TWO DOZEN leis wait for Marcus Mariota outside a ballroom at the Marriott Marquis. They're made from thousands of pieces of tuberose and plumeria flowers picked from the island of Oahu, along with tea leaves, shells and kukui nuts. They have traveled, along with about 30 of Mariota's friends and family, almost 5,000 miles to New York City, where, to keep them fresh, they were hung next to a hotel window 24 stories above Times Square.
Mariota exits an elevator, his cheeks stained with tears. The members of his entourage take turns placing the leis around his neck. The flowers will remind the world where he comes from.
Those who couldn't be there gather at the Saint Louis School auditorium in Honolulu, where they pick at kalua pig and ahi poke and drain two kegs and wait for 3:53 p.m. local time on this Saturday in December, when they will scream so loud the ground will shake. At that moment, Hawaiians everywhere will be connected. Because Mariota is more than a Saint Louis graduate, more than the Oregon quarterback. He is theirs, and when he wins the Heisman Trophy, it will feel as if they have too.
"I can't say it's comparable to when Barack Obama became the first president from Hawaii," says Walter Kirimitsu, the headmaster at Saint Louis. "But it's close."
December 29, 2014
What a month: Behind five Mariota touchdowns, Oregon dismantled Arizona in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5, assuring the Ducks of a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff and a Jan. 1 date against Florida State in the Rose Bowl.
What a week: Mariota won the Maxwell, Walter Camp and O'Brien awards, then took the Heisman with almost 91% of the possible points, the second-highest percentage in the last 50 years.
What a moment: After Mariota wins the Heisman, he steps behind a lectern. He gulps. He wipes away tears. He chokes out thank you after thank you to his parents, his teachers, his coaches and what seems like half of the Aloha State. He says that if one person in Hawaii is successful, the entire state is successful. He ends with "Fa'afetai tele lava." That's Samoan for "Thank you very much."
Back at Saint Louis High, the assembled are decked out in green Ducks jerseys and black Oregon hats and gaudy neon-green shoes. They know what it took for Mariota to arrive at this moment—and how unlikely it was. They keep pointing to the numbers, to serendipity or fate. To the 80th Heisman. To Mariota's jersey, number 8.
They combine them into 808—the area code for Hawaii.
JESSE SAPOLU is sitting at a coffee stand near Waikiki Beach, as palm trees sway and an ocean-breeze mix plays on the sound system. "Somebody said that Polynesia is the Dominican Republic of football, that we produce football players the way they produce baseball players," he says. "I agree with that."
Born in Samoa and raised in Honolulu, Sapolu was the first Polynesian football player to make it big in the NFL. He almost attended Arizona State, but his last recruiting visit was to Hawaii, and the coach at the time, Dick Tomey, cemented Sapolu's commitment in 1979 when he entered the family home, took off his shoes and sat on the floor to show respect.
Over a 13-year career, Sapolu won four Super Bowls with the 49ers. In the off-season he returned to Hawaii and conducted football clinics around the Pacific Islands. The kids used flip-flops cut into squares for thigh pads.
At 6'4", 278 pounds, Sapolu was like most Polynesian players who made it to the mainland—large and imposing. Schools began to scour Hawaii for players like him, linemen mostly, and this season Pac-12 rosters featured 17 linemen from the Aloha State and five more from Samoa.
The stereotype of the Polynesian player took hold years ago. On the field they were aggressive and physical; they hit hard, played with controlled abandon. Off it they were humble, the gentlest of giants. But such notions, Saint Louis quarterbacks coach Vinny Passas says, "can be limiting." Colleges sometimes looked for only those types of players. In Sapolu's day, they certainly didn't look for quarterbacks.
The recruiters ended to misunderstand that humility, a trait deeply ingrained in the Polynesian culture and passed down through generations. That personality might have suited what coaches were looking for in linemen, the large, largely anonymous brutes up front, but not an alpha-male position such as quarterback. As a result, the professional nitpickers known as NFL scouts find Mariota too quiet, too polite. What they're missing is how driven the Heisman winner is, that he is motivated by the Polynesian principle of not wanting to embarrass his family. "It's hilarious to me," Sapolu says. "It's part of his DNA."
Sapolu would watch the Heisman ceremony by himself. Because of what it meant. Because it was as much about who came before Mariota and where he came from as where he's headed—potentially the national title game and the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. "It means we've knocked down a major wall," Sapolu says.
MARIOTA'S story would not have been written without advances in technology that made evaluating talent on the islands easier, and without the players who enticed more college coaches to board long flights or without the quarterback tradition at Saint Louis. But it's also marked by limitations unique to where Mariota grew up and where he went to school.
Saint Louis won 14 consecutive state titles from 1986 through 1999 with a wide-open, pass-heavy offense similar to Oregon's blur attack. The Crusaders attracted top quarterbacks the way the North Shore lures surfers. Mariota idolized one, a Samoan named Jeremiah Masoli, who played one year at Saint Louis and ended up at Oregon, and he sat behind another Division I talent, Jeremy Higgins, until his senior season.
In his only year as a starter, in 2010, Mariota led the Crusaders to a state title and was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Hawaii. Memphis offered a scholarship. So did Oregon (which was also courting a kid from Texas named Johnny Manziel). Off the field Mariota was St. Marcus. He took AP courses in biology, English and government, graduated with a 3.9 GPA and logged more than 100 hours of community service. He cheered on classmates at mock trials. He tutored teammates in English, history and math. He won the school's Blessed Chaminade Award, given to the student who best exemplifies the founders' characteristics, none of which directly mention sports. "He's the only football player I can remember who has received it recently," says Robbie Murakami, his AP government teacher.
All of that bolstered the notion of Mariota as some sort of teenage humanitarian in shoulder pads. The legend grew in 2013, when he passed up NFL riches to return to Oregon and graduate with a degree in general science, and again this fall when a state trooper who had pulled him over for speeding cited his manners in a report.
That anecdote surfaced as the Heisman voting deadline approached. The two previous winners, Manziel of Texas A&M and Jameis Winston of Florida State, had both faced legal issues and tabloid scandals and public backlash. Mariota was presented, perhaps unfairly, as a counterpoint. He's never been suspended or embarrassed himself in a tweet—he doesn't even have a Twitter account—or ranted on the sideline. "We try," says Sione Thompson, the assistant head of school at Saint Louis, "to find something wrong with him."
So somehow Mariota became too polite. Of course. In a quiet moment on the eve of the Heisman ceremony Mariota says that Hawaii's "easygoing lifestyle really, I guess, mellowed me out." He is asked a question he does not know the answer to. He apologizes for not knowing. This is the guy they remember at Saint Louis, who grew up bodysurfing at Sandy Beach and views Hawaii as his sanctuary, returning home each summer to work out early in the morning, often alone.
"If he could play football behind closed doors, he would," says Lulu Lulu, his AP biology teacher.
VINNY PASSAS sits in the Ho'okipa (Hawaiian for hospitality), a room high above the football field at Saint Louis. The Heisman ceremony is four days away. Diamond Head rises in the distance, above Waikiki Beach and the million-dollar condominiums in the Gold Coast towers.
Passas arrived at Saint Louis, an all-boys private Catholic school, in 1976. He was a waiter with a real estate license who wanted to become a football coach. Back then the turf field below was mostly dirt and a few blades of grass. No one talked about the school's producing college stars, let alone Heisman winners. "There weren't many players being recruited," he says. "You could count on one hand the number who went away to school."
With no professional team and limited access to college broadcasts, high school football reigned in Hawaii. Every Thanksgiving the top four teams on Oahu squared off at Honolulu Stadium, the overflow spilling into the aisles in the 25,000-seat facility. Regular-season games routinely drew 10,000 fans. Generations of families played at the same school. "It's like Texas," says June Jones, the coach at Hawaii from 1999 through 2007 and most recently at SMU. "Except I'd argue it's more intense. It's not just schools playing against each other. It's families."
That passion—and the talent the football culture produced—remained largely a secret outside Hawaii.
About 20 years ago Passas started to host a weekly off-season clinic for quarterbacks. At first, maybe seven or eight attended, mostly local kids. Eventually that number swelled, to 30, then 40, and from all over the state. Passas tutored Jason Gesser and Timmy Chang and Darnell Arceneaux; on one Saturday in September 2000, those QBs started for Washington State, Hawaii and Utah.
That seemed like an apex. Until Mariota came along.
AS THE moment neared, those most invested in football in Hawaii wrestled with what it would mean for a Polynesian kid to win the Heisman. "There's no exact Hawaiian word for it," says Danny Essner, an assistant football coach at Saint Louis. "Just ... awesome."
On a micro level, at a private school where tuition continues to rise and where financial aid that once topped $1 million a year is now lucky to reach $300,000, the hope is for an uptick in donations. Administrators envision more students, more football players, more quarterbacks. "We'd love the Marcus Mariota Stadium," Thompson says, "when the time is right."
On a macro level, Mariota's Heisman could mean much more. When Thompson played tight end for Arizona from 1999 through 2002, the roster included several Pacific Islanders but few other skill-position types. Mariota will continue to change perceptions about the Polynesian football player. In recent weeks coaches from Cal, Colorado, Oregon, USC, Vanderbilt and Washington came to the islands to recruit. "People can't deny us now," Thompson says. "They can't deny the Aloha spirit. We've only scratched the surface."
On a local level Mariota's triumph is more complicated. His profile rose when he left the islands, and while it will most likely boost opportunities for other Hawaiians, it will also probably send more of them away. To outsiders it might sound strange that anyone would want to leave paradise, but athletes do. They want to test themselves against top competition and position themselves for the NFL. They want to see what else is out there.
That's not a new concept. Kale Ane, the coach at the Punahou School in Honolulu, President Obama's alma mater, watched the first college football game televised in Hawaii, between Michigan State and Notre Dame, in 1965. He told his dad he wanted to go to one of those schools, and he became a Spartan. His college teammates asked if he spoke English and if he lived in a grass hut. One of Ane's best players, linebacker Manti Te'o, left for Notre Dame and finished second in the Heisman voting in 2012.
Jones boosted Hawaii into national relevance by persuading players to stay home. When he arrived in 1999, he says, there were 19 Polynesians and Hawaiians on the 115-man roster. When Hawaii went undefeated in the regular season in 2007 and quarterback Colt Brennan finished third in the Heisman, 87 Polynesians were on the roster. During his tenure Jones also put more than four dozen players into the NFL.
He loaded the roster with locals by emphasizing Hawaiian concepts, like ohana, which means "family," and hanai, which loosely means "adopted." In the Polynesian culture, it used to be that a family could give away its firstborn son, which was considered the highest honor one could receive.
"The location is a disadvantage in some ways," Tomey says, "but it's a major advantage in that way. To have a great program in the middle of the ocean, you have to make it about more than football. You have to make it a cause."
The success Mariota has had is likely, Jones says, to "manifest in kids leaving even more now." Every time Oregon has played in recent seasons, Passas says it has felt like Super Bowl Sunday on Oahu, everyone gathered to watch the game.
All of which puts Norm Chow, the current Hawaii coach, in a predicament. He's from Hawaii, and he knows it means more to his home state for Mariota to win the Heisman than it did to California when, say, Carson Palmer won it. "I have mixed feelings," Chow says. "It's tremendous for Marcus and for high school football here. But it can only exacerbate the problem we have of trying to keep good players at home."
ON THE football field at Keehi Lagoon Park, a group of high school football players gather for an all-star practice. The Heisman ceremony is two days away. They're surrounded by mountains and water and palm trees, and a rainbow shimmers far away on the horizon.
A quarterback misfires on a pass. "Come on, Mariota," someone shouts.
The next Mariota is on the field. His name is Tua Tagovailoa. He's a sophomore at Saint Louis. Though he won't sign until 2017, Tagovailoa, 16, has offers from Colorado, Hawaii, Texas Tech, UCLA and USC. (Mariota had no offers at that age.) Oregon is keeping a close watch. A Ducks assistant coach visited Saint Louis High this month.
As a fourth-grader Tagovailoa met Mariota at one of Passas's football clinics. "At the time Marcus was really nobody," Tagovailoa says, peppering his answers, like Mariota, with yes, sirs. "I didn't know who Marcus was."
Mariota has tutored him for years. Quietly. He offers pointers on his throwing mechanics and with the recruiting process. But mostly Tagovailoa is learning from Mariota's example, from the way he carried himself before and after he became a star, the way he returned home and signed autographs for hours without complaint. He doesn't have a Mariota poster in his bedroom—it's in the living room.
"Marcus showed me that kids like us can win the Heisman," Tagovailoa says. "That we can compete with kids from the mainland."
Tagovailoa's father, Galu, watches his son in drills, almost every throw precise, the type that entices college coaches to fly across the Pacific. "All of these kids, they will be watching Saturday," he says. "And everyone they know will be watching. And everyone they know will be watching."
In two days Hawaii will win the Heisman. Mariota, too. His entourage will include the 30 from his home state who traveled to Manhattan and those two dozen leis. His parents will do a short interview with a television station from back home. They won't say much, a trait that runs not just through a family but also a culture. Near the end of the evening Mariota's mother, Alana, will look into the camera and smile.
"Thank you," she'll say. "Those at home know. Thank you."
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
A COACH WHOSE TEAM PLAYED OREGON THIS YEAR ASSESSES THE DUCKS' STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
WHEN WE covered their receivers, Marcus Mariota would take off running. He made his mind up very quickly where he wanted to throw the football, and if he felt like those reads weren't there, he was going to pull the ball and take off. I think he has really good pocket presence. He will step to the right or to the left in the pocket to buy himself time. A lot of teams have athletic quarterbacks, but there's nobody like this kid. He extends plays longer than anybody. And he's improved his passing. He's a great thrower on the run.
In that kind of offense, it doesn't have to be a big, smashmouth line. It can be a little more athletic. They're a very, very good line. They have a great running back, Royce Freeman. He's powerful as a runner—they haven't had somebody like that for a while.
The biggest key is getting lined up [against the Ducks' up-tempo attack]. You could pressure Mariota, but you're taking a risk anytime you do that. I think that disrupts a little bit of what they do as long as you're gap-sound in doing it. The other thing is, if you're good enough to rush four guys and contain Mariota, which is really difficult to do, it can throw them off. But when you only have four guys rushing, he knows where his escape lanes are, and he'll take them. It's hard. You've got issues if you pressure, you've got issues if you rush four, you've got issues if you rush three.
They do a great job of getting the ball out on the perimeter with a lot of motion and shifts and formations. Your coverage guys have to help knock those kinds of runs down. Different people have to come off the edge to hit that jet sweep, whether it be a corner or a linebacker. If you're going to rely on your safeties, it puts pressure on them because if they read it wrong and it's a pass, it's a touchdown.
In the past, Oregon's offense has gone Mach 1 every series. This year they've changed up their tempo a bit, which lets your defenders get their legs underneath them and play harder. And it enables you to make adjustments on the sideline. You can't do a lot defensively. You have to identify a few things you want to do, and do them well.
BY THE NUMBERS
A SNAPSHOT OF WHERE OREGON RANKS
RUSHING (237.3 YPG)
PASSING (308.9 YPG)
RUSHING (154.2 YPG)
PASSING (259.5 YPG)
Rank in passing efficiency (186.3) among FBS teams (125 total)
Rank in average penalty yards per game (73.7)in FBS
Number of Rivals.com five-star recruits on the roster
THEY SAID IT
"We made fun of him, which is fun because you never get a chance to make fun of Marcus."
Ducks coach Mark Helfrich on the team's reaction to Mariota's appearance on the Sept. 22 cover of SI.