From Hawaii to Eugene, how Oregon's Marcus Mariota rose to become a star
Marcus Mariota might be the most boring player in college football. He gives vanilla answers in press conferences, politely declines to engage in trash talk and spends more late nights in the library than he does in frat houses. He’s king of the postgame cliché, and he doesn’t take trips to Vegas or stand on tabletops yelling obscenities across the campus quad. At a Thai restaurant in Eugene, he keeps his order predictably dull: Pad Thai, mild.
Though he lacks the flash of fellow Heisman Trophy finalists Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper, Mariota is the best player in college football -- and there’s little debate. He is the most prolific quarterback in Oregon history, a three-year starter who has totaled 10,125 career passing yards, 2,136 rushing yards and 131 scores. His brilliance has inspired the nickname and hashtag #SuperMariota and the Ducks wouldn’t be in the College Football Playoff without him. Mariota has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game of his career (39). When defenses think they have found a way to slow him down, he has been known to line up off center and go in motion. He can run and pass and, it turns out, catch, too, as he has a pair of receiving touchdowns.
Most in his position crave the spotlight. Mariota dreads it. Before the season he requested that Oregon, which 13 years ago put a billboard of quarterback Joey Harrington in Times Square in hopes of making Oregon a nationally known brand, not launch a Heisman campaign. In reality, there was no reason to. He is expected to win college football’s most prestigious award on Saturday by a landslide.
Harrington, who finished fourth in 2001 Heisman voting and led the Ducks to a No. 2 finish in that year's AP Poll, says Mariota is the best player, hands down, to ever come through Eugene. It’s not just his numbers (3,783 passing yards, 38 passing touchdowns, two interceptions this fall), or Oregon’s record when he plays (35-4), or the possibility that he’ll lead the Ducks to their first national championship next month. It’s that Oregon has been dominant with Mariota, winning by an average margin of 25.6 points over the last three years.
The potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, Mariota is often focused on for what he isn’t: Outspoken, boisterous, cocky and everything else we’ve come to expect from a star quarterback. He has such an angelic reputation that when he was clocked going 80 in a 55 mph zone and issued a ticket earlier this season, it became the most-clicked story on The Oregonian’s website. Mariota? Doing something wrong? … Isn’t it a bit early for an April Fool’s joke?
Boring is a good problem to have, says Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. After all, who wants his best player to also be his biggest troublemaker?
But those who know him say outsiders have it wrong. The Hawaii native is private and laid back, a typical “local boy.” The notion that Mariota is uninteresting is inaccurate, a simple narrative created by those who fail to see the bigger picture.
“Everybody thinks he’s boring,” says Darnell Arceneaux, Mariota’s high school coach at Saint Louis in Honolulu. “I think he’s just sacrificing for his dream (of winning the Heisman and playing in the NFL). He’s not going to jeopardize this opportunity. This is a pride thing for him, for all of us in Hawaii: We are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and people think all we can do is produce linemen. He can change that. He can help put us on the map.”
Mariota does not initiate many conversations, and he rarely gets worked up. But he stands a little taller and speaks with more emotion when talking about Hawaii, a place he still views as his refuge. Family, friends and coaches say he is driven to succeed for Hawaii and its people. He acknowledges that “this (Polynesian) culture takes a lot of pride in any athlete,” though in typical Mariota fashion that statement comes when referring to someone else, in this case, Hawaii-born quarterback Anu Solomon of Arizona.
His teammates know what a Heisman win will mean, even if Mariota has never said it. “I’ve visited him in Hawaii, and it’s pretty cool,” says Jeff Lockie, the Ducks’ backup quarterback and one of Mariota’s closest friends. “He’s the hub. Everybody in the city is wearing Marcus gear. They love him, and he loves them back.”
Lockie sees it in Eugene, too, where Hawaiian flags dot the Autzen Stadium crowd on game days. Mariota repeatedly uses the word “surreal” to describe his path and the accompanying attention. He’ll likely use that word again on Saturday night, when every fan of Hawaiian or Polynesian heritage celebrates as he becomes the first person from the islands to win the Heisman.
He started, Helfrich says, as an illusion of sorts. Mariota’s introduction to the Ducks came in 2009, when Hawaii-born quarterback Jeremiah Masoli led Oregon to the Rose Bowl. Mariota, then 16, watched the Oregon-Oregon State matchup that year with friends in Honolulu, wondering if he would some day be good enough to play at the same level.
In the spring of 2010 he emailed veteran Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood after reading on Greatwood’s biography that the coach was in charge of recruiting Hawaii. Greatwood asked for film, and passed it on to Helfrich, then the Ducks offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It’s tough to reconcile now, as Mariota is on the brink of winning college football’s highest honor, but Saint Louis actually started a different quarterback in the fall of ’09, Mariota’s junior year. How could someone justify benching Jeremy Higgins, an all-state performer? Mariota would have to wait his turn.
“We got tape of (Saint Louis) and Marcus would come in for six or eight snaps. He was faster and had a different release and it was like, ‘Wait, who is that?’” Helfrich says.
Intrigued, Helfrich booked a ticket to Honolulu. “The whole thing was like a movie,” he says. “It felt made up.” Teachers, coaches and fellow students gushed about Mariota’s abilities in the classroom and on the field, proudly telling the Oregon assistant that one of the best athletes was also the nicest. Really, how many quarterbacks also serve as team tutor? Helfrich kept thinking he would find “a skeleton in the closet,” and he was convinced Mariota’s playing ability had to be overblown when he didn’t. Then, in a spectacular setting -- Helfrich remembers Diamondhead glowing the background, blue skies and balmy weather -- he watched Mariota throw. It took approximately five minutes for him to call head coach Chip Kelly with an assessment.
“This guy’s unbelievable!” Helfrich said.
“Offer him,” Kelly replied.
“Shortest evaluation conversation of all time,” Helfrich says now.
Before Mariota left for the Ducks’ camp that summer, he confided in Arceneaux that Oregon was his dream school. Johnny Manziel had already pledged his loyalty to the Ducks when Mariota committed on June 30. According to Rivals.com, the three-star prospect had one other offer: Memphis.
“I was telling everybody, ‘I have this quarterback …” and no one would listen,” Arceneaux recalls. “Then he commits to Oregon and everyone starts to call. I told them, ‘Yeah, go check your emails.’”
That September Manziel flipped his commitment from Oregon to Texas A&M, where in 2012 he became the first freshman to win the Heisman (Hawaii-born linebacker Manti Te’o of Notre Dame came in second). Quiet and shy, Mariota often got lost in talk about the Ducks’ football future. But coaches and teammates sensed something special. “Guys were magnetized to him “from the moment he stepped on campus,” Helfrich says.
In the last quarter century, Hawaii has become a fertile recruiting ground for programs that need physical, imposing linemen. The Pac-12 boasts 36 players from Hawaii, including 17 linemen. There are eight players from American Samoa, five of them linemen. (Mariota’s father, Toa, is full Samoan, while his mother, Alana, was born in Alaska.) College coaches like the values and loyalty Hawaiian players bring to the locker room.
Football tradition runs deep in Hawaii and American Samoa, providing players and coaches with lasting connections that rival any state. There’s not much to do, locals say, besides go to the beach and toss around a pigskin. June Jones, who coached at the University of Hawaii from 1999-2007, says Mariota’s Heisman will belong to all of the islands because they are one ohana, family. Locals -- Hawaii’s word to sum up the mish mash of non-whites -- pride themselves on being bigger and stronger than others, and the football field is the perfect arena to display that. They treat it as a gladiator sport, training year round for fall competition.
Still, talented players struggle “getting off The Rock,” as Arceneaux calls the islands. Stereotypes of Polynesian players -- that they operate on “island time,” which translates to being lazy, and get homesick easily -- are common knocks. Exposure is hard to come by, though the Internet has made it easier.
No Hawaii high school has ever produced a Heisman winner, and no Hawaii quarterback has ever had a meaningful NFL career. Few college recruiters mine the islands for skill players. Mariota’s success can change that perception.
“This is not like a kid trying to get out of Compton or off of the (Native American) reservation, but in our own way, it’s still a challenge to leave here,” Arceneaux says. “What he’s doing, it’s opening a lot of doors for our youth. He could change lives.”
Helfrich worries about homesickness with every player. Even kids from Portland, just a two-hour drive from Eugene, deal with it. Coming from a culture that puts family above all else, Mariota struggled during his redshirt year in 2011, desperately missing his parents and younger brother back in Honolulu.
“I would call home and say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,” Mariota recalled after the Pac-12 title game. “The first thing they’d always say was: Suck it up.”
Toa serves as both Marcus’ biggest fan and harshest critic. The summer Marcus attended Oregon’s camp he also went to USC. During drills in Los Angeles, Toa noticed that while his son waited patiently, other players cut in line, often in front of Marcus. Forever polite, Marcus didn’t object. Toa did. “You need to not let them do that,” he told his son. “You need to fight!” On the mainland, Toa explained later, you have to look out for yourself.
Darron Thomas, who quarterbacked the Ducks in 2010 and ’11 and led Oregon to a national championship game appearance, left for the NFL in January ’12. The next man up was supposed to be Bryan Bennett, a four-star recruit from Encino, Calif., lauded for his dual-threat skills and familiarity with Oregon’s offense.
“When Chip was still head coach, I was talking to him about Bennett,” Harrington recalls, “and Chip said, ‘Yeah, Bryan could do it. But don’t be surprised if this Marcus kid lights the world on fire.’”
For the last two years, as Mariota’s star has risen and the media has descended on Eugene, he has been deeply protective of his homeland and family. His mother, Alana Deppe-Mariota, says this is because Marcus views Hawaii as his “safe haven.” He doesn’t want to share it.
The narrative that Helfrich found in Honolulu four years ago is the same today: Mariota volunteers regularly at the local Boys & Girls Club, has already graduated with a degree in general science and often fidgets uncomfortably when asked to talk about his on-field brilliance.
Locally, it’s considered disrespectful to boast about your accomplishments or even acknowledge them. This is something people outside of Hawaii don’t understand, Arceneaux says. Hawaii wants to be known as a humble state. Mariota would be perfectly happy with no attention.
And that’s probably why his teammates like to make sure he gets it, and tease him about it accordingly. In the postgame locker room after Oregon trounced Arizona 51-13 to win the Pac-12 title last Friday, players romped around, posing for selfies with roses between their teeth, cranking celebratory music and rolling their eyes at repeated questions regarding their most-wanted teammate. Mariota was halfway across Levi’s Stadium with safety Erick Dargan and Helfrich at the mandatory winners’ press conference when one Duck called out “Marcus is outside!” Multiple reporters abandoned their interviews and scurried into the hallway, breathlessly awaiting a quote from the Heisman hopeful. Back in the locker room, Oregon players snickered at the media’s gullibility.
When he did arrive, on a golf cart and escorted by director of operations Jeff Hawkins -- “Marcus is coming! Marcus is coming! I need a pathway!” barked one Oregon staffer who ushered the media to the side -- Mariota entertained a small crowd of reporters. He trailed off during answers and rubbed his eyes, clearly overwhelmed. “I’m sorry, I’ve been all over the place,” he said a few times. “What did you ask?”
The attention has been both awesome and suffocating. At least one parent is almost always in Eugene with Marcus, and Alana says when she, Toa and Matt, their younger son, come to town it often “takes Marcus a little time to decompress. He’s used to always being on guard.” He and Toa mirror each other: Warm, but quiet and reserved. Last week at the Pac-12 championship Alana, Toa and Matt got into San Jose and went to the hotel bar looking for food. Within seconds, they were surrounded by Oregon fans who wanted to praise Marcus and share their favorite Mariota stories. “Toa and Matt, they’re like a beacon for fans,” Alana says. “We had to go back to our room without eating. It was great, but too much.”
To Alana, Marcus is still just a 21-year-old kid who asks her for advice. As he prepared for the award show circuit, he sent pictures to Alana, asking which suit looked better, which she liked more. After the Stanford game on Nov. 1, when the Ducks thumped the Cardinal 45-16, Marcus came out of the locker room and told her he had 142 text messages, and how he could answer all of them?
“He feels obligated to respond,” Alana says. “I tried to tell him many of those people just wanted him to know they’re proud of him, they don’t expect him to text back. But he says, ‘No, I have to at least say thank you.’”
It’s important, he told his mother, to acknowledge all the people back home who are part of this journey, too.
In all of the Mariota hype, perhaps the most unlikely celebrity to emerge is not the shy, soft-spoken Hawaiian, but a chatty, confident 12-year-old. Being the son of a prominent Oregon booster comes with perks, so Charlie Pape' figured he might as well raise his hand and ask the question to which everyone wants an answer. He thought he could get one from Helfrich because “I’m just so cute,” he says sweetly, fluttering his eyelashes and running a hand over his close-cropped blond hair for effect. He took the microphone following Oregon’s 44-10 win over Colorado last month and asked Helfrich if he knew the scoop on Mariota, because Mariota is the talk of O’Hara Catholic School and Charlie needed this intel for the lunch room. He told Helfrich that Mariota -- who has never visited O’Hara -- is all anyone wants to talk about, then laid it out more specifically: “There’s three things that go on at O’Hara,” he explained. “There’s Jesus. There’s girls. And there’s Marcus Mariota.” That slogan has since sprung up on T-shirts across the state.
Before the Pac-12 title game, Charlie admits the more accurate order is probably girls, Marcus Mariota and Jesus. At Wednesday Mass, he says, Oregon victories and Mariota’s health top the prayer request lists.
“He’s a really great guy, really easy to talk to and taller in person than you think,” says Charlie, who met Mariota after his quip became a national headline. He’s not quite as popular as Mariota just yet, though he has signed two autographs for first graders. Then he clasps his hands together and closes his eyes to say with emphasis, “And he’s such a good leader.”
This seems to be the part that goes missing, or gets questioned, in the Mariota narrative. Some have speculated he is “too nice” for the NFL, and question his competitive nature. He never appears visibly flummoxed or angry on the field -- teammates and coaches attribute this to the “island boy” in him -- and admits he is typically not the one leading passionate pregame speeches.
“It’s going to be really interesting. In order to have success in the NFL, it seems like you’ve got to be a bit of a jerk,” Harrington says. “Marcus, just the humility he carries himself with, paralleled with the success he’s had, it’s truly incredible. But in order to be that good, there has to be an ego in there somewhere.”
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer has spent much of his adult life studying the makeup of great quarterbacks. The common mistake people make when evaluating, he says, is assuming that tremendous college production will equate to NFL greatness. It doesn’t always work that way.
Dilfer wrestles with the idea of being a jerk in the huddle. He is not convinced it’s necessary, but believes great quarterbacks have “great conviction. The best guys, the tip-of-the-spear guys, they all believe they know best. Yes, the head coach tells them to do this, and offensive coordinator tells them to do that, but the guy who touches the ball every snap, the guy who makes the decisions most people haven’t, he is the one who thinks, ‘I know what’s best.’
“You have to have a fierceness in your spirit. And I hear Marcus has that.”
Arceneaux doesn’t think “ego” is the right word to use, and insists Mariota is more fiery and demonstrative than most give him credit for. Mariota let questions of Is he good enough? drive him to this level of success. Next, he’ll use Is he too nice? to jumpstart his professional career.
Teammates and coaches dismiss the “too nice” idea as ridiculous. Ducks center Hroniss Grasu plays golf with Mariota and says whenever Mariota hits a bad shot, he gets so angry he refuses to ride in the cart to the next hole, punishing himself by walking. Grasu recounts this with a roll of his eyes, explaining that they’re supposed to be golfing to relax. Lockie, the backup quarterback, recalls last season’s Washington game, when he saw Mariota visibly annoyed with something the Huskies did on the sideline. Lockie can’t remember the details, but was struck by the fact that Mariota got heated. Lockie has just never seen him let that anger lead to a mistake on the field.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Who’s the real Marcus?’” Lockie says. “The answer is, he’s just like the rest of us: He plays video games, eats too much McDonald’s, snores. He’s a normal college kid.”
As for screaming in the locker room, it’s not Mariota’s style. But maybe it doesn’t need to be. Arceneaux remembers a time in 2010, Mariota’s senior year at Saint Louis, when a rowdy pregame locker room fell silent as Mariota rose to speak. Arceneaux doesn’t recall what Mariota said, but remembers he “didn’t yell or scream. But when he was done it was like, ‘OK, we’re ready.’” At Oregon, he inspires the same sort of reverence.
“He’s younger than me,” Grasu says, “but I’m the one looking up to him.”
Vinny Passas thought he had seen the proudest moment of his career, and the biggest moment for Saint Louis football, when three former school quarterbacks started at Division I schools on the same Saturday in September 2000. He expects that moment to be topped this weekend, when the Heisman is handed to Mariota.
The Saint Louis quarterbacks coach for nearly three decades, Passas has tutored every major signal-caller to come through the islands. Whenever his star pupil returns home, Mariota inevitably winds up at Passas’ Sunday passing camp, a weekly tradition for all Honolulu players.
It was at that camp four years ago that 17-year-old Marcus met 15-year-old Anu Solomon, now the starting quarterback at Arizona. After the Ducks’ dismantling of the Wildcats last week in the Pac-12 title game, Mariota went across the field to seek out Solomon, pulling the redshirt freshman close and reminding him to remember his roots, and represent their culture with respect.
Every time Solomon has called back to Hawaii this season to speak with his grandparents, they want to talk, of course, about Mariota. They are proud of his success, they tell Solomon, and he should be, too, because they are all part of the same brotherhood.
In Hawaii one of the greatest honors is to be a hanai child. In olden days, as a sign of respect and love, parents would often give away their first born, hanai’ing him -- essentially letting him be adopted -- to another family. Jones, back in Hawaii after leaving SMU, says on the islands “everyone feels like Marcus is the hanai son. He belongs to all of us. That is the aloha, the love, everybody feels for him.”
He is the hero for all of Hawaii, both young and old. That is the case with 16-year-old Tua Tagovailoa, the sophomore quarterback at Saint Louis who already has offers from Hawaii, UCLA, USC and Texas Tech. Like Mariota and Solomon before him, Tagovailoa dreams of leaving the islands to explore the mainland and play Division I football. And now, because of Mariota’s success, he isn’t scared to try.
Passas says many who leave the islands are startled by the cutthroat nature of college athletics, and feel pressure to alter their laid-back, caring personality -- a way of life that is expected, and celebrated, in local culture -- believing they must become cold and distant to win at the highest level.
“Marcus shows you can still be loving and humble and respectful and you can succeed,” Passas says. “You don’t have to change. What he’s doing, it’s giving so many young men hope that they can make it, too.”