The Superstar Next Door
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
For all but a dozen or so weekends in the fall, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota is about as unassuming as a palm tree gently swaying from side to side on a warm Hawaiian afternoon. On gameday, though, there wasn’t a more electrifying or impactful player in college football in 2014.
Mariota is one of the good guys of the sport, raised to represent himself, his family and his university with the utmost class—all of the time and with no exceptions. He’s humble, respectful and measured in his approach. Mariota is a gentleman of the highest order, a once-every-generation sportsman whose on-field artistry is surpassed only by his off-field charm, dignity and humility. But it would be a gross mistake to interpret Mariota’s kindness as a sign of weakness. His competitive fire and quest for greatness burn deep, even if they’re never manifested in trash talking or unhinged bouts of self promotion.
“Marcus is just such a humble guy,” revealed Oregon offensive lineman Hamani Stevens. “He never draws attention to himself, and his dedication to his teammates is unmatched. He genuinely loves his teammates. And he has a way of rubbing off on the guys around him, because if Marcus is being low-key about his achievements, how can we possibly be bragging and boasting on ourselves?”
In an era of increasingly entitled and overhyped athletes, Mariota is a refreshing departure from the trend. And he’s a model of unwavering consistency, both on the field and away from it. So, when the quarterback decided in early December of 2013 to return to Eugene for his junior year, only the opponents on the 2014 schedule frowned in disappointment.
Mariota could have jetted to the NFL following his redshirt sophomore season, when he likely would have been selected in the opening round. But there was more to be accomplished as a Duck, one more year to cement a legacy that first began to bloom two years earlier. Mariota entered 2014 with a singular goal to guide his Oregon teammates back up the Pac-12 mountaintop after rival Stanford had won the title in back-to-back seasons. And he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to return the hardware to Eugene.
For Mariota, his junior year had a redemptive tinge to it. He and his fellow Ducks had grown tired of the notion that they couldn’t overcome the more physical, bare-knuckle opponents on the schedule. And they were determined to overcome their critics, with Mariota serving as their trusted leader.
Oregon didn’t waste much time setting the tone for 2014, rallying in Week 2 to beat Michigan State, the Big Ten’s version of an alley fighter. Naturally, the catalyst was Mariota, who fueled a furious second-half surge with three touchdowns and 360 total yards from scrimmage. The 46-27 victory was one of college football’s loudest statements of September, but there was still the business of solving Stanford on Nov. 1 and winning the Pac-12 championship.
The Ducks had a Stanford problem in 2012 and 2013, losing to the Cardinal in both years, as the offense seized up in uncharacteristic fashion. But this past season was destined to be different. Sure, the Stanford D was as surly as ever, but nobody, not even David Shaw’s team, was going to slow down Mariota in 2014. The dual-threat quarterback was on point in Oregon’s 45-16 rout, rushing for 85 yards and two scores, throwing for 258 yards and two more scores and exorcising many of the demons residing in Eugene the past couple of years.
Oregon would go on to win the Pac-12 championship, avenging a regular season loss to Arizona in the league title game, behind one of the nation’s highest scoring offenses. And behind one of the most celebrated Ducks in program history. When the dust finally settled on Mariota’s amateur finale, he’d amassed eye-popping numbers. In 15 games, he accounted for a Pac-12-record 57 touchdowns and only six turnovers, an incredible degree of efficiency. And before bowing to Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff, he’d guided his Ducks to a memorable Rose Bowl blowout of Florida State that ended the Seminoles’ 29-game winning streak.
With Mariota, evolution is inevitable, because he never rests on his laurels or stops striving to be the very best he can be. His athleticism has always been his calling card, going back to his days at St. Louis High School in Honolulu. He’s a phenomenal all-around athlete, extending plays with his feet and using his blazing jets to rip through the seams of defenses. Mariota was tailor-made for the spread offense originally designed by current Philadelphia Eagle coach Chip Kelly, who has referred to his former recruit as the most talented athlete he ever coached at the collegiate level. It was as a passer, though, that Mariota made his greatest strides while at Oregon.
When Mariota first entered the lineup as a redshirt freshman, there were concerns about his ability as a thrower. Otherworldly athlete, sure, but can he flourish as a bona fide dual-threat when forced to stay at home in the pocket? With each successive year, Mariota eliminated the doubters, culminating in this past season of excellence. Flashing keen instincts and recognition skills, he completed 304-of-445 passes for 4,454 yards, 42 touchdowns and four interceptions … with a green corps of receivers and an oft-banged-up line that had him running for life in the early stages of the season.
For Mariota, 2014 was a most remarkable year, a fitting exclamation point for a brilliant collegiate career. He had the numbers, he had the wins and he had the spotlight shining down upon him from the opener with South Dakota until the final seconds ticked off the clock in the national championship game. And through it all, the ups and the downs, Mariota maintained his trademark class and even-keeled modesty.
“Marcus just wanted to be a regular guy,” said Hroniss Grasu, Mariota’s center for the past three seasons. “He treated everyone around here with the utmost respect, and not a single day passes that he isn’t trying to better himself as a quarterback. Character really matters at Oregon, and no one epitomized that more than Marcus did”.
There are so many things Marcus Mariota does well, the quintessential 21st century quarterback. But what separates him from his peers and his predecessors is that innate ability to elevate others by simply setting the right example, day-in and day-out. Every so often, nice guys do finish first. On the heels of an extraordinary junior year, Mariota becomes the first Oregon Duck to win the Maxwell Award.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.