Wednesday, April 29, 2015

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By Ellen Bell, Staff Reporter - 

Almost one year ago, I had dinner at The Original Roadhouse Grill near Eugene, Oregon. My son was a soon-to-graduate senior at U of O, so a meal with a bunch of college kids wasn’t all that unusual. What made this forgettable dinner an extraordinary experience was the young man seated across the table from me, a Human Physiology major named Marcus Mariota. 

It was just like any other casual gathering of parents and their college students, except for the presence of #8, a painfully shy, dark-eyed kid who apologized profusely for being a little late.

“I was trying to play golf,” he said as he shook my hand and sat down. “I’m terrible, he said. “I hate being terrible.”

Like any other Oregon football fan, I had heard a lot about Marcus Mariota. I’d read about his legendary humility, his quiet competitive nature, and his unfathomable like-ability. To be honest, I felt the reports were too good to be true. How was it possible that a kid with that much talent, that kind of attention and praise, could still be so solidly grounded?

Marcus told me how he was taking golf lessons because he was asked to participate in so many charity matches that he felt he needed to play better for those who donated their money. Then he went on to talk about some of his other off-field job requirements. I soon realized how hard he was working to stretch out of his comfort zone. 

Playing football is the easy part. The challenge comes when he has to speak about his performance in public, or attend post game Meet and Greets with alums, or accept accolades of any kind. The more I spoke with him, the more I found it hard to imagine this gentle soul in the heat of the national spotlight, accepting a Heisman Trophy and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Since I had never met a potential first-round draft pick before, I asked him my own Dan Patrick question over a plate of onion rings. 

“If you had a magic wand,” I said, “where would you want to be drafted?”

He smiled as if he didn’t want to assume the future, but then answered,  “I guess if I had my choice, I’d pick San Diego because it’s the shortest flight home.”

Home is Honolulu, Hawaii.  where Marcus was infused with a culture that honors family ties and promotes a tradition of stoic excellence. Even after our short conversation, it was clear that these values are at the core of Marcus Mariota. How refreshing. An athlete that understands he is a role model and accepts the responsibility that goes along with it. How interesting, that this attitude of “doing the right thing” is seen by many as a weakness; as if leadership can only be shown with bravado and flash. 

At the end of dinner, he shook my hand once again and I wished him luck in his senior season. I laughed to myself when I realized that my greatest desire wan’t for his picture or an autograph. The Mom in me just wanted to give him a hug and make sure he’d be OK. 

Marcus Mariota and I are not personal friends and I’m sure our paths will never cross again. But that dinner made a lasting impression on me, and not simply because of his budding celebrity. He was authentic and polite and carried himself with a quiet confidence that will help him navigate the sea change that is on the way.

No matter what NFL franchise hat he wears on draft night, I know he will be just fine. He will use his gifts to the best of his ability, he’ll show up to work, and he’ll be grateful for any success that comes his way. And then, when he finishes his job, he’ll head back to what really matters in life; the people he loves. 

I know it’s a long shot, but as a fan and as a Mom, I’ll be hoping for a hat with a lightening bolt.
Love to hear what you think!

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