Mariota: ‘I’ve Come A Long Way’

He is so down to earth, so not full of himself, the temptation is to say Marcus Mariota is just a normal college kid. Except that he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week as the likely first pick in the NFL Draft next spring … and he is one of the two most polite athletes I’ve ever interviewed.

“Nice to see you again,” he said when I was able to talk with him one-on-one Sept. 13 after his media conference following Oregon’s 48-14 win over Wyoming. (The walls of the media conference room at Oregon’s new $68-million, 145,000-square-foot Taj Mahal of a football complex, by the way, are covered with sheets of Nike football leather.)

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Marcus Mariota somersaults to a touchdown against Wyoming at Autzen Stadium Sept. 13
ERIC EVANS PHOTOGRAPHY

It had been 23 months since I was in Eugene to do a MidWeek cover story on the local sensation who was then just bursting onto the national stage. I asked how he’s changed since then.

“I’ve come a long way, in every sense,” he said. “As a football player, for sure, but also as a person. Coming from Hawaii to here, I’ve learned a lot about life and about myself.”

Mariota, who turns 21 on Oct. 30, also is set to earn a general science degree and graduate in December.

This is just his fourth year as a starting quarterback, including his senior season at Saint Louis, and at the urging of coaches he’s gradually become a more vocal leader, though not in a red-faced in-your-face way. There are many kinds of leadership, and there’s no question he is the leader of the team ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll going into last Saturday’s game at Washington State.

Physically, he’s added about 16 pounds of muscle in the past two years, thanks to hitting the Ducks’ weight room with an intensity and dedication that is said to inspire his teammates to work harder.

The added weight has done nothing to diminish his quickness and speed (sub-4.5 40).

Against Wyoming, Mariota scored his second rushing touchdown of the day by dashing 19 yards down the right sideline and then going airborne and somersaulting over a blocker and defender, landing on his head and rolling.

Speaking to the assembled media (and wearing a navy “Kalae Pohaku — Saint Louis” T-shirt), he said it wasn’t much different from learning to tuck and roll while Boogie boarding: “I’ve spent a lot of time in the water and I’ve flipped like that before.”

“That was a Sandy Beach reference, wasn’t it?” I asked later.

“Oh, Sandy’s, absolutely,” he said. “I learned when to tuck there — I got pounded so many times, so I never have to think about it now. You get smashed by that barrel, if you don’t tuck you’ll be spitting sand for a week.”

Difference is, that was surf, this was turf.

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich immediately went to Marcus on the sideline and asked him not to take such chances, and The Oregonian reported his mom Alana sent a text: “Please don’t do that again.” Even his backup Jeff Lockie, who would benefit with more playing time from a Mariota injury, said, “I don’t want to see him try that again.” And Keenan Lowe, the blocker over whom he dived, told the Eugene Register-Guard, “I hope he never does that again, ever. But that being said, it was an awesome play.”

He did tone it down a bit as the Ducks built a lead, sliding for a first down on one occasion. But Marcus says he’ll do whatever it takes for the Ducks to succeed.

My 2012 story mentioned that his bedroom at home in Hawaii Kai was filled with Dallas Cowboys memorabilia.

“Still some Cowboys stuff, but Oregon things too — jerseys from our bowl games, things like that,” he said. His younger brother Matt, a senior at Saint Louis, has taken over the room, he added.

Matt is having a fine season at defensive end for the Crusaders, and has done some growing too. So who’s bigger now?

“Oh, man, Matt has grown so much, he might be bigger than me,” Marcus says. “I’d be nervous he might beat me.”

Officially, Marcus is listed at 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, while Matt is 6-3 and 225, and still growing.

I’d heard that Oregon is interested in Matt as a tight end, after a YouTube video of him appeared hauling in catches at the Manning Passing Academy this summer.

“We don’t use a tight end at Saint Louis, so he’s playing defense now,” Marcus said, “but he likes tight end … That would be great if he came to

Oregon, very special for our family.”

Though if Matt does matriculate at Oregon, his big brother will likely be gone to the NFL. He could end up a Cowboy.

When our time was up, Marcus looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you. Have a safe trip home.”

Driving to the Portland airport a couple of days later, I heard Marcus on a sports talk radio station, answering questions from listeners. To each one he said, “Thank you for calling.”

Oh, the only other athlete I’ve interviewed who was as polite? It was another quarterback, another quiet but passionate leader: Joe Montana.

dchapman@midweek.com