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Molded in Hawaii, Marcus Mariota makes a splash

Quarterback Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks looks on from the bench during the third quarter of the game against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on November 29, 2014 in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Quarterback Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks looks on from the bench during the third quarter of the game against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on November 29, 2014 in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Published Apr. 19, 2015

HONOLULU

The world's most ethereal football field is framed by swaying palm trees and rests in the shadow of Diamond Head on a bluff a few miles from Waikiki Beach, where surfers bob like buoys in the sparkling ocean, waiting for the perfect wave. • Marcus Mariota, eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, had to wait until his senior season to take a snap that mattered at the Saint Louis School, a small, diverse, all-boys parochial school that won 14 consecutive state football titles in the 1980s and '90s. • As a junior Mariota sat behind Jeremy Higgins, an all-state player who was a year older. The competition heading into fall was so close that the coach at the time, John Hao, decided that the quarterback with the higher completion percentage during a seven-on-seven practice would start the first game. • Mariota completed 78 percent of his passes. Higgins connected on 92 percent, was awarded the job, threw six touchdown passes in his first game and relegated Mariota to mop-up duty.

"I know we took a lot of flak for it," said Vinny Passas, the longtime quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Saint Louis School. "They say, 'God, you had a Heisman guy and didn't even know it?' "

Mariota, 21, last year's Heisman Trophy winner while at Oregon, also has become one of the Bucs' top candidates for their No. 1 overall pick in the draft April 30.

Mariota's father, Toa, who grew up playing rugby in American Samoa, knew his son should have been playing in high school and could've started for any school in Hawaii. But he made sure Marcus kept striving, working with Passas on his throwing motion. Marcus offered to play safety and slot receiver. He sacrificed hanging at the beach to tutor teammates.

"We had young men who struggled academically, and Marcus would give up a day riding 4- and 5-foot waves at Sandy Beach to spend a day with a guy helping him study for an English exam or write a paper," Passas said. When Mariota did finally get into some games, he broke his throwing elbow.

By then, a lot of people had heard of Mariota, including Oregon's then-offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich, who noticed him while watching film of Higgins and invited Mariota to the Ducks' summer camp.

Darnell Arceneaux is part of the lineage of Saint Louis School quarterbacks that includes Timmy Chang, Jason Gesser and Passas. He was working at a rival high school and operating pro passing camps when he took over as the Crusaders' football coach as Mariota began his final year.

Arceneaux played quarterback at Utah and went 11-2 as a starter during four mostly injury-plagued years, but his career died there. He turned to coaching and had dreamed of having an athlete like Mariota, whom he could insert into a spread offense like the one being run at Oregon, where Helfrich is now the head coach.

But Arceneaux was a fiery competitor as a player and didn't like Mariota's placid, soft-spoken demeanor. One day before practice, Arceneaux issued a warning:

"Okay, Marcus, today you've got to get in someone's face. You've got to yell. You've got to get into them or you've got 10 gassers (sprints)."

Mariota didn't hesitate before responding, "I'll take the 10 gassers." His teammates thought he was just getting in extra work and ran them with him.

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"That's the way I played, but that's just not Marcus," Arceneaux said. "I loved he wasn't going to change because a coach told him to. I had to understand where he was coming from. I had to re-evaluate how I'm coaching. At the time, I think I'm making him better, but he was making me better. At that age, he had a way of telling you things I need to hear, at times the things I didn't want to hear.

"I don't think he'll have any problems with a superstar wide receiver or coach in the NFL. When you're always pointing all the limelight on the offensive line and running backs and receivers and not you, it's so much easier to have teammates go to battle for you."

At the NFL scouting combine in February in Indianapolis, Mariota stood at a podium in front of about 300 reporters and served them all humble pie.

Are you the best player in this draft?

"Any player will stand in front of you and tell you that they're confident in their abilities," Mariota said softly. "I'm no different. I feel what I've been able to do at the University of Oregon, what I've learned, has prepared me for this level."

It's hard not to marvel at Mariota's accomplishments at Oregon. At 6 feet 4, 222 pounds and capable of running a 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, he passed for 10,796 yards (average 263.3 per game), rushed for 2,237 yards (54.6 per game) and completed nearly 67 percent of his passing attempts in 41 starts. Last season Mariota had 42 touchdown passes and four interceptions in winning the Heisman while Oregon went 13-2.

And yet, because of the system in which Mariota played at Oregon, NFL scouts are more focused on what he hasn't done. He hasn't called a play since high school. He hasn't even been in a huddle. He hasn't been under center or taken three-, five- and seven-step drops, or been asked to make many NFL-type throws in tight coverage.

But scouts and coaches say Mariota — who scored 33 of 50 on the league-administered Wonderlic intelligence test to put himself in the company of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — also has a high football IQ.

"I've been very impressed with him," said Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose team holds the No. 2 overall draft pick. "I spent an hour and a half with him in the classroom and went out on the field and worked out with him. How he handled that whole situation, he did a really nice job. To me, he shows a lot of the qualities of those guys who have been successful in the league. The team gravitates to him. They really like him. He's an accurate thrower. He doesn't turn the ball over much and can extend the play."

What Mariota has achieved resonates with those who share his Hawaiian roots. In the islands, he is almost viewed as an NFL groundbreaker: For years, college and pro scouts have looked to Hawaii for big, hulking Polynesian offensive and defensive linemen. Occasionally linebackers. But major-college quarterbacks have been few and far between.

"You don't see a lot of quarterbacks and receivers coming out of Hawaii, even though there are great players at those positions," said Sione Thompson, the Saint Louis School assistant principal who coached Mariota when Mariota was a freshman on the junior varsity. "What Marcus has done is broke that door open for a lot of the quarterbacks coming out of Hawaii. No longer are Hawaii-born quarterbacks second best to the mainland quarterbacks. We have a quarterback right now, Tua Tagovailoa, that USC and Washington, they all just offered him (scholarships) because now they're comparing him to Marcus Mariota. They have an example, somebody from that system. I think (Mariota) broke the door wide open for a lot of the young generations."

Toa and Alana Deppe-Mariota are credited by everyone for the way Marcus and his younger brother, Matt, have turned out. The couple met at Chaminade University, which shares a campus with Saint Louis School. Toa is a supervisor for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Much of Marcus' quietude, often mistaken for indifference or timidity, has a cultural origin. Samoans are typically humble. Toa didn't allow Marcus to rest on his achievements when he became the starter at Saint Louis School and was targeted by then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

Arceneaux, the Saint Louis School coach, remembers how hungry Marcus was to immerse himself in a new offense. "It's like the movie the The Matrix," Arceneaux said. "Remember the first time Neo gets in that chair and they begin to teach him kung fu and he says, 'More?' That's the way Marcus was with our offense. Every day he wanted more."

As a senior, Mariota led Saint Louis School to an 11-1 record and a state title. His legend in Hawaii grew larger when he got to Oregon. Passas, the Saint Louis School offensive coordinator, said he hates what celebrity is costing Mariota. Now when Mariota goes to Sandy Beach, he has to be part of the dawn patrol if he wants to go body surfing or get on his bodyboard.

For all the Bucs' apparent admiration of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, another candidate for their No. 1 draft pick, they speak glowingly of Mariota.

"Marcus hasn't had any off-field issues," coach Lovie Smith said. "And when you talk to him, he'll convince you he can win. His teammates you talk to say the same thing."

Arceneaux and Mariota were hanging out one day in February when the quarterback was being inducted into the hall of fame at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu. They laughed at how far he has come, from the all-boys school where the uniform is a Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants to the cusp of becoming the first or second choice in the NFL draft.

"It's going to be a crazy thing when he wins the Super Bowl and they go back and write a movie about him," Arceneaux said. "The story is so good about a young kid who grows up in Hawaii, the media and everybody gets on him about his personality, and all he does is work and believes who he is and wins."