Near the base of Koko Head, on the south shore of Oahu, an abrupt change in the ocean floor causes the steep, violent waves that crash onto Sandy Beach.
Whenever Marcus Mariota and his high school friends wanted to get away, they gathered there when the morning sky was still dark.
They called it dawn patrol. They had the beach to themselves then. After watching the sunrise, they would wade into the water, relax, and ride the waves on boogie boards or their stomachs.
Retreating to the beach, they would set up tents and chairs and watch the waves. Then others would arrive, someone would heat up a grill, and beer would flow.
Mariota, the future University of Oregon quarterback, always politely declined the beverage, and no one questioned or pressured him. His friends felt, to a degree, that he was above such things. He was so quiet and good-hearted, one of his closest friends described him as angelic. His high school once featured him on a promotional poster, helping a young boy with his tie.
His friends knew Mariota was destined for bigger things. When he was about 10 years old, he made a list of goals. He wanted to play college football on the mainland, play in the NFL and, someday, marry a soccer player.
These would be lofty goals for anyone, not to mention a player from Hawaii: No quarterback from the Aloha State has won a Heisman Trophy or had a truly meaningful NFL career.
Now Mariota, a redshirt junior, is a star at Oregon. He runs the Ducks’ famed offense the way it is supposed to be run, as if he were a prototype quarterback Oregon dreamed up in a lab. He is an early favorite to win this season’s Heisman Trophy and represents the Ducks’ best chance to win their first national championship.
He is also dating a soccer player.
“It’s all pretty surreal,” he said, adding: “To come from a small island in the middle of the Pacific, now being a part of this program, fighting for national championships and fighting for Pac-12 championships, it’s all a pretty remarkable experience.”
In his first two seasons as a starter, Mariota accounted for 7,811 yards and 78 touchdowns as the Ducks went 23-3. He set such a torrid pace that he could soon break the team records for total offense and total touchdowns.
Those who know Mariota best say that almost everything he has accomplished at Oregon can be traced to his youth. They tell stories of the way he matured here, and they seem to be saying that he will succeed because of his Hawaiian roots, not in spite of them.
First step toward goal
On a recent afternoon, Mariota’s parents, Toa Mariota and Alana Deppe-Mariota, sat in a booth at Zippy’s, their son’s favorite restaurant. Marcus Mariota inherited his competitiveness from his father, Alana Deppe-Mariota said. When Toa Mariota was growing up in American Samoa, he played in village rugby games. He was a wing, meaning he was fast and elusive and his responsibility was to take the last pitch and score.
Where one goes to high school, and plays football in particular, is generally important here. Generations of families pledge to play at one school. Honolulu’s residents say their passion for football rivals that of Texas. When people ask where you are from, they often want to know which high school you attended: Mililani, Punahou or St. Louis.
Mariota chose St. Louis, a blue-collar, all-boys parochial school, mostly for its winning tradition. (His brother, Matt, is now a senior who plays defense for the Crusaders.) In the 1980s and ’90s, St. Louis won 14 consecutive state titles using a run-and-shoot offense similar to Oregon’s, a scheme that attracted some of the island’s best quarterbacks, including Timmy Chang, Darnell Arceneaux and Jason Gesser. Vinnie Passas, St. Louis’ longtime quarterbacks coach, tutored them.
Mariota had gained a reputation in youth football and seemed to be next in line to start at St. Louis. But as a sophomore and a junior, he sat behind Jeremy Higgins, who was a year ahead of Mariota and whose older brother had played at St. Louis.
Toa Mariota watched most practices and stewed. He tried to protect his son, who sometimes cried in the back seat during the drive home. Then Toa Mariota pleaded with the coach, “My son just wants to play.”
Mariota, on his father’s orders, kept working. He attended Passas’ offseason quarterback clinics and played catch outside his home as his father critiqued his form. He won over his teammates, even tutoring some after school. Then, just as he started playing more during his junior season, he broke his throwing elbow.
That winter, as Mariota recovered, his parents sold their house, which sat on a bluff overlooking Diamond Head, in part because they wanted to send him to football camps to gain more exposure.
At about that time, though, Mark Helfrich, then Oregon’s offensive coordinator, noticed Mariota while he was watching film on Higgins. A former St. Louis coach also tipped off an Oregon assistant.
Mariota attended Oregon’s football camp with other recruits. His mother, who accompanied him, noticed a person walking onto the field wearing an Oregon T-shirt while everyone else was in pads.
During a break, Mariota approached his mother, and she knew he was upset. The person in the Oregon shirt was Johnny Manziel, his competition. Before the end of the day, Helfrich told the Mariotas that Oregon had offered Manziel a scholarship.
Mariota, who had visited the University of Washington on the way to Oregon, told his mother that he would go to Seattle instead and make the Ducks pay.
“His feelings were hurt,” she said.
When they arrived home, Helfrich called to say Manziel had accepted the offer. Having cooled off a bit, Mariota discussed the situation with his father.
“Where do you want to go?” his father asked.
“I want to be at Oregon.”
“Then go compete for the job,” his father said, with an expletive for emphasis.
Manziel eventually reneged on his commitment to Oregon, won the 2012 Heisman while at Texas A&M and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. But Toa Mariota’s message had resonated with his son.
By the time Marcus Mariota became his high school’s starting quarterback as a senior, St. Louis had gone seven years without winning a state title, and Arceneaux, a former Crusaders quarterback, was the coach. Mariota helped organize summer workouts and learned the offense so quickly that Arceneaux installed higher-level concepts and gave him more control.
One day before practice, Arceneaux told Mariota, “I want you to yell at somebody today; I want you to get in someone’s face.” And if Mariota did not, Arceneaux added, he would have to run 10 sprints, sideline to sideline.
“I might as well start running now, Coach,” Mariota replied.
He ran the sprints after practice, and others joined in, thinking he was doing extra work.
Passas, the quarterbacks coach, recalled that day while sitting in a makeshift weight room next to the St. Louis practice field. It was the first day of classes, and boys were filing out of the cream-colored buildings with red roofs, eager to get out of their school-uniform Hawaiian shirts and into pads.
Passas sighed. Of all the quarterbacks he had mentored, Mariota was the best. As a senior, he had led St. Louis to an 11-1 record and a state title.
A football commemorating that team sits above Mariota’s bed at home, but most of his room is a shrine to his accomplishments at Oregon.
On to Oregon
Yet his college career, like his high school career, did not start so smoothly. He redshirted his first year in Eugene and felt homesick. His quiet demeanor was misunderstood.
“Some of the coaches on our staff didn’t like him because he literally did not say a word,” said Helfrich, who became the Ducks’ head coach in 2013 when Chip Kelly left for the NFL. “He just kind of deferred to the elders on the team from a leadership standpoint. That turned some people off. ‘Hey, can this guy really lead us?’ ”
But this time, when Mariota faced a quarterback competition, he seized the job over a player a year ahead of him.
Last season, Oregon finished 11-2 overall and 7-2 in the Pacific-12 Conference, losing to rival Stanford for a second consecutive year.
A sprained knee ligament limited Mariota against the Cardinal, and Oregon trailed at halftime, 17-0. Mariota raised his voice in the locker room, challenging his teammates for more effort. The Ducks rallied to score 20 points in the fourth quarter but ultimately fell short, 26-20. The loss knocked Oregon out of title contention and Mariota out of the Heisman picture.
Mariota’s parents met him outside the visitors’ locker room, and he collapsed into his father’s arms sobbing.
A few weeks later, Mariota huddled with his family in Eugene and decided to return to Oregon for another season. Had he left early for the NFL, he almost certainly would have been a first-round pick. His career goal was within reach. But by now, he had matured enough to know himself. He wanted to graduate, and, he concluded, he was not ready for the next step.