NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There’s no ocean in sight, no palm trees, and no surfboards.
In the heart of Tennessee, Marcus Taulauniu Mariota is nowhere close to his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii.
Yet just 4 ½ months on the job as the quarterback for the Tennessee Titans, a part of Mariota feels like he’s at home.
“The community, the people here,’’ Mariota said. “Everyone has been so awesome to me. It reminds me a lot of home as far as how nice people are, and respectful. And the way people have treated me, how they seem so genuinely happy for me to be here, it makes me even more motivated to do well.”
Mariota, the second overall pick of the NFL draft by the Titans, is a people pleaser. He takes pride in his craft, but he admittedly takes just as much enjoyment satisfying those around him. He doesn’t want to let anyone down.
Everywhere he’s been, it’s been mission accomplished for Mariota.
In his senior year in high school, he guided Saint Louis High in Honolulu to a state championship.
In college at Oregon, he posted a 36-5 record in three seasons. He guided the Ducks into the national championship game during his final collegiate season, and became one of four players in NCAA-FBS history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for at least 2,000 yards in a career. Mariota was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 2014, marking the first winner in Oregon history as well as the first player born in Hawaii to receive the honor.
It all led him to Nashville, where he’s already become the team’s most recognizable – and popular – player before his first NFL game. On Sunday in Tampa, Fla., the rookie quarterback will make his NFL debut.
“If you think he is big there, just imagine how big he is here,’’ said Vinny Passas, Mariota’s quarterbacks coach at Saint Louis High. “All of a sudden the island is filled with Tennessee Titans fans. The Marcus Mariota shirts and the Titans colors – navy and light blue – are everywhere. It used to be 49ers and Seahawks and Chargers fans, and now we have a bunch of Tennessee Titans fans.
“It’s because of Marcus, one of our own, has done so well. And we are so proud of him.”
Mariota’s road to the NFL – from Honolulu to Eugene to the Music City -- wasn’t as simple as a shotgun snap, however.
Mariota, who looks like a quarterback these days, standing 6-foot-4, loved soccer at a young age. He was a star player on the Honolulu Bulls soccer club, and his early success tempted him to pick futbol over football.
There was a time, in fact, when some thought he might.
Mariota was a goal-scoring phenom on the soccer field, and his mother was the team manager. He ended up choosing both sports, before eventually committing to football.
“He was very good at soccer,’’ Rick Chong, who coached that Bulls squad, said of Mariota. “And he loved it. He became all-state in high school.
“But I always knew he loved football. Whenever he’d come to the soccer field before practice or after practice, out came the football. I’d say, “Wait a minute, Marcus, that’s the wrong ball. Put the ball away, this is soccer practice. I don’t want any funny looking balls on the field.”
Yes, Mariota stuck with football, but he had to be patient on the football field, too.
He had to wait his turn on more than one occasion, because there were other quarterbacks deemed better.
It’s why Mariota played receiver all through flag football, and in Pop Warner his first year.
Then the quarterback ahead of him – “Ethan” -- moved to a higher division because of his age and weight class, and he drifted toward baseball.
Former Oregon QB Marcus Mariota reacts to being drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the second pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft from Honolulu. (AP Photos)
“I ended up being the only kid who could throw,’’ Mariota said. “So that’s how I kind of got into playing quarterback.”
It was a perfect match.
“As a receiver you only get the ball three or four times a game,’’ he said. “You play quarterback and you get the ball every play. That was kind of my thinking.”
Even then, though, Mariota didn’t experience smooth sailing on the football field.
At Saint Louis, he spent his first three seasons as a back-up quarterback. Jeremy Higgins, an all-state performer who went on to play at Utah State and Hawaii, played in front of Mariota. As a junior, Mariota got a chance to step in and play late in a game, but suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
It wasn’t until Mariota’s senior season before he got a chance as the starter, and the lack of exposure nearly cost him a chance to showcase his talents to recruiters. Oregon didn’t offer him a scholarship until late, which left him pondering the possibility of playing at Memphis, the only other school to offer him a scholarship. Mariota, tabbed as the No.123 in his class by one recruiting service, wasn’t even recruited by the University of Hawaii, located 15 minutes from his high school.
Did Mariota ever get discouraged?
“I’ve always had high expectations for myself,’’ he said. “Obviously in high school it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. But my parents always encouraged me and told me to never give up.”
Even when he was waiting his turn, those around him say he never changed.
“Our school was a lot about brotherhood and family and backing one another up and competing,’’ Passas said. “He was still the first guy out on the practice field and the last to leave. And once he got the chance, I think we all knew he was going to be special because of his attitude and athletic ability.”
Once he found success on the football field, his soccer coaches understood.
“I lost a kid because he was a professional surfer,’’ Chong said. “Here, I guess that happens. Not too many soccer coaches get to say, “I had this kid play for me and he happened to win the Heisman Trophy and went to the NFL.”
Mariota credits his parents, who will be at Sunday’s game in Tampa, for instilling confidence in him, and teaching him humility. It allowed him to never lose sight of his dream.
As a young boy in Hawaii, Mariota still remembers watching his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, and his idols – Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman – beat the Washington Redskins. He always loved football, he said.
Today, he’s the player fans in Hawaii and Oregon embraced, while Titans fans stand with open arms.
Leading up to Sunday’s season opener against the Buccaneers, Mariota has passed every test.
On the practice field and in preseason games, he’s performed well. His veteran teammates say he’s taken a veteran approach in the locker room. They can hardly believe he’s just 21 years old.
Titans Online looks at the collegiate career of Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota. (AP Photos)
“I love his demeanor, how cool, calm and collected he is,’’ veteran receiver Harry Douglas said of Mariota. “For him to be so young, to be a rookie quarterback and how calm he is about everything. He has done nothing but gain 100 percent confidence from me. I believe in him 100 percent.
“When he first came in here, you understood why he’s had so much success. It starts with his demeanor, and how humble he is. His future is so bright. Some people, God has just blessed like that, and he is one of those people.”
A part of Mariota is uncomfortable receiving praise. He deflects it, like defensive linemen trying to knock down his passes.
More than anything, Mariota wants to bring success to Tennessee. He’s a long way from home, but he’s already feeling very comfortable.
“My parents always said, “Pursue your dreams, and see where it takes you,’’ he said. “Now I am here, and I’m happy to be here.”