Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

A Role Model to Believe In

All Oregonians, from Duck fans to Duck haters, can walk tall today in the shadow of Marcus Mariota receiving the 80th Heisman Trophy, symbolizing the best college football player of 2014.

Marcus MariotaThe recognition is reason enough for Oregonians to strut. But there is far more to savor with Mariota. His is a story everyone wants to embrace – a young man who learned from his parents the value of family and hard work, the overlooked talent who blossomed when given a chance, the humble recipient of college football’s most prestigious awards. In addition to the Heisman, Mariota captured the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the Davey O’Brien Award and the Maxwell Award.

Oregonians have known Mariota could play football with style and ease for three years. They gradually discovered this a young man who shines off the field, too. He credits teammates for his success. He applied himself in the classroom and will graduate with a 3.2 GPA.

Oregonian columnist John Canzano describes how Mariota signs autographs and once apologized to eagerly awaiting fans for making them wait because he had to put in extra running laps with his linemen.

Canzano also tells of Preston Miller, a 16-year-old battling Burkitt Lymphoma at Randall Children’s Hospital. In the week before a pivotal game with Arizona, which turned out to be the Ducks’ only regular season loss, Mariota purchased his football jersey, he and center Hroniss Grasu signed it and they sent it to Miller.

As you can imagine, the jersey and the autographs made a huge impression on the teenager. It gave him an excuse to forget about cancer and think about a tall young man, not much older than him, who was thoughtful enough to take the time to cheer him up.

Two months later, Canzano reports, Mariota and the Ducks avenged their loss to the Wildcats and Miller is making impressive strides. His father says his son has gained 40 pounds and is determined to survive. He has a role model to emulate.

Smiling MariotaRecent Heisman Trophy winners may be great on the field, but they have disappointed off the field. Mariota is blazing a very different trail. His storybook season and his almost-too-good-to-be-true persona earned him more Heisman votes than any other winner.

Oregonians have grown accustomed to see our state’s name being associated with people with less stellar reputations. Mariota is someone from Oregon who attracted near universal acclaim.

Mariota is also the first Hawaiian-born player to win the Heisman and he is an enormous source of pride to the Islands and hundreds of young kids who before Mariota may have been overlooked because it was too expensive to fly over to on scouting trips.

Amid all the accolades, the story that impressed me the most involved Oregon’s recruitment of Mariota, which began before he ever started as a high school quarterback in Hawaii. Mariota apparently perked current UO head coach Mark Helfrich’s interest at a football camp in Hawaii when he made a pinpoint pass on a difficult route. At the time, the only college to have shown interest in Mariota was Memphis University.

As a senior, Mariota led his team to the Hawaii state title. He accepted Oregon’s scholarship offer because he felt it would be the right place for him to prosper – on the field, in the classroom and as part of the community. It didn’t take long for him to fit in.

No one will actually say for sure, but Mariota showed so much promise during his red shirt first year that starting quarterback Darren Thomas elected to turn pro, even though his prospects were dim. From his first game, Mariota exceeded his advance billing. Chip Kelly says Mariota is the most talented player he ever coached. He is probably also the coolest.

Mariota, Number 8Even when the Ducks lost, which wasn’t often, Mariota never looked bad. And when the Ducks won, Mariota never acted bad. Opposing players and coaches respected him. One player told a reporter that he wanted to hate Mariota, but couldn’t – he was too nice of a person. A coach said everyone had tried to stop him and no one really figured out how. He chocked it up to greatness.

Whatever happens next in Mariota’s career, he is a role model we all can believe in. Just in the nick of time.





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