I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Head Coach Matt Wright and Quarterback Coach Vinny Passas of St. Louis High School in Honolulu – the home of Oregon quarterback, Marcus Mariota. In this interview, I focused on learning what made Marcus “tick” and wanted our discussion to transcend football. While it’s obvious to most fans that Marcus is a tremendous athlete and talent on the field, what isn’t obvious are the quiet characteristics and values off the field, that define Marcus as a leader.
When I consider the most important attribute of a quarterback – especially at the next level – being a leader is the number one thing I look for. Nearly all the quarterbacks at the next level have talent, but the harder question is, “Can they lead a group of men through the face of adversity or rally commitment from them to work even harder, following victory?” It’s easy to say or think that you’re a leader but much harder to earn the respect of your coaches and teammates every single day.
In an interview just prior to the 2012 NFL Draft, then-Kansas City Chiefs GM and current Browns’ Assistant General Manager, Ray Farmer discussed that when he is deciding if he wants to bring a player into his organization, he asks the question, “Every time you look to add a guy to your roster, you ask, who is this person? You’re dealing with young men and so it’s hard to answer the question, what happens to this guy if I turn around and give him $2 million? Are you the same person? Do you react the same way? Does your work ethic change? You’re either going to be more of who you really want to be, or more of who you already are.”
Let’s face it, there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with being a college football player and even more if you’re a quarterback. I realize a lot can change for players as they make their way through college and that kids grow up and learn. However, there is plenty of research that suggests the fundamental characteristics of who you are as a person (personality excluded), have already been engrained by the time you reach your twenties – and that’s why I feel this interview is so important, because by all accounts, Marcus is still Marcus.
KRUPKA >> “In terms of Marcus, what attributes stood out to you both on the field and off the field?”
WRIGHT >> “Where do you start? For Marcus, it goes back to his family. He comes from a great family; his mom and dad are just absolutely great people. As long as I’ve known Marcus, he’s had an involved, loving family that has taught him humility and other characteristics that you don’t find in everyday kids. I think for Marcus, this helps keep him stay grounded. If you get the chance to talk to him, you see right off the bat what a good kid he is. If I could, I would mold every one of my players around him, not from a talent perspective, but from a personality and character perspective. If I had a daughter, he’s the kind of kid I’d want her to date.”
KRUPKA >> “Do you still keep in touch with Marcus?”
WRIGHT >> “I’ve known him for five years. He still comes back about two or three times a year. He’s down working out at the school and we try to get our players around him as much as possible. Before he was “Marcus Mariota,” he was just “Marcus” and was the captain of our football team. He’s an absolute joy to be around; he was a model student; and he’s an excellent representative of the school, the state, and somebody that we’re very proud of.
“Coach Vinny has Sunday throwing clinics with QBs from across the state. It’s open to everyone; it’s free and so we get about 200 kids a week. Marcus will be out there, signing autographs and interacting with the kids. His character is contagious. I joke around and call him the ‘Golden Child.’ The one that has just been ‘touched’ and is like the chosen one. I joke around, but I really don’t think I’ll be around somebody like Marcus who has the physical attributes, the leadership attributes, the character – everything you want. I could coach for another 50 years, and maybe I’ll be lucky if I come across one, maybe one, like Marcus.”
KRUPKA >> “Talk to me about his leadership.”
WRIGHT >> “There’s a couple of stories. He started at QB one year, his senior year at St. Louis. At the time I was the defensive coordinator, and when I saw him, right off the bat I knew I was going to have a hard year trying to defend him. We go through camp. We know how special he is. It was his first opportunity to play. At the time he was behind Jeremy Higgins, who’s now a QB at University of Hawaii. The year before, he was between QB and WR and didn’t really have a defined role. He came in during the off season and immediately took control of the team. By the time we got on board, he was already leading off-season workouts – he was the first one in and last one out.
“So the story goes that we were playing a preseason game vs. Kahuku, at Kahuku. Anytime Kahuku and St. Louis play, it’s an emotional game, and it was televised which added to the emotion. It’s a hostile environment to say the least. Marcus broke a 50- or 60- yard TD, but from there the team kind of sputtered. We ended up losing the game.
“It was our very first game, so everyone was wondering what the season would be like now. Everyone was down. The kids were down. We were down. But we come into our walk-through the next day and you would have never thought we lost. Marcus was out there just tapping everyone, giving positive reinforcement and brought everyone together and said ‘Hey look, this is just pre-season, it’s just one game.’ We didn’t lose a game thereafter and ended up going on to win the state championship that year.
A lot of that was not just because of Marcus’s talent, but because at that time when we had the opportunity to go down this road or that road, he brought the team together and said, ‘Follow me. We’re gonna go down this path. I’ll take us there. We gotta trust each other.’ He was the glue, from a chemistry standpoint, that kept us all together and kept morale high. He rallied the troops and brought everyone together, and that’s what you want out of your captain, because as a coach you don’t want to be the one to have to do that, you want that to come from within your team.”
PASSAS >> “Marcus was our team tutor. He’d help the team prepare for math exams. English papers. He’d help the guys. It was amazing. When anybody needed help, they’d go to him. And he wouldn’t turn anybody away. He’d never say ‘Hey, I’m going out this weekend.’ No, he’d say, ‘Hey, come on over’ or ‘Let’s meet before practice’ or ‘Let’s stay after practice.’ Marcus is truly gifted, not just as a quarterback but as a person, too. It really was amazing.
“He believed that by doing good, more good will come back to him. He used to tell everyone to try to make two people smile every day. To tell your Mom you loved her before you left for school every day. Just the little things in life. And when he interacts with the kids during our throwing clinics when’s back home in Hawaii, he really gives them hope. Everyone wants to be like Marcus.”
KRUPKA >> “Family and culture, especially here in Hawaii and back home in Samoa, are especially important. Can you talk to that and how it impacted Marcus?”
WRIGHT >> “I’m a strong believer that his humility comes from his Polynesian background. His upbringing has taught him to be humble. He’s very family oriented and his family is everything to him. If you ever get a chance to talk to his parents, they are just a wonderful, wonderful set of individuals. He takes that humility and sense of family and really instills it in his team. He welcomes everyone. You could be the 5th-string guy on special teams or the scout-look guy, and he’ll give you the biggest hug, put his arm around you, and make you think, ’I’m a starter and I can do anything.’ And a lot of that comes from his upbringing in Hawaii and his Polynesian background.”
KRUPKA >> “Talk to me about Marcus overcoming adversity.”
WRIGHT >> “Yeah, his junior year he was competing for starting QB and lost out to the other QB. It was a heated competition. He later broke him arm and was at a point where he was asking himself, ‘Is this the right place for me?’ ‘Is football the right sport for me?’ – because he’s a great soccer player as well. He fought through that and worked even harder knowing that his time would come. He committed himself to becoming better at what he did, and every single day in that next offseason he focused on getting better. Working two hours a day with Coach Vinny. And that was the year we introduced the zone read, and it was perfect timing to utilize the skill set he had.”
PASSAS >> “You have quarterbacks that are stars their whole lives, as kids, in high school, in college. But Marcus had to fight for his position. He learned how to compete, and he had to do the same thing at Oregon his freshman year. Some of those star guys wouldn’t know how to deal with that. But the competition his junior and senior year here, really helped him. He was patient. The adversity helped get him ready for the next level.
“He knew how to handle adversity. If things didn’t go his way – he didn’t the first down, we had to punt, he’d miss a wide open guy or throw an interception, etc., most QBs come back to the sideline, and they need to show the whole world they’re upset. He knows how to flush things and move on quickly to the next play.”
KRUPKA >> “How and why did Marcus choose Oregon?”
WRIGHT >> “With recruiting these days, he goes to the Nike camp in the summer, he goes in and runs like a 4.4, 40-yard dash and nobody could believe it. Then he went and attended some private workouts. He’s then invited to Oregon’s camp. Oregon sees him for about two days, and before he even played a snap his senior year, Oregon offered him on the spot.
“The crazy thing about that is, that at the time, Johnny Manziel was getting looked at by Oregon as well. Johnny, at one time, was committed to Oregon and so Marcus was seriously considering if he wanted to go to Oregon, but as things turn out, Johnny went to A&M, and Marcus was firm on Oregon. Marcus loved it from the start, had Hawaii friends that played and went there (St. Louis teammate Jeremiah Mosoli and starting lineman Mana Greig), it was close to home, he felt a sense of family there, and the program fit him perfectly and better than any other school. He knew that, the family knew that, and I think Chip did a great job recruiting him.”
KRUPKA >> “Do NFL agents or coaches ever call you to ask about Marcus?”
WRIGHT >> “No. As of now we haven’t got any calls. And if that time does come, I’m gonna hold off until the family is ready. They’re a very loving family, but a very private family. Once the family is ready and confirms they’re ready to start talking, then [we’ll] start to answer those questions.”
KRUPKA >> “If you had Marcus here with you right now, what advice would you give him?”
WRIGHT >> “Finish what you start. I’m a firm believer in that. Trust the Lord, trust your family, lean on them. With his game, it’s hard to tell him ‘Hey, do this’ or ‘Hey, do that’ because it’s so natural for him. With regards to the NFL – it’s very appealing. I always say take things one step at a time. Focus on the now, on this season.
“Within his family there’s such a great foundation that they’ll make the right decision together, whatever that decision is. He’s got a bright future ahead of him, regardless of what he does. Be yourself and continue to be who you are, and always have something lined up other than football, because football ends at some point for everyone. Have something you can fall back on. And if you decide you want to enter the draft early, while you’re in the NFL, get your degree.”
KRUPKA >> “What were some of his strengths and what were some of the things you wanted to see him work on?”
PASSAS >> “Marcus is a gifted athlete. He has great upside. His body make-up, heighth. I’ve seen him reverse jam a basketball. Soccer is also something he exceled in. He can throw the ball too.
“We worked, the late Tom Martinez and I, to try to tighten up his throwing motion, have the ball come out faster, instead of a long, lengthy-type of motion. I felt he made adjustments well, sharpened what we asked him to. He studied film. He’d put himself on film, looking at the side angle, the front angle and the rear angle of all his throws to look at his throwing motion and accuracy.
“I think he has great feet, in my opinion. He doesn’t show the under-center, drop-back footwork because that’s not what he’s asked to do. I’ve watched him at Oregon go through his progression, from 1 to 2 and even to 3, and step up and deliver. He’s able to slide in the pocket and keep the throwing shoulder back, sometimes stepping up or stepping out, if needed. He’s got a good feel for the pocket, and he knows not to get too deep where the edge becomes shorter.
“During practice we’d have 7-on-7’s and we’d have a dodge-ball, and we’d kick it at him to help him slide his feet, get re-set and make the throw, instead of looking at the pass rush.
“Marcus does a great job of running videos through his head, where he goes through his progressions before he even snaps the ball. He knows where to go if it’s man, zone, this is where I’m going to go on pressure.”
And thus continues the saga spurred by ’Marvelous Marcus’ Mariota.
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