More than Marcus's brother: Walk-on LB Matt Mariota carving his own path at Oregon
EUGENE, Ore.—Matt Mariota knew better, and he admitted as much immediately. Of course you don't touch the quarterback in practice. No matter how badly you want to, you never touch the quarterback. And on day two of Oregon's fall camp, when Mariota, a freshman linebacker, "got a little too excited" while pursuing backup Taylor Alie, he heard about it. First from Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich, who chewed him out instantly, and afterward from second-string quarterback Jeff Lockie. Later that evening, he heard it from his older brother, too.
"Touching the quarterback," Marcus Mariota told him from Tennessee, "is a big no-no."
Marcus would know. As the greatest player in Oregon history and the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, his success was due in part to his ability to stay healthy—which meant that he never took a hit in practice. A healthy Mariota lifted the Ducks to the top of college football, leading them to the 2014 Pac-12 title and an appearance in the 2015 national championship game. In doing so, he rewrote the Oregon record book, won every major individual quarterback award, threw for more than 10,700 yards, rushed for more than 2,200 and accounted for 136 touchdowns (105 passing, 29 rushing, two receiving). Mariota, now a rookie quarterback in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans, was the kind of player who transcends a program, and the type who can be hard to follow.
It would be understandable if Matt had gone somewhere else to play college football. Most younger siblings wouldn't want to be lost in the shadow of an older, more successful sibling. But Matt Mariota ran toward it.
Though he grew up in Hawaii, Matt never considered going anywhere but Eugene, where he is a preferred walk-on for the Ducks. "I've spent the last four years here," says Matt, who, along with his parents, attended almost every one of Marcus's games. "This is my second home."
Still, Matt might not be playing at Oregon if he'd received even one scholarship offer coming out of Honolulu's Saint Louis School. Even with one of the most famous last names in college football—and despite the fact that there has been an increased interest in Hawaiian players from mainland colleges, many of which now comb the state for more than just linemen—Matt attracted little interest from recruiters, as he was often unfairly compared to his brother. They are entirely different players. Marcus checks in at 6' 4", 222 pounds, and was a soccer star at Saint Louis before he became the nation's best quarterback. Matt is 6' 2", 248 pounds, and is projected as an outside linebacker for the Ducks. But, at least briefly, it looked like he would be the next signal-caller in the family.
Vinny Passas, who has been an assistant coach at Saint Louis for more than 30 years, has worked with every major quarterback from Hawaii, including Marcus. "Lots of quarterbacks broke my heart," Passas says, "but Matt broke it the most the day he showed up as a freshman and said, 'I don't want to be a quarterback anymore. I want to hit people.'"
Passas says that Matt, a lefty, could "drop dimes all over the field," and has the type of easygoing—and somewhat outgoing—personality that pulls in teammates. When Mariota was in the sixth grade, his teacher told Alana and Toa Mariota that their youngest son was like Peter Pan: always flying around, not totally engaged and utterly charming. At Oregon, Matt continues to dish out the aloha spirit, helping others whenever possible. He gives other freshmen players rides to practice and runs teammates to the grocery store. "He's the kid that you wish everyone was like," says Saint Louis head coach Cal Lee.
Matt is the best athlete in the family, according to his mother. He's funny, too. When reporters expressed surprise at Marcus's role (alongside other Ducks greats, past and present) in a recent Nike commercial that restaged the toga-party scene from the movie Animal House—in which Marcus dances around in a bedsheet and smashes a guitar against a wall—Matt said that no one should assume that his older brother is brimming with personality. "All scripted," he deadpanned.
During his time at Oregon, Marcus was known for being unfailingly polite and kind, but very private. He kept the media at arm's length, asking that people leave his family and his home mostly alone. The fanfare, his mother once said, could be suffocating. Matt is starting to get a taste of that himself. He is recognized on campus—he hasn't been asked for any autographs yet, though Lockie is sure that will happen soon—and answers endless questions about Marcus, about how he played last Sunday and what it's like to be his little brother.
Matt swears he doesn't get sick of it. And for the record, he says, "I'm better at him than everything but football. I'm way better at soccer—and you can tell him I said that." He loves his brother and admires his talent but there is no envy in him; in the Polynesian culture in which they were raised, jealousy is not tolerated. "Matt is such a good-spirited kid, he's not threatened by Marcus at all," Alana says. "Everyone wants to know, 'Why Oregon?' And Matt's response is, 'Why not?'"
To Matt, Marcus is the guy he can commiserate with after a rough practice, and somebody who understands how much he misses Hawaii. They talk daily, often through text messages, with Marcus constantly reminding Matt that college football is a journey to be enjoyed. Marcus also has other ways of checking in: When the Ducks opened fall camp on Aug. 10, he called Lockie, his best friend, and told him he expected regular updates on Matt, and to make sure he stayed out of trouble.
"I'll talk to Marcus and the first thing he'll ask me is how I'm doing," Lockie says. "Second thing he'll ask me is how Matt's doing. And I tell the truth—I let him know if Matt's slacking at all. But I have [Matt's] back, too. I'd stick up for him, and put my arm around him."
Lockie sees a hunger in Matt, a desire to be known as more than "Marcus's little brother." It pushes Matt at practice, Lockie says, though everyone within the program already loves the freshman for who he is, not who he's related to.
In many ways, Alana saw this coming. From a young age, Matt wanted to follow Marcus. Matt tagged along with his big brother everywhere, from boogie boarding to neighborhood soccer and football games. When Marcus enrolled in the seventh grade at Saint Louis—an all-boys, private Catholic school—it took Matt all of one week to know that he wanted to go there, too. Same with Oregon. He felt comfortable around Eugene, knew the team and the coaches and wanted a taste of the brotherhood that Marcus raved about. The difficult part has not been walking in his older brother's shadow; it's that for the first time, Matt and Marcus are not walking together. In Marcus's four years with the Ducks, Matt made every trip to Oregon with his parents. Now, with conflicting schedules, Matt might not see Marcus in person for months.
Matt, who has not played through three games, is likely to redshirt this season. Coaches praised his development in camp. Alana says he simply "wants to be given a chance." Erik Chinander, Oregon's outside linebackers coach, believes it will come. Chinander watched Matt grow up the last four years—"I remember him when he was this tall," says Chinander, holding a hand underneath his chin—and has been impressed with his football IQ and instincts in a collegiate setting. Matt has quickly picked up the playbook, shown promise and is adored by teammates and coaches.
Just like his big brother. And just like he wanted.
Know of a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.