Mariota's Heisman landmark moment for Oregon, QB and his native Hawaii

BY Bruce Feldman • December 13, 2014

NEW YORK -- Some 13 years ago, Oregon football tried to announce its presence on the national scene by unveiling an ostentatious 10-story billboard in the middle of Manhattan proclaiming its starting quarterback Joey Harrington as "Joey Heisman." 

Joey Who?

The glitzy Nike-powered ad campaign was mocked by many but it certainly did elevate the brand of the upstart program. The Ducks were coming off a 10-2 season, its first double-digit win season in years. But there was no Heisman Trophy. In fact, Harrington joked the other night while visiting New York that when he was at the Heisman reception later that year, he was introduced as "Joey Harrington from Oregon State University" and right then he knew he wasn't winning.

The Oregon football program, though, has come a very, very long way since those days. The Ducks are a legit powerhouse with a run of double-digit win seasons and big bowl game appearances. This year, it didn't need -- or even attempt -- any Heisman campaign for its QB, Marcus Mariota, who ran away with the Heisman much in the way he's run away from helpless defenders this season at Oregon, appearing on the highest percentage of ballots (95.16%) in Heisman history.

"He was his own Heisman marketing campaign," said Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost with a nod to his understated, gracious star's style. "He has such a huge heart.

"I hear a lot of people say so many good things about him, but he's even better than his reputation."

The 6-4, 219-pound QB put up jaw-dropping stats this year with a spectacular 38-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio while totaling 53 TDs for a Ducks team headed to play in the College Football Playoff in a semifinal game. At the Rose Bowl, Oregon will face Florida State and last year's Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

"It's such a blessing," said Mariota after being handed the Heisman and proceeding to deliver a heart-tugging speech, reflecting his selfless nature. 

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon took second, ahead of Alabama wideout Amari Cooper. The rest of the top 10: 4. TCU QB Trevone Boykin; 5. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett; 6. FSU QB Jameis Winston; 7. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman; 8. Miss. State QB Dak Prescott; 9. Arizona LB Scooby Wright; 10. Baylor QB Bryce Petty.

As Mariota posed for pictures with the Heisman in the media room, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens stood 50 feet away beaming. 

"These things (winning a Heisman) are immeasurable," Mullens said when asked what a Heisman Trophy means to the University of Oregon. "He is such a wonderful ambassador for Oregon football, Oregon athletics and for the University of Oregon. You couldn't pick a better person. He's so authentic. So genuine. He says he's blessed. We're the ones who are so blessed to have him."

An hour before the ceremony began, Mariota, who became the first player from Hawaii to win the Heisman, was asked what it would mean to him and for the people from the islands. He explained how he hoped it would serve as an inspiration to people back there to be open to leaving the island if it meant pursuing their dreams.

Mariota got emotional after being announced as the winner, especially trying to put into words what winning the trophy for the people back in Hawaii means to him.

"In Hawaii, if one person is successful the entire state is successful," he said. "It's family."

Mariota kept a list of the people he wanted to make sure he thanked in his suit pocket. 

"I had to give thanks to so many people that got me there for all their hard work and all the sacrifice of other people," he said. "It's hard not to get emotional because it's been a long journey for so many people who have supported me and believed in me."

Mariota's own recruitment sounded like some kind of dream sequence as Oregon coach Mark Helfrich re-told it Saturday night. Mariota wasn't even the starter as a junior at St. Louis High in Honolulu. Jeremy Higgins, an upperclassman, was. Still, Helfrich noticed the wiry Mariota on film earlier that winter when he threw a flag route and the coach thought it looked a little like former Arizona State great Jake Plummer. Helfrich, then Chip Kelly's offensive coordinator, flew over to Hawaii for a closer look and more intel. Teachers and coaches gushed about the young QB.

Helfrich thought it sounded too good to be true. He waited to find out something that would scare him. But the more he heard, the more he saw, the better it sounded. Then he watched Mariota practice and all the little details caught his eye. How when the team ran gassers for some 30 minutes, Mariota won every single sprint.

"He's an absolute competitor, an incredible perfectionist," Helfrich said.

Mariota, despite not being a starter, was offered a scholarship and committed to Oregon. (He'd already been offered by Memphis as well.) He was one of three gifted dual-threat QBs who committed to the Ducks that spring, including Floridian Jerrard Randall and a Texan, Johnny Manziel. Credit to Oregon for having the insight to offer Manziel after he impressed Kelly at the Ducks camp. Despite Manziel's gaudy stats, none of the big programs in Texas had offered him, but early in his senior season of high school, Texas A&M did and made a pitch to keep the legend in Texas. Two years later, Manziel became the first (redshirt) freshman to ever win the Heisman. Randall ended up signing with LSU and has since transferred to Arizona, while Mariota has packed on about 30 pounds and blossomed into one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football history with a 101-12 TD-INT ratio.

About the only knock anyone has been able to come up with on Mariota this season are the reported whispers from pro scouts that he may be "too nice" to thrive as an NFL quarterback. "Much ado about nothing," said Helfrich Saturday night, adding that he's humble, proud and tough. "He's stayed true to who he is." 

Mariota made history becoming the first Duck to win the Heisman but said he would trade the award and all the other individual trophies he has won this week for a national title. 

"It is a team sport," Mariota said.

And for as poignant as Saturday night was for Mariota and so many close to him, he knows he's still got two more games left to accomplish what he really wants. To bring a national title to Oregon and back to the people of Hawaii.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.

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