A Heisman and a legacy: How Marcus Mariota's success has changed Hawai'i's football culture
HONOLULU—Dressed in mismatched basketball shirts and loose-fitting jerseys, 19 boys line up and arc passes across the manicured Saint Louis High football field. It's noon on a muggy Sunday in Marcus Mariota's hometown, and a bunch of kids who want to be just like their idol have gathered at his alma mater.
They do this every week, little kids in the mornings and big ones in the afternoons, catching and throwing to each other as Saint Louis assistant Vinny Passas looks on. A former college baseball player, Passas corrects their footwork and nitpicks their release, recording video on his iPad to study later. Today there is just one session, because a local Mariota watch party for the Tennessee Titans' Sept. 20 game against the Cleveland Browns ran late. In the parking garage overlooking the field, parents hang over railings and mutter about which kid looks good, which kid looks bad and which kid might be the next Heisman Trophy winner to emerge from Hawai'i.
When Mariota stood on stage at the Heisman ceremony in New York 10 months ago and captivated viewers across the country with an emotional acceptance speech, he issued a call to young men and women back home: "To the Polynesian community, I hope and pray that this is only the beginning. Young Poly athletes everywhere, you should take this as motivation, and dream big and strive for greatness."
It's easy to spot Mariota's success all over the islands. In ABC convenience stores, locals mill around in Oregon Ducks T-shirts and Titans No. 8 jerseys. On TV, Toa Mariota, Marcus's father, narrates a First Hawaiian Bank commercial that features a slow-motion rewind of Marcus's path to stardom, which starts in an elementary school classroom, looking at a letter Marcus wrote to himself about growing up and becoming a professional football player. At Saint Louis, students show off their cellphone photos of the Heisman Trophy, which Mariota loaned to the school for display last spring. If Eugene, Ore., is all about Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota, locals maintain Hawai'i is all about Duke Kahanamoku, King Kamehameha and Mariota. Says University of Hawai'i offensive line coach Chris Naeole, "He's part of Hawaiian lore."
He's relatable, too: A few years ago at one of Passas's Sunday sessions, known around the islands as Coach V's Get Better Quarterback Camp, Mariota spoke to a group of young boys, all aspiring protégés, and reminded them to be kind and honor their culture. Be friends with everyone, he said, just like he was a friend to them. Afterward, a boy approached Mariota and asked for his cellphone number. When Mariota explained that he could give only his autograph and that his number was private, the boy waved away his concerns. "I've got a cellphone," he explained to Mariota. "I can call you—cause we're friends, right?"
"Kids see Marcus, how normal he is, how kind he is and they think, 'I can throw like that, too—so I can be like him!'" Passas says.
Alana Deppe-Mariota, Marcus's mother, says her oldest son does not fully grasp his influence, because he hasn't lived in Hawai'i for five years. When he's home kids, "want to touch and feel and high-five him, because he means so much to them." Without realizing it, Mariota has become a light, an inspiration, for the islands. For years, Hawai'i waited for outsiders to recognize its football prowess. Mariota's Heisman affirmed what locals already knew—and upped the expectations for the next generation.
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Mariota is Hawai'i's favorite son, the player locals have adopted, or hanai'd, as their own even if they have no direct connection to him. "We might have more Duck fans [in Hawai'i] than in the state of Oregon because here there's no divide," jokes Saint Louis junior varsity coach Keith Haina, referencing the lack of Oregon State supporters. Locals are impressed and deeply proud of the honor Mariota brings to Hawai'i. But older generations quickly point out it's important to remember who came before him: American Samoa-born offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu spurned mainland college football scholarship offers and led Hawai'i to the top 20 of the AP Poll; Saint Louis graduate Timmy Chang broke multiple collegiate passing records during his time as the quarterback at Hawai'i (he still holds the NCAA Division I record for pass attempts, with 2,436); Punahou High linebacker product Manti Te'o finished as the Heisman runner-up at Notre Dame in 2012. Te'o's success, some say, put Hawai'i on the map. Mariota's ascension crystallized it.
Football is deeply ingrained in families here, a violent but protective game that mirrors the culture's priorities. Hawai'i's passion for high school football rivals Texas's obsession. Kahuku High, a public school powerhouse that has won seven state championships since 2000, would star in the islands' version of Friday Night Lights. The town shuts down early on game days, with a long caravan of cars snaking down the Kahekili Highway, the only route in and out of the North Shore.
Locally, football also serves as a way "off the rock": According to Forbes, a Samoan male is 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than an American non-Samoan. College coaches rave about Polynesians' strength, discipline and respect, values engrained in them from birth. "There are so many Polys in college now and if you talk to coaches, they love them because they don't talk back—and that's because in our culture, you don't talk back to the chief," says Sapolu, who played 15 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before retiring in 1997. In the past that respect could be misinterpreted for timidity. Slowly, through Mariota's mix of humility and achievement, that's changing.
"We might be big and intimidating and look vicious with our scary war dance, but we're loving," says Ma'ake Kemoeatu, a 1998 Kahuku graduate and defensive lineman who played 11 years in the NFL and moved home to Hawai'i last summer. "We'll take care of you and protect you. But hey—we're badasses, too. Remember, our ancestors left the islands and fought everyone. You don't want to cross us."
Mainland high schools also notice the quality of play, scheduling Hawai'i teams in nonconference contests that pit prep juggernauts against one another, such as when defending Hawai'i state champion Mililani visited Las Vegas's Liberty High on Sept. 5, 2015. And in recruiting, the spike in attention is undeniable.
Two Mililani stars, quarterback McKenzie Milton and wideout Kalakaua Timoteo, have verbally committed to the University of Hawai'i in the class of 2016, while their teammate, tailback Vavae Malepeai, will head to Oregon. Five other locals, including two skill players, are pledged to Pac-12 schools.
For decades, linemen held the position of pride in the islands because "we're warriors, and that's where the combat's at," Kemoeatu says. That was in stark contrast to the mainland, where quarterbacks, receivers and running backs have long been considered big men on campus. Mariota's talent has transcended that divide.
"When Marcus started for Oregon as a redshirt freshman, oh my gosh, everyone went crazy," says Galu Tagovailoa, the offensive coordinator at Kapolei High. "Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a quarterback. At practice, we had offensive linemen running routes and defensive linemen throwing passes. What a disaster."
(Vinny Passas) Kent Nishimura/SI
Whichever skill player emerges as the next superstar from the islands, he is almost sure to be tutored by Passas. A 39-year coaching veteran of Saint Louis and a 1974 graduate of the school, Passas has mentored every major signal-caller to come out of Hawai'i, from Chang to Jason Gasser to Darnell Arceneaux to Mariota. An aspiring professional baseball player before he became the islands' quarterback whisperer, Passas attended the University of La Verne in southern California at the request of the Milwaukee Brewers, who selected the middle infielder late in 1974 MLB draft. His decision to concentrate on baseball, he says, greatly disappointed his father.
Passas runs his Sunday camps year-round, inviting quarterbacks from all over Hawai'i. For a long time, kids attended free of charge. But when Mariota blew up and hundreds of wannabes flooded the Saint Louis field, he had to start asking $10 a kid to help pay to bring on more coaches. Mariota might be his most famous pupil—Passas attended the Heisman ceremony at Mariota's request—but Passas has been giving back to the community much longer than Mariota has been in the spotlight.
Passas is driven, he says, by the aloha spirit to love and support others. "Football is a brotherhood in Hawai'i. We might not be from the same bloodline, but if I see passion for the game in your eyes, I'm going to help you." Still, his desire to help runs deeper than just a cultural tradition.
Nineteen years ago, Passas's youngest daughter Natasha turned 5 and rode her daddy's shoulders home from the beach, telling him her party was "the bestest birthday ever." One week later, and a day after she had her kindergarten physical, she fell violently ill. Vinny's wife, Glenda, rushed Natasha to the hospital, but doctors could not determine what was wrong. Before they got answers, Natasha went into septic shock. Braindead, her parents made the gutting decision to take her off life support. They buried her in a pink dress, tucked her ballet shoes into the casket and Vinny made a deal with God: "You take care of my girl up there, and I'll take care of your boys down here."
Glenda retreated to their bedroom, and Vinny threw himself into coaching. Football helped heal him. The couple had no more children—their oldest daughter, Nicole, is now 29—but "look at all the sons God gave us in return," Glenda says on the sideline of a recent Saint Louis practice, spreading her arms wide and motioning to the Crusaders. Their lives have intertwined with virtually every player to pass through the school: Glenda watches practice daily from her perch in the parking garage, dropping bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches down to players at the end of drills. Before games, she passes out dime rolls to the quarterbacks to remind them of "all the dimes you're gonna drop tonight." (Two years ago, Mariota told Glenda he still has each roll.) On game days, Vinny visits Natasha's grave, trimming the grass and adorning it with flowers, asking her to watch over the quarterbacks that night. "She hasn't let me down yet," he says.
Natasha's death influenced the No. 1 rule at Coach V's Get Better Quarterback Camp: Give your mom and hug and kiss every day, and tell her you love her. These were also Passas's pregrame instructions for Mariota before his NFL debut on Sept. 13. Hours after the Titans throttled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 42–14, Vinny saw a Facebook photo of Mariota hugging Alana. Other camp rules: Make people smile; perform a random act of kindness each day; if you see an ambulance rushing by with its lights on, say a prayer for the person it's trying to help. "When my wife heard about the things he teaches kids, about the rules, she agreed to let Jonah skip church to come," says Brad Chong, a Honolulu resident.
"If you have a kid who's a quarterback anywhere in the state, you know who Vinny Passas is," adds Tom Jackson, whose 14-year-old son is a freshman quarterback at 'Iolani School. "He's a legend in Hawai'i, not a guy who got lucky just because Marcus Mariota got famous.
"Everybody would enter a burning building for him."
Passas's commitment to the entire state, and Saint Louis in particular, is unwavering. At last year's Heisman dinner in New York, Crusaders' principal Sione Thompson turned to Passas. "Get to work on the next one!"
Passas is able to give back, he acknowledges, because he came back. Children today will grow up with a different type of normal: Mariota commercials and jerseys are everywhere, reminding kids they can flee to the mainland to chase their gridiron dreams. His success has sparked an uprising of "insanely competitive parents," says Tagovailoa, the Kapolei assistant whose son, Tua, might be the next great quarterback from the islands.
Mariota inspires more than just football junkies. Robbie Bulatao and Taylor Wong, cheer coaches at Punahou, are only a few years older than Mariota at 23 and 28, respectively. Both born and raised in Hawai'i, neither has ever left, unaware, to a certain extent, that it was an option. "It might have been different," Wong says, "if we'd had a Marcus."
Still, there are obstacles. Passas believes oldest boys—like him—will always battle the pull of family on the islands, even if they decide to leave initially. In Polynesian culture, it falls on the oldest son to eventually assume the responsibility of providing for the family; this isn't stated explicitly, just understood. Timoteo committed to the University of Hawai'i in part because he always dreamed of suiting up for the Rainbow Warriors, and wants to help build a foundation of local boys who can return the program to the glory of 2007. But as an oldest child, the receiver also felt a duty to stick close to his mother, and keep an eye on his younger brothers, ages 9 and 3.
This expectation can be as simple as coming home to work and help pay bills, as Passas did in 1976, when his family was hurting for cash and his younger siblings were at risk of being pulled out of private school. Sometimes, it's more complicated.
Kemoeatu, the Kahuku grad who played 11 years in the NFL, won the Super Bowl in 2013 as a starting nose tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. Thirty-three at the time, his doctor told him that physically his best years were ahead. But when Ma'ake learned his younger brother, Chris, an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was in need of a kidney transplant and Ma'ake was the best statistical match, he retired, walking away from millions. On the mainland, many wondered if he had gone crazy. In Hawai'i, most celebrated.
"It's not a burden to care for my family, it's an honor," Ma'ake says in the office of Pacific Elite, the training facility he now owns and operates with Chris in Kaneohe. "If someone in my family needs blood, it's going to be my blood. If they need a kidney, it's going to be my kidney. You have to understand: On the islands, all we have is each other."
While Kemoeatu and Sapolu don't want the younger generation to ever lose understanding of the deep roots of ohana, family, they're hopeful that Mariota's success doesn't prove to be an anomaly. If the state wants to be a power, Mariota can't shoulder the responsibility by himself, or he could be crushed. They need an army of Hawaiians lifting up their culture.
"Ten to 20 years from now, kids today will surpass what Marcus has done," Kemoeatu says. "Hawai'i has been asleep for a long time, and it's about to wake up and explode. It's like, who's next?"