EUGENE, Ore. -- It all started in the fall of 2010 when Mark Helfrich, then Oregon's offensive coordinator, found himself curiously captivated by game film of the backup quarterback for the Saint Louis School in Honolulu. He had been scouting starter Jeremy Higgins, but it was a corner route from the skinny, nameless substitute that most arched his evaluative eyebrow.
That pass -- "A rope," Helfrich effused -- was impressive, and Helfrich liked the way the guy moved around. Reminded him of Jake Plummer. So Helfrich called then-Ducks receivers coach Scott Frost into his office and asked him to watch the small handful of plays they had of this youngster. Helfrich wanted a second opinion because junior backup quarterbacks aren't typically pursued by Oregon. Frost confirmed to Helfrich that no, he wasn't crazy. The skinny kid looked as if he could run around and hurl the rock.
So a few months later, as the 2010 recruiting season seamlessly turned into the 2011 recruiting season, Helfrich found himself standing in the shadow of Diamond Head, Hawaii's iconic volcano, watching that skinny quarterback named Marcus Mariota, a nonentity among recruiting services, in spring practices. He was the fastest guy on the field, and the ball flew from his hand in that lively way that makes QB coaches swoon.
"I remember it like yesterday," said Helfrich, savoring a favorite and often-told story that doesn't seem to get old to him. "It was like a movie ...
"I called [then-Oregon head coach Chip Kelly] 15 or 20 plays into the deal and tell him, 'This guy is unbelievable.' And Chip's response was, 'Offer him.' That was the extent of that discussion."
Thirty-five wins, 12,261 yards and 131 touchdowns later, Mariota stands atop college football, with only a national title missing from his on-field résumé.
Mariota's ascension from unknown prep player, to surprise Oregon starter as a redshirt freshman, to Heisman Trophy winner is one of those great, from-nowhere recruiting stories. Now he is winding up one of the best three-year runs for a quarterback in college football history, eyeballing the Ducks' first national title in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and more than a few NFL pundits believe he will be the top overall pick in this spring's NFL draft. His matchup with Florida State QB Jameis Winston, the controversial 2013 Heisman winner, will be the centerpiece of the Seminoles-Ducks semifinal in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
Along the way to becoming a national figure who further validated Oregon as an elite power, he also became known for being quiet and nice, which isn't very quarterback-y. He's not a carouser. You don't get much swashbuckling with him. In fact, with so few obvious holes in his game, his quiet niceness has apparently become a worry for some NFL scouts, at least an anonymous one took who that position during the season in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
When people gush about Mariota, it almost sounds too good to be true. Though he might drive a bit fast -- see a recent speeding ticket for going 80 in a 55 mph zone -- words of praise and glowing anecdotes of ideal citizenship flow from every direction, and the sum total is Mariota becomes something more than the nation's best college football player, more like an elixir for the sport after three of the previous four Heisman Trophy winners ran into off-field trouble.
Of course, the nice guy still needs to finish first to fully burnish his greatness credentials.
Mariota didn't just walk out of a Hawaiian hibiscus garden. The Saint Louis School is a longtime state power and quarterback pipeline -- Washington State's Jason Gesser, Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli and Hawaii's Timmy Chang, among others -- and Mariota has been a known quantity on the island since Pop Warner football, even if recruiting services were late to arrive with star ratings.
"He already had some buzz," said Saint Louis and Ducks teammate Bronson Yim, who first met Mariota in seventh grade. "Everybody said he could throw and he was fast. And he was good at soccer."
What developed was perhaps a bit uncommon: a talented young athlete who didn't get caught up in the adulation cycle and was willing to wait his turn to step behind center for Saint Louis while developing his craft. Mariota admits he struggles with what now might have become lifelong celebrity. He doesn't seek out or seem to enjoy attention, but he takes it seriously. His parents, Toa Mariota and Alana Deppe-Mariota, emphasized to him before he left for Oregon a deep responsibility for how he represented his family and home state.
Mariota has grown into his job as the face of the Ducks. While his postgame interviews in news conference format are notoriously dry -- "We're 2-0 right now, and we're looking forward to next week," he said of the meaning of beating No. 7 Michigan State on Sept. 6 -- he has grown more comfortable dealing with the media and fans. Part of that, he said, is bringing some Hawaii to the process. As in being chill. Letting football -- on and off the field -- stress you out isn't going to help anything. Ergo, his prime directive for becoming a quarterback for a national power.
"As cheesy as it sounds, having fun," he said. "I learned when I got here that if you get too stressed out about the game, you won't play well. You essentially play the game to have fun. If you're too stressed out about it, you won't play like yourself. If you're enjoying yourself, the game will come a lot easier."
That "having fun," Hawaiian chill, is a critical part of Mariota's makeup. What some see as too mellow or too nice or too laid back is a big reason for Mariota's success and why folks so eagerly line up behind him. He carries it on and off the field.
"That calm you see when you watch him play? That's a real thing," said Steve Stolp, Mariota's academic adviser and executive director of Oregon's Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes. "You feel that even when he's in this building. You want to be around him because of his calm confidence. It feels like he's got whatever he is doing under control."
Of course, sometimes being chill is easier said than done, particularly when winning and losing mean so much, inside and outside the locker room. Mariota, as most great competitors, takes losing personally. And emotionally so. Oregonian columnist John Canzano wrote about witnessing Mariota breaking down into his father's arms after the loss at Stanford in 2013, and Mariota admits he also took the home loss to Arizona this season badly.
"I always take the burden of a loss; that's kind of who I am," he said. "We had the ball to tie the game going in and I made a mistake. I fumbled. That's tough. I hate losing and I kind of shouldered it."
How to deal with a bully
Another Marcus Mariota fan is about to gush, "Marcus is amazing."
Only this isn't a coach or a crazed denizen of Autzen Stadium. It's Kassey Mosher, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Emerald Valley. Mariota is one of her most reliable volunteers, and he's been spending two to four hours a week at her facility for two-plus years.
"It's time to unwind," Mariota told the Pac-12 Network about his work at the Boys & Girls Club. "For them, I'm just their friend. I'm not some Oregon quarterback."
Mosher goes to great lengths to emphasize the level of Mariota's engagement. She points to a story about a boy who was having a particularly tough time. His parents were getting divorced. He was being bullied at school. He was getting into trouble and was crying at the Boys & Girls Club. Mariota was summoned.
"Marcus was able to get him to calm down and give him advice his dad gave to him," Mosher recalled.
Mariota told the boy that reacting emotionally was empowering the bully. That the bully was trying to make him cry, so by listening to what he had to say and then crying, he was giving the bully exactly what he wanted.
Said Mosher, "And [the boy] was like, 'You've never been bullied!' and Marcus said, 'No I've had my fair share of people bullying me.' It was really a great moment. Then I called the school the next day to check in and they said this boy was doing much, much better."
This is a standard Mariota story that you hear inside and outside the football team. One often-recited tale concerns his regularly providing energy bars and Gatorade to homeless people hanging around the Ferry Street Bridge near campus. Yim talks about how Mariota was the first person to visit him in the hospital after two different surgeries.
"If you need something, he will drop everything for you and do it," he said.
Frost, now the Ducks' offensive coordinator, tells a secondhand story from a year ago, when Mariota's family was in town and they were eating together at a local restaurant. Through the window, they noticed an out-of-luck guy standing by his stalled car, which apparently had run out of gas.
"[Mariota and brother Matt] left the dinner table to push the car six blocks to the gas station," said Frost, adopting that almost conspiratorial grin that often accompanies a Mariota tale, seeming to say, Can you believe this guy is even real?
Mariota vs. Johnny Football
Not everyone was an immediate believer in Mariota. He showed up at a summer camp at Oregon in 2011 along with a Texas prep star by the name of Johnny Manziel. Manziel was cocky and brash and eager to give the Ducks a commitment. He was nothing like Mariota, and more than a few coaches loved Manziel's gunslinger makeup, which stood in stark contrast to the shy Mariota.
"There were multiple guys who didn't like [Mariota] because he didn't say a word," Helfrich said of the Ducks coaching staff. "He literally did not talk."
Mariota didn't talk with his mouth. His arm was another matter, and Helfrich, whom everybody celebrates as Mariota's biggest advocate from the beginning, loved how he showed his competitive side, albeit without trash-talk, when paired with Manziel.
"He and Johnny had like the Dr. J and Larry Bird game in our indoor facility. I was a kid in the candy store," Helfrich said.
"He and Johnny had like the Dr. J and Larry Bird game in our indoor facility. I was a kid in the candy store."Oregon coach Mark Helfrich
Manziel committed to Oregon during the camp. Mariota would do so later on. Manziel ended up at Texas A&M, winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy, though his partying ways garnered as many headlines.
When Mariota showed up on campus for fall camp, he was mostly an unknown recruit, likely to redshirt and perhaps run the scout team. He was, yes, unusually quiet. Then he started running plays and early during two-a-days, it became clear that the Ducks had something special.
Frost recalls one pass. The Ducks right guard whiffed on his man, who made a beeline for Mariota.
"Without even blinking, he avoided the guy and stepped up in the pocket, scanned the field from left to right and threw a deep ball down the right sideline, right over the DB's head, right to the receiver 50 yards downfield," Frost said.
Added Helfrich, "A couple of times a day, he'd do something and we'd look at each other and go, 'That just happened, right?'"
While Mariota did redshirt, he created significant buzz among his coaches and teammates. How much buzz? The sort of buzz that generated whispers suspecting two-year starting quarterback Darron Thomas' surprise decision to enter the NFL early draft -- he went undrafted -- was partly motivated by a potential competition with Mariota and, to be fair, talented backup Bryan Bennett.
Helfrich, while not speaking for Thomas, confirms this chatter: "People talked about that a lot. There certainly would have been a competition."
Is That Dr. Mariota?
Mariota and Manziel crossed paths again in the summer of 2013 at the Manning quarterbacks camp in Louisiana. Manziel made headlines for partying and being late to camp sessions and irritating the Mannings. Mariota made no headlines, though he did slip away to take a proctored biochemistry final at Tulane University so he could remain on track to graduate early, with a degree in general sciences.
One of the more misunderstood factoids of this preseason was a Tweet from a reporter -- cough -- that Mariota would be taking only golf and yoga during the football season. He was taking those electives only because he had completed his major in general sciences. His plan was to graduate in 3 1/2 years so he could be done in advance of the 2015 NFL draft.
Further, general sciences isn't "rocks for jocks" or "biology for buffoons." It's Oregon's version of pre-med. Mariota's focus is on human physiology and his long-term goal is to enter sports medicine, either as a doctor or physical therapist (he's interned with Oregon's physical therapy staff).
Mariota earned second-team Pac-12 All-Academic honors last week and has a 3.22 GPA. That's even more impressive when you consider how challenging it often is for football players to take on demanding majors. For example, certain required classes -- and professors -- weren't amenable with the football practice schedule. In one case cited by Stolp, his academic adviser, Mariota had to take exams immediately after morning practices. And we mean immediately.
"They'd literally be peeling off shoulder pads and sitting down to take their midterms and finals for human anatomy," he said.
Again, there's an undeniable sense that people associated with the Ducks football program, well-schooled with reporters asking about Mariota, are eager to mythologize him because he means so much to the program. Stolp acknowledged this but didn't back down when asked where Mariota stood with all the athletes he'd advised in his career.
"He's in the top 1 percent, for sure," he said. "I'm not a football expert, but from all aspects of him as a human being, he's one of those once-in-a-career kind of guys."
Not perfect, but close enough
Mariota, contrary to what has preceded, is not perfect. There's that ticket, for one, and Yim confessed that Mariota's fast driving in the snow once nearly gave him a heart attack. He is also not above using a bad word and getting after his teammates.
"During practice [before the Utah game], things were kind of lackadaisical," outside linebacker Tony Washington said. "He was screaming at all of us, telling us to get our act together, that we're going to go down there and get our asses kicked if we don't. It's shocking because you don't see that out of him too much."
That, of course, is a good thing for Helfrich and Frost, who have encouraged Mariota to be more vocal as the unquestioned star of the Ducks. Moreover, Mariota, as outwardly humble as he is, certainly knows he is good. It's just that, for whatever reason, his competitiveness is best marinated by the combination of winning and being nice and, perhaps, enjoying the praise for being a rare guy who relishes both.
"I would say I'm confident in myself and my abilities," he said. "I learned at a really young age, you don't have to show your confidence. You don't have to talk and be out there. I learned that being humble was the right thing to do. I'm not saying it's the right thing for everyone, but it's what I was taught. My parents always told me to be confident as a player, but you don't have to point at yourself when you score touchdowns or bang your chest."
Too nice for the NFL? Mariota doesn't seem the least bit worried about that being an issue, and his coaches find the idea ridiculous. They look at Mariota's character and bearing as another valuable part of an extraordinary skill set.
Said Helfrich: "I don't know how he couldn't succeed at anything. I don't know how that doesn't translate [to the NFL]."
Washington, a senior, has played against plenty of star players. He saw Cam Newton as a freshman while redshirting. He played against Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. The Pac-12 produces NFL talent at QB and the skill positions like no other conference. For him, though, Mariota has separated himself.
"He's the best player I've ever seen," he said. "I go against him every day, and every day he does something ridiculous. He's a spectacular player and person."
Too good to be true? Maybe. Maybe not. But Mariota needs a national title to cast his legacy in gold as well as bronze.