Leader of the Quack Attack
“Yeah, that’s what I tell him,” Marcus 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.’
“Now he’s getting older, and it’s funny, Matt’s starting to beat me at some things – mostly video games. And I’m like, oh, man! I’m kind of a video game junkie, and so is he. We’d stay up and play each other, and we’d get so angry with each other, and our mom would step in. He was the kind who would never give up, but now he’s talking trash to me and I’m the one going, ‘Uhhh.’ (He grimaces, rolls his eyes, then smiles.) And it still continues, when I’m home that’s the first thing we do is jump on the video games.”
As for Matt’s football season, Marcus says, “I’m happy for him and really proud.”
The feelings are mutual. “Matt is proud of his big brother, but he’s kind of protective too,” their mother says. “Like he sees other kids have Marcus’ photo as their phone screensaver, and he’s like, ‘Why do you have my brother’s picture in your phone?'”
“I told him,” their dad adds, “‘so who do you have on your phone?’ It’s Patrick Willis (the 49ers’ All-Pro linebacker). I told him it’s the same thing.”
Back home in Hawaii Kai, Mariota’s bedroom is still decorated with Dallas Cowboys regalia. He’s such a Cowboys fan, after he committed to Oregon his grandmother Alice Deppe asked: “Marcus, do the Cowboys know you like them?”
“Uh, Grandma, that’s the pros.”
After the Washington win, Coach Kelly was asked about the progress of the first Oregon freshman to start at quarterback in 21 years:
“He’s learning every day out there, and it’s fun to watch him learn from his mistakes and improve. Very rarely does he make the same mistake twice. That’s one thing that’s awesome about him … I think he played really well tonight, and if he can play at that level we can be pretty good.”
“I like to think of myself as a student of the game,” Mariota says. “You need to be, so you know what you need to do, but the other guys (and their assignments on each play) too.”
Mariota’s 3.8 GPA at Saint Louis also attests to his smarts. At Oregon, he is a general sciences major. He’d considered a biology/pre-med major, but the class schedule did not mesh with the Ducks’ early morning practices.
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?
“We talked about it,” he says with a laugh, “and he didn’t think I have the personality for it.”
But as bright as he is, in his early days teachers gave his parents reasons to worry.
“In kindergarten and first grade, he was having a hard time with phonics,” Alana recalls. “The teachers (at Nuuanu Elementary) mentioned maybe holding him back.”
“We were living in Ewa Beach at that time,” Toa says, “spending all that time in the car, so we had him read license plates, sounding out the letters.”
It worked, says Alana, “and once he got to Saint Louis, he took off (academically). By the seventh grade, we knew he was a bright kid. He did his school work” with no problems or parental nagging.
“But that was the same question Arceneaux had: ‘Why didn’t you hold him back?'” Toa says, and answers with a shrug.
Being held back a grade would have given Mariota an extra year of eligibility at Saint Louis, a chance for another championship.
But he wouldn’t be starting for the No. 2 team in the country this season if he had.
Proud as his family is of him, as any parent of a child who goes away knows, it’s not easy.
“I miss him,” says Alana. “He’s only been home once in the past 16 months. Between football and school, he’s really busy.”
They text regularly, talk when they can.
So when Toa, Alana, Matt and Grandma were there for the Oct. 6 Washington game, it was a happy occasion for everyone.
“They’re the best; I wouldn’t be here without what they taught me,” Marcus 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.”
While his family had to return to Honolulu after a short visit, one aspect of home has moved closer. His high school sweetheart Nicole Watase, a recent graduate of Sacred Hearts, just started her freshman year at Oregon. Asked if he would mind her being mentioned in this story, he shakes his head, smiles.
“Not at all, I love her to death. She’s here now and I’m happy she’s here. She’s the one, after the Washington State game, I was pretty sore, and she helped work out the kinks,” he says, making a massaging motion.
“Marcus took Nicole to his junior prom, and they’ve pretty much been together ever since,” says her mother Karen Watase, a former MidWeek employee. “And then his senior year, he was the quarterback and she was cheerleading for Sacred Hearts, which cheers for Saint Louis, so they have this classic, sweet storybook thing.
“He’s such a polite, respectful young man, any parent who has a daughter would be happy to have him dating their daughter.”
Could Nicole’s presence in Eugene be a distraction?
“Not a chance,” Karen says. “Nothing distracts Marcus. He has focus like you wouldn’t believe.”
Nicole played soccer when she was younger, by the way, and wrestled in high school.
As the quarterback of the nation’s No. 2 team, Mariota has been getting more and more media requests for his time.
“Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming,” he admits.
“I think Marcus is taking all the media attention better than we are,” says Alana. “Marcus is a people pleaser. We tell him, ‘It’s OK to say no sometimes (to interview requests).'”
“Yeah,” adds Toa, “This is new for us too. I think he handles it better.”
Says the Register-Guard‘s Moseley: “Since last year he’s been well-spoken in interviews, with a maturity that belied his years. But he also had a touch of shyness that’s starting to wear off. He carries himself with a little more confidence, a self-assured air, when he’s in front of the cameras.”
As for the future, well, that topic doesn’t get talked about at Oregon. Sure, you declare a major and may have some career and personal goals in mind. But in terms of football, in Chip Kelly’s world, only today matters, and the only game that matters is the next one.
“Every game is a rivalry game,” he says.
When fans and media played up the historic Northwest “rivalry” before the Washington game (a favorite Oregon cheer is “Huck the Fuskies!”), Kelly called it “another game … If you make two or three games a season your big games, you’re disrespecting your other opponents.”
Kelly’s mantra is “Win The Day.” Meaning do what you need to do to win this day, do the same tomorrow, and at the end of the year you’ll have had a pretty good year. WTD signs are emblazoned on the walls of Autzen Stadium and on caps and T-shirts.
Kelly’s philosophy also includes “water the bamboo.” Meaning you plant a bamboo seed and water it regularly for three or four years until one day at last it springs from the earth and grows rapidly.
Another Kelly-ism: “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
In all that, even more than his physical gifts, Mariota may be Kelly’s perfect quarterback. When I suggest this to him, Mariota replies:
“I appreciate that. I feel like I’ve incorporated what he teaches into how I am, and just take it moment to moment, try to win the day, make the best of it. So that’s how I go about it.”
Oregon fans, however, are giddy about the future – for their sky’s-the-limit quarterback and for their team. Visions of a return to the “natty,” national championship game, dance in Ducky heads.
You can’t blame them. As ESPN analyst Matt Millen said after Mariota threw yet another touchdown pass against Washington: “And he hasn’t even scratched the surface.”
Koloa: MEET THE ISLAND DUCKS
This season, you could call Oregon’s football team the Koloa – because eight Island natives are on the Ducks’ roster. In addition to quarterback Marcus Mariota, four are playing significant roles for Oregon: guard Mana Greig, tight end Koa Ka’ai, nose tackle Wade Keliikipi and end DeForrest Buckner.
At the press conference following the Ducks’ 51-21 dismemberment of then-No. 23 Washington at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, and having spoken to several of the Hawaii boys two days earlier and learning that as a group they proudly share their Island culture with teammates, I asked Coach Chip Kelly what the Hawaii players bring to the team as a group.
“Macadamia nuts!” he quipped, drawing a round of media laughter. “All these macadamia nuts keep showing up.”
Then turning serious, Kelly continued: “They’re awesome, have great attitudes, show a lot of poise. They have kind of a laid-back Hawaii attitude, but they’re really warriors, hard workers, and very consistent, not a lot of peaks and valleys.
“As a coach, it’s great to recruit in Hawaii. I hope to find more players like these guys.”
Star running back Kenjon Barner said of his Hawaii teammates: “They bring that ‘Hawaii cool.’ Marcus, all of them, have a cool demeanor about them. You get around them, no matter the situation, they never get stressed. So it keeps you level and cool too.”
Here’s a look at the other Koloa (Hawaiian for Ducks).