Titans returner Mariani makes Pro Bowl as rookie
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
People are going to start pronouncing Marc Mariani's name correctly soon if he keeps this up.
A Montana native, Mariani (mare-ee-ANN-ee) has worked his way from a walk-on in college to a seventh-round draft pick in the NFL, and now he's going to the Pro Bowl after his record-setting debut season as a kickoff and punt returner.
The rookie from Havre, Mont., also had to deal with critics who thought the Titans drafted him only because he played at Montana with Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher's son.
''Just dream big and don't let anybody tell you no,'' Mariani said Wednesday. ''I always just wanted to be the best that I could be. I'm so competitive I always wanted to do my best almost to the point of being perfect. I just wanted to be at the top. ... I definitely got a lot of work to do to have the success we've had this year. To be standing here is a crazy ride.''
Mariani, regularly pronounced with the Italian emphasis (mar-ee-AHN-ee), is one of four rookies on this year's Pro Bowl roster. The other three all were first-round draft picks, while 221 players went before Mariani was taken. Fisher's son called him to break the news.
''From Montana to the Pro Bowl,'' quarterback Kerry Collins said. ''It's a great story, and he's a good kid. He really is. He's worked hard, and it's tough. He's done everything they've asked him. And that whole group is greatly improved, and he's a big reason why.''
Fisher had seen Mariani play while watching his son, and the Titans wanted another option at returner along with Damian Williams, one of their two picks in the third round.
''We figured between either one of them we would solve the problem,'' Fisher said. ''Back when early in the preseason as we were going through there, there was that opportunity to use them both. I mean use one as the punt returner and one as the kickoff returner, but Marc took it and ran with it.''
Literally. Mariani set a franchise record for kickoff return yards in a season with 1,411 yards last week, topping a mark set by Bobby Jancik in 1963.
Mariani also is the only NFL player this season to return both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns with an 87-yard punt return Nov. 21 against Washington and a 98-yard kickoff return for against Denver on Oct. 3. Billy ''White Shoes'' Johnson is the only other player in franchise history to do that in the same regular season.
''Everyone he's broke, he's never been caught,'' said teammate Chris Johnson, who's scored some long TDs himself. ''I feel like he's got good speed.''
Mariani leads the AFC and is third in the NFL with 12.9 yards per punt return. He ranks fourth in the AFC averaging 25.2 yards on kickoff returns.
Returner is a spot where rookies can earn Pro Bowl recognition. Johnny Knox of Chicago did it last season, while Devin Hester went in 2006 during his spectacular NFL debut. Mariani is the fourth returner from this franchise voted to the Pro Bowl, joining Johnson (1976, 1978), Carl Roaches (1982) and Derrick Mason (2001).
Mariani's teammates had been talking about the possibility of him being a Pro Bowler in recent days, but he didn't want to think seriously about his chances. Fisher broke the news to him Tuesday in a call videotaped and posted on the team website. Mariani quickly called his parents.
''There was a little celebration at home, I can tell you that,'' Mariani said.
Fisher also alerted him to the strong possibility that Mariani will get to play receiver in Hawaii. He hasn't caught a single pass yet for Tennessee, but returners usually get extra work in the Pro Bowl. That means he might catch passes from Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or Peyton Manning.
Not bad for a former college walk-on.
''I wasn't thinking that far ahead,'' Mariani said. ''To have taken the steps that I've taken to get here, it's fun to look back on it now. It's really gratifying, and it's special and I mean it's hard for me to describe in words just because the road I've taken was long and bumpy.
''But I would've never had it any other way.''