There was really only one time this season when Marcus Mariota’s early departure for the NFL seemed like maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t happen.
It came after he won the Heisman Trophy and just about every award he could have won. It came after he had rewritten almost every record and streak at the University of Oregon. It came after the Ducks’ season was over.
Since Mariota and his team lost Monday night to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, a bit of doubt crept inside the minds of the writers who all season have said this was certainly his last.
He had said earlier, through bowl practices, that he would trade the Heisman and the Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award if his team could win the national title. It wasn’t a trade-in deal, and his team fell short Monday.
As he walked off the confetti-filled field and after he congratulated Ohio State's Cardale Jones, a quarterback who has the only thing Mariota wanted but never got, some questioned whether that was enough to make the redshirt junior come back for his final year of eligibility.
But on Wednesday, Mariota fulfilled the prophecy so many had declared before he even threw a pass this season: He will forgo his senior year.
Even without a final season in the books, he had one of the most decorated college careers for a quarterback. Mariota threw for a touchdown in each of 41 starts. He was the first player in Pac-12 history to account for 5,000 yards of offense in a single season (5,224). And his 58 touchdowns to just seven turnovers made him the first FBS player to have a plus-50 turnover margin.
Most any player after accomplishing that would probably feel as though he had done everything he wanted to do at the college level. But Mariota was always a little bit different, and that’s why -- after falling short of his ultimate goal -- some truly believed he might be donning the No. 8 Oregon uniform again in the fall.
The fact that there was even a sliver of doubt in so many minds says a lot about Mariota as a person. Though the Ducks will sorely miss his statistical contributions next fall, they’ll also miss his leadership.
Though the leadership of most quarterbacks is almost always complimented, Mariota certainly had a way about him that really did show through in the way his teammates carried themselves. With so many underclassmen contributing this season, egos could’ve come into play.
But when the guy leading the team, recognized as the most talented player in the country, is also the most humble, it keeps those egos in line naturally.
Oregon will move forward, as will Mariota. His legacy at Oregon is going to be hard to top. And if it ever is, Mariota will likely be the person cheering the loudest for that player.
Though his final on-field performance was far from what he hoped it would be, and his last pass attempt ended in an interception, he managed to set a bar in the Pac-12 and across the country for the way a Heisman winner can and could carry himself. That’s the legacy he’d probably care the most about.