Soon, young Marcus wanted to make the move to pads and helmets. Toa was against it.
“But he had his heart set on it,” says Alana.
“He did,” echoes Toa. “My dad wanted me to continue with flag, but my mom was the one who said, OK, give this a shot,” Marcus recalls. “And then I’d come home and I’d be sore, and my dad was like, I don’t know about this, but my mom was, eh, come on, suck it up. Now it’s pretty funny, my dad is the one to tell me to suck it up, and my mom is asking, ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’”
He was a good enough soccer player that the highly competitive Honolulu Bulls club team invited him to join.
“I can’t recall how I got involved in soccer, but it was a game I really liked,” he says. “I played for the Bulls until my freshman year.”
“That’s when they want a commitment (to focus on soccer),” Alana says.
“For him, it was easy,” says Toa. “He was always going to play football.”
But he also stuck with soccer and played at Saint Louis.
“I played all over, I was a mid-fielder and forward, I liked to run and dribble the ball,” Mariota says. “But after a while, because I wasn’t playing club, I lost something and they put me in the back to play defense.”
He also likes hooping it. “When he’s home, he likes to play basketball with his friends,” Alana says. “But his friends have become protective of him – nobody wants to see him get hurt.”
Although he has an aversion to the bone-cracking dangers of skateboarding and other X Games sports, Marcus grew up Boogie Boarding and body surfing at often-treacherous Sandy Beach, infamous for its concussive shore break.
“That’s his favorite, Sandy’s,” says Alana.
Against Arizona in his Pac-12 debut, with a big defensive lineman bearing down on him for a sack on third down, Mariota showed a patented Sandy’s move, ducking below the rush as if diving under a thunder-whumping wave about to explode on the shore, and scrambled for a first down.
Perhaps what prevented Hao from giving Mariota more of a chance is the young man’s natural laid-back demeanor. Teammates at Oregon and Coach Kelly speak of his quiet, unflappable composure. To some, it might be misconstrued as nonchalance.
“We raised him to be humble, but that calmness you see, that’s just Marcus,” says Alana. “He’s always been like that. What you see is what you get.”
“Chip gets it,” Toa says of the UO coach.
But as Mariota admitted to The Oregonian‘s beat writer Adam Jude, “I’m kind of a hard person to read.”
That calmness – along with his physical gifts, smarts and work ethic – may have been the deciding factor when Coach Kelly named Mariota his starter a week before the season opener. He beat out Bryan Bennett, a redshirt sophomore who played exceptionally in a backup role when Thomas was injured last season, saving a game against Arizona State and winning at Colorado. In the minds of many fans and media, Bennett – a rah-rah guy known to be something of a live wire both on and off the field – was the no-brainer favorite to be the starter.
But the confounding Kelly, for the second time in three seasons, chose an under-classman over a more experienced player to be his quarterback.
“I think most football coaches,” says the Register-Guard‘s Moseley, “would take a guy who is even-keeled every day over a guy who has big ups and downs.”
“When Kelly called him in to give him the news, that was a bittersweet moment for Marcus,” says Alana. “He was happy, but he also felt bad for Bryan. He knew how he felt.”
What star running back Kenjon Barner calls “that Hawaii cool” masks Mariota’s highly competitive spirit.
If ever that quality were in doubt, when a Washington player hit him late out of bounds, knocking him sprawling, and a couple of Husky players woofed at him, Mariota barked right back. But only for a moment before sprinting back onto the field to keep Oregon’s warp-speed offense moving – that drive resulting in Mariota throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to leaping tight end Colt Lyerla, giving the Ducks a 45-12 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“If you disrespect me or disrespect my teammates, I’m not going to let that go,” he told media after the game. “There’s situations where you need to keep your head, but there’s situations where you need to say something. I felt at that point in time they were getting a little chippy. I felt I needed to say a little something. That’s usually not in my character, it just kind of happened.”
(Oh, and here’s the definition of warp speed: In the first six games, 24 of the Webfoots’ 39 scoring drives took less than two minutes, and 14 required 60 seconds or less.)
Mariota’s younger brother Matt, 14, a 6-foot-1 sophomore defensive end at Saint Louis who was just called up to the varsity when the jayvee season ended, knows Marcus’ competitiveness well.
“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.’”