The first Heisman winner in Oregon history returned to practice this week after a six day media blitz of the East Coast. The whirlwind tour consisted of an early morning appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, spending time at New York City’s Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital, paying his respects at the 9/11 Memorial and then jetting over to rattle off the Late Show’s Top Ten with host David Letterman.
That’s right folks, this past week has been the Marcus Mariota Show. And with the national title on the table and NFL scouts drooling, the humble Hawaiian is back with his teammates to prepare for the Rose Bowl semi-final matchup against Florida State.
— 9/11 Memorial (@Sept11Memorial) December 15, 2014
So how does a young collegiate star return to Earth to focus on the biggest game of his career? It’s hard to say. Last year’s Heisman winner, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, went through the same grind: winning the Heisman, attending banquets, bouncing from city to city and running the full media gauntlet, before finally returning to his team and ultimately winning last year’s national championship. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher had some words of caution for the newly crowned college football potentate.
“I think it definitely is [taxing] and sure [Oregon will] have a great plan for that and what goes on, but I don’t know if you can ever prepare for it. Because it’s the time away and you feel so obligated because so many people are giving you so many great outstanding awards,” Fisher told the Orlando Sentinel.
Fisher’s premonitory statement was genuine, coming from his first-hand experience of Winston’s success last year. And you can be sure that Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has prepared a gentle landing for his redshirt junior quarterback’s return from the stars.
Of course, worrisome fans and local media will writhe and posture that the unprecedented national attention will only serve to distract their decorated leader. But Mariota hasn’t shown any symptoms of being overly star-struck. Whether it’s on camera or in front of a microphone, the pride of Oregon has shown poise and class while remaining true to himself.
As Mariota enjoys the fruits of his labor, Winston’s season has had an overabundance of unnecessary drama. FSU remains unbeaten over the past two seasons, boasting an impressive 29-0 record, but last year’s freshman phenom is in a sophomore slump. Winston has thrown for 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions this year, a ratio that is cause for concern as turnovers have been the leading cause of the Seminoles’ struggles in the lukewarm ACC.
Winston has led harrowing comebacks against Clemson, Louisville and Miami (Fl) and held on to beat Boston College by a field goal at home. The best win on the ‘Noles schedule was against then #5 Notre Dame, which ended on a last second penalty in FSU’s favor. (The reigning champions barely escaped a late drive by the Irish, ending on a questionable offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone, nullifying Notre Dame’s game winning touchdown.)
At the end of the day, a win is a win is a win, but the Seminoles’ regular season has been lackluster and far from meeting the expectations established at the beginning of the year. And yet, they haven’t lost a game. Why? Jameis Winston. Mariota is to Oregon as Winston is to FSU, an undeniable team leader and go-to catalyst.
The Seminoles’ quarterback has delivered clutch performances when his team needed him the most. On top of that, this Florida State team refuses to lose, making it a dangerous opponent and a somewhat odd 9-point underdog. Winston is a dynamic player with a long tom arm and a flare for the dramatic, but off the field issues have pummeled his reputation and the morale of outside supporters. The full consequences of Winston’s actions remain undetermined. Regardless of how fans or the media view Winston, according to FSU cornerback Jalen Ramsey, his teammates still believe in their quarterback.
“Jameis is the best player in America. We go up against him every day in practice … We can’t slack off. He might look the other way and throw it to your man. So you’re relaxing and he completed a pass on you. That teaches us to focus on our job and do what we have to do every single play and not take a play off,” Ramsey told Bob Ferrante of 247 Sports.
Despite his reputation as the bad guy, Winston is still the leader of his team.
There is no question, however, that Mariota is one of those few players who has captured the attention of football fans through his acts of selflessness, breathing fresh air into the stale corpus that is the status quo.
To witness Oregon’s All-American on the field is to observe sportsmanship in its purest form, uncorrupted and altruistic, an opportunity to re-imagine an exciting future for college athletics.
Mariota is the archetypal student-athlete with explosive power and razor sharp decision-making. Off the field, it is Mariota’s peaceful disposition and strong family ties that ground him. All of these leadership qualities have helped guide the Oregon football team to the inaugural College Football Playoff semi-final game.
The battle for college football supremacy is just a couple weeks away, pitting two Heisman winners against each other (just the third time in CFB post-season history) with polar opposite personalities.
This is football pulp, non-fiction and it couldn’t get juicier. After a week of fun and fanfare, Mariota has returned to stand united under the Oregon banner with his teammates, their eyes collectively fixed upon their date with Winston and Florida State.
Top photo by Craig Strobeck