Legacy, Finale, and Future of Oregon and Its Quarterback

The star of Saturday’s postgame press conference wasn’t the Heisman Trophy candidate who had possibly played his final home game, or any of the seniors who certainly did finish their careers in Eugene that day. Rather, it was the junior reporter whose question about “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota” made him a viral star over the weekend. While his delivery was amusing, his question was one every Oregon fan wanted answered: Did we just see Marcus Mariota’s final home game?

The motive behind his question needs no explanation: Marcus Mariota is arguably the greatest quarterback in Oregon’s history, and he’s not far from losing that modifying adjective.  He’s the only quarterback to ever lead the Ducks to three straight ten-win seasons as a starter.  He owns a cartoonish touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 8:1 (95 TDs, 12 INTs.) He’s a near-lock to be a Heisman finalist, and certain to be voted higher than any other Oregon quarterback ever. (Joey Harrington finished fourth in 2001.)  While Harrington was sacked only 11 times that 2001 season, Mariota has already been sacked 25 times this year, demonstrating that despite having considerably better wheels than Harrington, he’s had far less protection. And those are just his accomplishments as a player; off the field he’s spoken so highly of that getting a speeding ticket somehow constitutes a scandal.

Marcus Mariota is interviewed following Oregon's win over Stanford earlier this season.

Kevin Cline

Marcus Mariota is interviewed following Oregon’s win over Stanford earlier this season.

We can understand the youthful impetuousness of junior reporter Charlie Papé’s curiosity in wanting to see Mariota return next season. The 12-year-old reporter has never witnessed an Oregon senior quarterback start a Senior Day in his lifetime (The last to do so was Harrington in 2001.), and is likely wondering if he ever will.

All great successes have a cost, and for Oregon that’s been the loss of those who helped them achieve that success. Winning creates demand, and being in demand doesn’t always allow for the opportunity for a proper goodbye. For a program that has gone into recent offseasons not knowing whether such valuable entities as De’Anthony Thomas, LaMichael James, or yes, even Chip Kelly would return, sometimes the exit comes without a chance to say goodbye.

Hroniss Grasu is not the first player to feel the weight of his college career on Senior Day.

Craig Strobeck

Hroniss Grasu feeling the gravity of Senior Day.

While those early exits may have felt premature, at least they were facilitated by career improvements; going on to greater things. Far more unfortunate are the players for whom we never knew it was their final game until it was too late.  As we saw an emotional Hroniss Grasu during Saturday’s ceremony, it’s hard not to think about how unlucky some seniors in recent years (Carson York, John Boyett, etc.) have been; forced to have to spend their final game at Autzen Stadium on crutches instead of between the lines.

While that final Senior Day game may offer fans closure while allowing them to send players off with warm wishes, rarely does the game itself offer any memory that separates it from any other. Unless something memorable occurs, it fades into the classification of “just another game” in the legacy of that player. If Saturday was Mariota’s final game, his first quarter run, a beautiful split-two-defenders touchdown that served as a fitting bookend to his career in Eugene, with his final highlight at Autzen Stadium so similar to his first.

We see the symmetry of it now, yet I doubt I will retain much immediate memory of it in future years. Not because it wasn’t a great run, but because in a career so full of spectacular highlights, the criteria for creating a memory has been raised. That Saturday’s touchdown could be “just another highlight” shows how spectacular a player Mariota truly is.

What I remember about that 2001 Senior Day (Although in odd years, I suppose I could just call Senior Day “the Civil War.”) is fairly limited. While I remember the ovation Harrington got during introductions, I remember little of his play from the game itself. (Save for a late fear-inducing fumble, a memory I’m sure he and I would both like to forget equally.) Like many others, I remember Keenan Howry’s punt return and Rashad Bauman’s interception and little else. As Harrington walked off the field that day, I wondered if we would ever see a quarterback as seemingly likable and talented as Harrington again.

Mark Helfrich congratulates Hamani Stevens before his final home game of an Oregon career spanning seven seasons.

Craig Strobeck

Mark Helfrich congratulates Hamani Stevens before the final home game of an Oregon career spanning seven seasons.

Yet that’s the beauty of college athletics. Seasons begin with previously unknown names eventually growing into iconic players beloved by fans. By the end of their careers, we can’t fathom what the team will look like without those special players coming back. Then the following season begins, and we begin the whole process over again.

I wondered back then if we’d ever see a player as special as Harrington again. Some fans may be doing the same with Mariota now. The good news is, I assure you fans, we will someday. It may take 10, 20, 50 years for that player to come along, but we will see another great quarterback again. But that doesn’t mean he is ordinary, far from it. Rather, that we can’t imagine it, that we don’t know when, and the bar of expectations for such a special player he has created is what makes him so special.

Top image by Craig Strobeck.

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