Freshman Marcus Mariota, a Saint Louis alum, has Oregon at No. 2 in the AP Poll and chasing a national title.
Marcus Mariota, the first freshman to start at Oregon in 21 years, has the Ducks up to No. 2 in the AP Poll, and chasing a national championship. Here’s an exclusive look at the Saint Louis grad as well as seven other Ducks who call Hawaii home
“Mariota makes it look easy!” -ESPN’s Joe Tessitore after Marcus Mariota threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to give No. 2 Oregon a 28-0 lead over Arizona in his Pac-12 debut
When Marcus Mariota was a fourth-grader at Nuuanu Elementary – in the days when his regular school uniform was a No. 22 Emmitt Smith Dallas Cowboys jersey and denim shorts – he was assigned to write an essay about how he imagined his future path.
“He wrote,” says his mother Alana, “‘I’m going to go to school at Saint Louis and play football, then move to USC, then the NFL, and I’ll marry a soccer player.’”
“In that order,” adds his father Toa. “He had a plan all along,” says Alana, “even when he was struggling at Saint Louis.”
Today, Mariota is the quarterback of the second-ranked (AP Poll) University of Oregon Ducks, and an out-of-nowhere fan and media sensation who is drawing raves on a national stage. And he won’t turn 19 until Oct. 30, just days before he’s scheduled to lead the Fighting Ducks against USC.
And no wonder he has the nation’s attention. Starting for the Ducks as a redshirt freshman (meaning he practiced but did not play last season, and maintains four years of NCAA eligibility), he led the Quack Attack to touchdowns the first nine times he was on the field. In the first 30 drives he led, Oregon scored 19 touch-downs – all on national television.
Through seven games in which the Ducks went 7-0 – including a 43-21 win at Arizona State last Thursday – Mariota had a quarterback efficiency rating of 155, had completed 123 of 180 passes with five interceptions and 16 touchdowns (while sitting out most of the second halves of the first three games and the Arizona game as Oregon raced to big leads). He’d also run the ball 53 times and averaged 7.6 yards per carry (that stat enhanced by his 86-yard TD sprint against Arizona State). In that game he actually ran and threw for touchdowns, and caught a pass for another. And the Ducks scored their 43 points in the game’s opening 19 minutes.
Most impressively, he’s looked as placid as the glassy surface of the Mill Race, a historic slough near campus, while accomplishing all this.
Mariota, who stands 6-foot-4 and has been timed at 4.4 seconds over 40 yards, was recently added to the Maxwell Trophy “watch list” – the award going to the country’s best player.
“I’m just trying to get the ball out to my teammates and let them make plays,” he says humbly of his performance through the first half of his first college season.
He’s made a few plays as well, with his arm and his feet.
“I’ve never seen a player show such obvious, marked improvement from one week to the next,” says Rob Moseley, the Oregon football beat writer for the Eugene Register-Guard who has been covering the Ducks since 1997. “Mariota is literally growing up as a player before your eyes. Against Washington State, he forced a couple throws into tight coverage and took a couple of big hits at the end of runs, and afterward said he knew both were things he needed to clean up going forward. Well, sure enough, literally the next week against Washington, he threw two touchdowns on which he checked down to his third or fourth options in order to avoid throwing into coverage, and he stepped out of bounds at the end of a couple runs to avoid big hits. Very impressive.”
The R-G‘s banner headline the morning after Mariota threw four touchdown passes against UW: “My, how he has grown.”
Before we go any further in the story of this young man who has persevered through years of setbacks and insults to now lead one of the most popular and recognized teams in the country, let’s set the record straight on one thing – and perhaps calm those University of Hawaii uber-fans who grumble on various blogs that, after leading Saint Louis to a state title in his senior season (2010), Mariota didn’t stay home – as well as counter some of the misinformation that’s leaked from Manoa on the subject.
“I want to put this on the record,” his mother says. “UH did not offer Marcus anything. They never spoke to him, no conversation, no offer. Nothing.”
Adds Toa: “When UH had its Junior’s Day (when promising local prep football players in their junior years are invited to Manoa for a football camp), Ron and Cal Lee asked the other Saint Louis boys, ‘Eh, where’s Marcus?’ They just shrugged. ‘Oh, he was never invited.’”
“It wasn’t until Marcus committed to Oregon that Rolovich (Nick, then the UH quarterbacks coach under head coach Greg McMackin) called,” says Alana.
While we’re setting records straight, and in answer to questions fans in both Hawaii and Oregon are asking:
First, regarding ethnic heritage and family background: Toa was born in American Samoa, and came to Hawaii after some years in the Bay Area caring for his ailing grandmother, to attend Chaminade University. There he would earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice. Today he’s a criminal investigator with the Department of Homeland Security, assigned to the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force, and just made 25 years in federal law enforcement.
Alana – pronounced with a long sound for the middle a – is of mostly German descent. She spent early years in Alaska as her father and grandfather worked there during the oil boom years, but the family settled on Kaua’i and she graduated from Kapa’a High. Her father Ardel Deppe still resides at Anahola. Alana, who spent 18 years with Kaiser Permanente in sales, is now district manager for Follett Library Resources, working with schools on books and curriculum. A competitive swimmer in high school, she turned down a scholarship to Pepperdine – “I was tired of swimming laps, it’s boring” – and instead enrolled at Chaminade, where she met Toa.
Second, regarding the family name: Contrary to what the aforementioned and otherwise quite competent Tessitore said during Oregon’s first game of the season – repeatedly pronouncing Marcus’ last name MarioTA, misinforming the nation by practically shouting the last syllable – Toa says “it’s a soft ‘ta,’ not a hard ‘ta.’”
Until his breakout performance in the Oregon intra-squad spring game this past April on ESPN – in which he passed for 202 yards and one touchdown, and scored on runs of 14 and 82 yards – Mariota was something of a mystery to Ducks fans. Oregon Coach Chip Kelly closes practices to media and fans, so whatever Mariota was doing last season and in spring practices was done largely in obscurity.
And having played football at Saint Louis since seventh grade without ever starting until his senior season, he also was something of a mystery to Hawaii fans.
Despite directing the Crusaders to two touch-downs when called upon as an underclassman, on both occasions he was sent back to the bench by coach John Hao, who preferred Jeremy Higgins, who was a grade ahead.
“That was so frustrating for Marcus,” Alana says. “We’d pick him up after games, and on the drive home he was on the verge of tears sometimes.”
“He loves the game so much,” Toa says.
Alana says she approached Punahou coach Kale Ane about Marcus transferring after his sophomore season. “We talked about it with Marcus, but he decided to stay and tough it out at Saint Louis. Plus, he loves the school.”
To his credit, Higgins was named all-Interscholastic League of Honolulu first team his junior season and second team his senior year. But during those years (’08-’09), while the talented Crusaders reached No. 1 in state rankings, they failed to make the state championship game (which, adding to the sting, were won by ILH rivals Punahou and Kamehameha). Higgins would enroll at Utah State, but transferred to UH, and after sitting out a season is currently a reserve, playing in two of the Warriors’ first six games this season in mop-up duty.
Some observers say Hao’s handling of Mariota and the failure to win even a league title with Higgins led to his firing – and to former Saint Louis quarterback/coach Darnell Arceneaux being brought back to coach Mariota in his senior season. After winning the ILH, in the state title game Mariota led the Crusaders to a resounding 36-13 win over Waianae.
(Give Hao credit for this: “He was the one who put us in touch with Oregon,” Alana says.)
“It was hard, but Jeremy was playing really well,” Mariota says of those years. “But I learned from it and it made me stronger.”
So when Oregon’s Kelly called and offered Mariota a scholarship even before his senior season, you can see why fans on both sides of the Pacific were baffled: “Who is this guy? He can’t be that good if he never started before, right?”
They were not alone in their puzzlement.
Says Mariota: “When (Kelly) was on the phone, I was like, ‘Coach, are you sure?’ I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m respectful they gave me the opportunity, and I’m glad they did.”
Kelly had been tipped off by Oregon offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich, who’d attended a Saint Louis practice during Mariota’s junior season. It was a particularly breezy day as the wind whistled down Saint Louis Heights and, as Toa puts it, “Marcus was throwing dimes through the wind.”
That earned Mariota an invitation to a Ducks football camp in Eugene. Johnny Manziel, the No. 8-rated prep quarterback in the country according to scouting services, attended the same camp. Despite Mariota’s impressive performance at the camp, Kelly offered Manziel a scholarship on the spot. Mariota took it hard.
“I think his feelings were hurt,” says his mom. “He didn’t say a word on the flight back home.”
And you couldn’t blame him for being reminded of the three high school seasons he’d endured on the bench.
Funny thing, though. When Kelly offered Mariota a scholarship, Manziel accepted an offer from Texas A&M, where this season he’s leading the Southeastern Conference in passing yards as a redshirt freshman.
(Similarly, it’s said among Ducks cognoscenti that Darron Thomas, who over two seasons led Oregon to the last Pac-10 and first Pac-12 championships, the 2010 national championship game and a win in this year’s Rose Bowl, saw Mariota gaining in his rearview mirror and departed a year early for the NFL. Undrafted there, earlier this month he was signed to the practice squad of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders.)
Still, being the third-string quarterback his first year at Oregon wasn’t easy.
“You practice and practice, and not being able to play was tough, just standing on the sidelines,” Mariota says. “But it was also good because I was able to learn the offense.”
While his heart had once been set on USC, when he’d attended a camp there he didn’t like it. Both Los Angeles and the USC campus were too big, too impersonal. But between fourth grade and high school, he started thinking of other schools. As his teammate, roommate and high school classmate Bronson Yim says, “Me and Marcus started liking the Ducks in about eighth grade.”
“I like the school, the small campus (at Oregon),” Mariota says. “Coming from a small island, a small school, and then coming to a small community in Eugene (population 160,000), it reminds me of home. This is a good fit for me.”
And he’s adjusted to the weather.
“My freshman year, after it started raining and it got cold, I was calling home and telling my mom I need a couple of rain jackets,” he says. “But now I’m used to it. It’s not like home, but I like it.”
Well, mostly. After Thursday practices, all Ducks players must jump into ice-water tubs, floes of ice cubes bobbing on the surface, outside the locker room – part of the scientific approach the team takes to nutrition, training and recovery.
“It’s really, really cold. I don’t really like it,” Mariota says with a shiver. “Last year when (the outdoor temperature) was getting down into the 30s, that was tough.”
But he smiles when he says it.
As much as he likes his new surroundings, he does look forward to “care packages” from home.
“He’s not so much into the cuttlefish and crack seed,” Alana says. “His thing is the dipped cookies – the white chocolate kind.”
Though he stands 6-foot-4 today and is still growing, according to the family doctor, Marcus Ardel Taulauniu Mariota (both middle names after his grandfathers) was an average-size baby.
“He wasn’t huge,” Alana says, “21 inches, 7-pounds-10.”
“He didn’t hit his growth spurt until his freshman year,” adds Toa.
And if he had his way, his eldest son never would have strapped on a football helmet.
“In Samoa, I played every sport there was – volleyball, rugby – but my mom wouldn’t let me play football,” he says.
Following that family tradition, when Marcus wanted to play football, Toa consented only to the flag variety.
“He played wide receiver – that was the ‘cool’ position,” Toa says. “At 9 he was starting wide receiver for Kalani Pop Warner. So I’d throw him balls, playing catch at Kahala Park. And when he threw the ball back to me, I was, wow, he throws a perfect spiral!
“The next year, the quarterback moved up to the next division. I told the coach, eh, Marcus can throw.”
So he changed positions. “I went online,” Toa says, “looked up how to throw a football, and Marcus was already doing it naturally.”
He won the starting quarterback job.
Soon, young Marcus wanted to make the move to pads and helmets. Toa was against it.
“But he had his heart set on it,” says Alana.
“He did,” echoes Toa. “My dad wanted me to continue with flag, but my mom was the one who said, OK, give this a shot,” Marcus recalls. “And then I’d come home and I’d be sore, and my dad was like, I don’t know about this, but my mom was, eh, come on, suck it up. Now it’s pretty funny, my dad is the one to tell me to suck it up, and my mom is asking, ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’”
He was a good enough soccer player that the highly competitive Honolulu Bulls club team invited him to join.
“I can’t recall how I got involved in soccer, but it was a game I really liked,” he says. “I played for the Bulls until my freshman year.”
“That’s when they want a commitment (to focus on soccer),” Alana says.
“For him, it was easy,” says Toa. “He was always going to play football.”
But he also stuck with soccer and played at Saint Louis.
“I played all over, I was a mid-fielder and forward, I liked to run and dribble the ball,” Mariota says. “But after a while, because I wasn’t playing club, I lost something and they put me in the back to play defense.”
He also likes hooping it. “When he’s home, he likes to play basketball with his friends,” Alana says. “But his friends have become protective of him – nobody wants to see him get hurt.”
Although he has an aversion to the bone-cracking dangers of skateboarding and other X Games sports, Marcus grew up Boogie Boarding and body surfing at often-treacherous Sandy Beach, infamous for its concussive shore break.
“That’s his favorite, Sandy’s,” says Alana.
Against Arizona in his Pac-12 debut, with a big defensive lineman bearing down on him for a sack on third down, Mariota showed a patented Sandy’s move, ducking below the rush as if diving under a thunder-whumping wave about to explode on the shore, and scrambled for a first down.
Perhaps what prevented Hao from giving Mariota more of a chance is the young man’s natural laid-back demeanor. Teammates at Oregon and Coach Kelly speak of his quiet, unflappable composure. To some, it might be misconstrued as nonchalance.
“We raised him to be humble, but that calmness you see, that’s just Marcus,” says Alana. “He’s always been like that. What you see is what you get.”
“Chip gets it,” Toa says of the UO coach.
But as Mariota admitted to The Oregonian‘s beat writer Adam Jude, “I’m kind of a hard person to read.”
That calmness – along with his physical gifts, smarts and work ethic – may have been the deciding factor when Coach Kelly named Mariota his starter a week before the season opener. He beat out Bryan Bennett, a redshirt sophomore who played exceptionally in a backup role when Thomas was injured last season, saving a game against Arizona State and winning at Colorado. In the minds of many fans and media, Bennett – a rah-rah guy known to be something of a live wire both on and off the field – was the no-brainer favorite to be the starter.
But the confounding Kelly, for the second time in three seasons, chose an under-classman over a more experienced player to be his quarterback.
“I think most football coaches,” says the Register-Guard‘s Moseley, “would take a guy who is even-keeled every day over a guy who has big ups and downs.”
“When Kelly called him in to give him the news, that was a bittersweet moment for Marcus,” says Alana. “He was happy, but he also felt bad for Bryan. He knew how he felt.”
What star running back Kenjon Barner calls “that Hawaii cool” masks Mariota’s highly competitive spirit.
If ever that quality were in doubt, when a Washington player hit him late out of bounds, knocking him sprawling, and a couple of Husky players woofed at him, Mariota barked right back. But only for a moment before sprinting back onto the field to keep Oregon’s warp-speed offense moving – that drive resulting in Mariota throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to leaping tight end Colt Lyerla, giving the Ducks a 45-12 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“If you disrespect me or disrespect my teammates, I’m not going to let that go,” he told media after the game. “There’s situations where you need to keep your head, but there’s situations where you need to say something. I felt at that point in time they were getting a little chippy. I felt I needed to say a little something. That’s usually not in my character, it just kind of happened.”
(Oh, and here’s the definition of warp speed: In the first six games, 24 of the Webfoots’ 39 scoring drives took less than two minutes, and 14 required 60 seconds or less.)
Mariota’s younger brother Matt, 14, a 6-foot-1 sophomore defensive end at Saint Louis who was just called up to the varsity when the jayvee season ended, knows Marcus’ competitiveness well.
“Marcus is so competitive, he has to win at everything,” Alana says. “He competes with Matt in everything even though he’s four years older. Now it’s video games. I told him, eh, can’t you let Matt win just one time? He says, ‘Losing is good for him.’”
“Yeah, that’s what I tell him,” Marcus says. “My mom used to harp on me, why don’t you take it easy on your little brother? And I’d say, ‘Mom, that’s not the kind of lesson to teach him, and I don’t ever want to accept losing.’
“Now he’s getting older, and it’s funny, Matt’s starting to beat me at some things – mostly video games. And I’m like, oh, man! I’m kind of a video game junkie, and so is he. We’d stay up and play each other, and we’d get so angry with each other, and our mom would step in. He was the kind who would never give up, but now he’s talking trash to me and I’m the one going, ‘Uhhh.’ (He grimaces, rolls his eyes, then smiles.) And it still continues, when I’m home that’s the first thing we do is jump on the video games.”
As for Matt’s football season, Marcus says, “I’m happy for him and really proud.”
The feelings are mutual. “Matt is proud of his big brother, but he’s kind of protective too,” their mother says. “Like he sees other kids have Marcus’ photo as their phone screensaver, and he’s like, ‘Why do you have my brother’s picture in your phone?’”
“I told him,” their dad adds, “‘so who do you have on your phone?’ It’s Patrick Willis (the 49ers’ All-Pro linebacker). I told him it’s the same thing.”
Back home in Hawaii Kai, Mariota’s bedroom is still decorated with Dallas Cowboys regalia. He’s such a Cowboys fan, after he committed to Oregon his grandmother Alice Deppe asked: “Marcus, do the Cowboys know you like them?”
“Uh, Grandma, that’s the pros.”
After the Washington win, Coach Kelly was asked about the progress of the first Oregon freshman to start at quarterback in 21 years:
“He’s learning every day out there, and it’s fun to watch him learn from his mistakes and improve. Very rarely does he make the same mistake twice. That’s one thing that’s awesome about him … I think he played really well tonight, and if he can play at that level we can be pretty good.”
“I like to think of myself as a student of the game,” Mariota says. “You need to be, so you know what you need to do, but the other guys (and their assignments on each play) too.”
Mariota’s 3.8 GPA at Saint Louis also attests to his smarts. At Oregon, he is a general sciences major. He’d considered a biology/pre-med major, but the class schedule did not mesh with the Ducks’ early morning practices.
While the NFL is certainly a possibility, Mariota says a career in physical therapy could be in his future.
“I like being around sports,” he says, “so if I can continue being around it, I’ll be happy.”
What about following his dad into law enforcement?
“We talked about it,” he says with a laugh, “and he didn’t think I have the personality for it.”
But as bright as he is, in his early days teachers gave his parents reasons to worry.
“In kindergarten and first grade, he was having a hard time with phonics,” Alana recalls. “The teachers (at Nuuanu Elementary) mentioned maybe holding him back.”
“We were living in Ewa Beach at that time,” Toa says, “spending all that time in the car, so we had him read license plates, sounding out the letters.”
It worked, says Alana, “and once he got to Saint Louis, he took off (academically). By the seventh grade, we knew he was a bright kid. He did his school work” with no problems or parental nagging.
“But that was the same question Arceneaux had: ‘Why didn’t you hold him back?’” Toa says, and answers with a shrug.
Being held back a grade would have given Mariota an extra year of eligibility at Saint Louis, a chance for another championship.
But he wouldn’t be starting for the No. 2 team in the country this season if he had.
Proud as his family is of him, as any parent of a child who goes away knows, it’s not easy.
“I miss him,” says Alana. “He’s only been home once in the past 16 months. Between football and school, he’s really busy.”
They text regularly, talk when they can.
So when Toa, Alana, Matt and Grandma were there for the Oct. 6 Washington game, it was a happy occasion for everyone.
“They’re the best; I wouldn’t be here without what they taught me,” Marcus says of his parents. “They taught me to be the person I am today, and they’re always there for me. I miss my family and love them to death.”
While his family had to return to Honolulu after a short visit, one aspect of home has moved closer. His high school sweetheart Nicole Watase, a recent graduate of Sacred Hearts, just started her freshman year at Oregon. Asked if he would mind her being mentioned in this story, he shakes his head, smiles.
“Not at all, I love her to death. She’s here now and I’m happy she’s here. She’s the one, after the Washington State game, I was pretty sore, and she helped work out the kinks,” he says, making a massaging motion.
“Marcus took Nicole to his junior prom, and they’ve pretty much been together ever since,” says her mother Karen Watase, a former MidWeek employee. “And then his senior year, he was the quarterback and she was cheerleading for Sacred Hearts, which cheers for Saint Louis, so they have this classic, sweet storybook thing.
“He’s such a polite, respectful young man, any parent who has a daughter would be happy to have him dating their daughter.”
Could Nicole’s presence in Eugene be a distraction?
“Not a chance,” Karen says. “Nothing distracts Marcus. He has focus like you wouldn’t believe.”
Nicole played soccer when she was younger, by the way, and wrestled in high school.
As the quarterback of the nation’s No. 2 team, Mariota has been getting more and more media requests for his time.
“Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming,” he admits.
“I think Marcus is taking all the media attention better than we are,” says Alana. “Marcus is a people pleaser. We tell him, ‘It’s OK to say no sometimes (to interview requests).’”
“Yeah,” adds Toa, “This is new for us too. I think he handles it better.”
Says the Register-Guard‘s Moseley: “Since last year he’s been well-spoken in interviews, with a maturity that belied his years. But he also had a touch of shyness that’s starting to wear off. He carries himself with a little more confidence, a self-assured air, when he’s in front of the cameras.”
As for the future, well, that topic doesn’t get talked about at Oregon. Sure, you declare a major and may have some career and personal goals in mind. But in terms of football, in Chip Kelly’s world, only today matters, and the only game that matters is the next one.
“Every game is a rivalry game,” he says.
When fans and media played up the historic Northwest “rivalry” before the Washington game (a favorite Oregon cheer is “Huck the Fuskies!”), Kelly called it “another game … If you make two or three games a season your big games, you’re disrespecting your other opponents.”
Kelly’s mantra is “Win The Day.” Meaning do what you need to do to win this day, do the same tomorrow, and at the end of the year you’ll have had a pretty good year. WTD signs are emblazoned on the walls of Autzen Stadium and on caps and T-shirts.
Kelly’s philosophy also includes “water the bamboo.” Meaning you plant a bamboo seed and water it regularly for three or four years until one day at last it springs from the earth and grows rapidly.
Another Kelly-ism: “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
In all that, even more than his physical gifts, Mariota may be Kelly’s perfect quarterback. When I suggest this to him, Mariota replies:
“I appreciate that. I feel like I’ve incorporated what he teaches into how I am, and just take it moment to moment, try to win the day, make the best of it. So that’s how I go about it.”
Oregon fans, however, are giddy about the future – for their sky’s-the-limit quarterback and for their team. Visions of a return to the “natty,” national championship game, dance in Ducky heads.
You can’t blame them. As ESPN analyst Matt Millen said after Mariota threw yet another touchdown pass against Washington: “And he hasn’t even scratched the surface.”
Koloa: MEET THE ISLAND DUCKS
This season, you could call Oregon’s football team the Koloa – because eight Island natives are on the Ducks’ roster. In addition to quarterback Marcus Mariota, four are playing significant roles for Oregon: guard Mana Greig, tight end Koa Ka’ai, nose tackle Wade Keliikipi and end DeForrest Buckner.
At the press conference following the Ducks’ 51-21 dismemberment of then-No. 23 Washington at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, and having spoken to several of the Hawaii boys two days earlier and learning that as a group they proudly share their Island culture with teammates, I asked Coach Chip Kelly what the Hawaii players bring to the team as a group.
“Macadamia nuts!” he quipped, drawing a round of media laughter. “All these macadamia nuts keep showing up.”
Then turning serious, Kelly continued: “They’re awesome, have great attitudes, show a lot of poise. They have kind of a laid-back Hawaii attitude, but they’re really warriors, hard workers, and very consistent, not a lot of peaks and valleys.
“As a coach, it’s great to recruit in Hawaii. I hope to find more players like these guys.”
Star running back Kenjon Barner said of his Hawaii teammates: “They bring that ‘Hawaii cool.’ Marcus, all of them, have a cool demeanor about them. You get around them, no matter the situation, they never get stressed. So it keeps you level and cool too.”
Here’s a look at the other Koloa (Hawaiian for Ducks).
WADE KELIIKIPI, No. 92, DT, 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, Jr., Waianae:
“I wanted an opportunity to get off the island, and I thought there would be more opportunities here,” says Keliikipi, who showed up for the interview in Oregon sweat pants and a black “Defend Waianae” T-shirt. “And I like the weather. Some people say it’s cold, but after 17 years in Waianae, whew, it’s hot. I like the cold better. I haven’t been home in a while, I miss it, but Hawaii will always be there. Right now my focus is football, so I don’t see myself going back to Hawaii anytime soon. (Not with the Ducks chasing dreams of playing in the national championship game in January.) But me and Mana, we speak Hawaiian and just promote the whole ‘kanak culture.’”
The younger brother of former UH running back Wes Keliikipi is a criminology and law major. “I’m almost finished with my major, so I’m thinking about getting a minor in business.” The nephew of the late HPD officer Charlie Keliikipi isn’t sure where that might take him, “but I wouldn’t mind being a parole officer.”
Like the other local boys in Eugene, he looks forward to packages from home – “Spam, cookies, whatever.”
Keliikipi saw significant playing time last year, including in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, and this year is the starting nose tackle in Oregon’s highly rated 3-4 defense, and against Washington State was voted defensive player of the game.
“The experience of playing at Autzen Stadium (which seats 60,000 and is regarded as perhaps the loudest stadium in college football) is unbelievable,” he says. “That vibe of thousands of people around you, screaming, chanting, you know they’re pulling for the team. Once in a while during time outs, our defensive line coach (Jerry Azzinaro) tells us to look around, look at the person to your right, to your left, look at who you’re playing with and all the people cheering up in the stands, and remember this experience. The atmosphere here is so big.”
With so many Island boys on the team, Oregon has become the No. 2 team for many fans in Hawaii.
“Yeah, my family back home says they’re seeing more and more ‘O’ decals on cars and people saying ‘Go Ducks!’” Keliikipi says. “Before, I never really took notice of that, but it’s great.”
MANA GREIG, No. 63, OL, 5-foot-11, 291 pounds, Jr., Saint Louis (Kailua):
“Coming out of high school, Oregon was the only school that offered me the chance to walk on – I came out here for a camp and really liked it,” he says.
Although he was a walk-on, when starter Carson York went down with a leg injury in the Rose Bowl, Greig stepped in and helped block the way to an Oregon win over Wisconsin this past January. But it wasn’t until moments after the Ducks’ spring game in April that he learned he’d earned a scholarship – when Kelly asked him and other former walk-ons to lead the school fight song Mighty Oregon after the game.
“We had no idea at all,” fellow scholarship winner Will Murphy was quoted in the Eugene Register-Guard. “Everyone went crazy; it was awesome.”
The son of Kimo Greig, an OCCC prison guard, and Cindy Sua, supervisor of the Temple Valley drivers license office (and catcher on the 1981 Kailua High state softball champs), Greig is majoring in “general social sciences” and after graduation says he’d like to “go back home to Hawaii and maybe work with my Uncle Darrell Ing – he serves warrants for the sheriffs.”
He and the others share their Island culture with teammates. “Me, Wade and Koa are always talking pidgin, and everyone picks up on that. Me and Koa talk Hawaiian, too,” says Greig, who took four years of Hawaiian language in high school. “It’s pretty funny. The other guys don’t know what we’re saying.”
Like Mariota, he played at Saint Louis School: “Marcus has always been quiet, leads by example. Now he’s doing the same thing over here – same Marcus.”
Undersized for his position, Greig consistently puts bigger guys on their backs. As Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says, “Mana is a grinder, he works hard and he packs more punch than you’d think for his size.”
Indeed, on Oregon’s last touchdown against Washington, Greig walled off two would-be tacklers, allowing Bryon Marshall to run for the score.
Mana’s nickname is Sea Turtle – for the petroglyph tattoo on one calf. KOA KA’AI, No. 80, TE, 6-foot-4, 251 pounds, RFr, Kamehameha:
He came to Eugene because “it’s the West Coast, and I didn’t want to go far from home. I visited, and I love it here.”
Academically, the son of Kamehameha Schools middle school principal Pua Ka’ai and retired Honolulu Fire Department battalion chief Bill Ka’ai (who played center for four years at UH and coached for 30 years at Farrington), is working on a “double major, sociology and psychology. I want to go to grad school, so I’m trying to graduate real quickly.”
Like the other Koloa, he counts on care packages.
“Mom tries to send me some goodies, Big Island Candies, Spam. Last night I had some guava jelly,” he says with a happy grin.
“Me and Mana, we talk Hawaiian on the field sometime – nobody knows what we’re talking about. It’s a lot of fun out there.”
Although he played at Kamehameha, and against Mariota, “every time Marcus saw me, he’d say, ‘Come to Oregon, come to Oregon.’ So here I am.”
And quickly becoming a favorite target as a tight end after spending last season at defensive end.
DeFORREST BUCK-NER, No. 44, DL, 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Fr., Punahou:
“When I came on my (recruiting) trip, there were a lot of local guys on the team, and I could see myself playing here,” Buckner says. “So even though it’s a long way from home, I still have a lot of local guys with me. And even though we’re from a lot of different schools, we’re close. When I visited, Koa was my host, and I could see myself being here.
“It’s funny, we talk some pidgin, and now you have other guys coming and trying to talk it. It’s pretty cool to share the culture.”
Like many students less than a month into his freshman year, Buckner has not declared an academic major, “but I’m thinking about sociology.” His career plans are likewise up in the air, though many at Oregon see an NFL career in his future. Buckner also starred in basketball in high school and helped Punahou win a state title last year, but at Oregon he’s concentrating on football and school.
BRONSON YIM, No. 30, DB, 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, RFr., Saint Louis:
Though seeing limited action because of an injury, Yim is significant because he and Mariota have been best pals since intermediate school at Saint Louis, and this year are roommates in an off-campus house also shared by Saint Louis classmates Colton Sisler and Taylor Troy.
“Yeah, we all graduated together,” he says.
“I’ve known Marcus since seventh grade, and over time we just got closer, so I was always at his house or he was at my house. He’s always pushed me to work toward the next level. That’s why I liked being around him.”
Asked what kind of roommate Mariota is, Yim says, “Oh, he’s the clean addict of the house!”
The son of longtime John Dominis general manager Al Yim, Bronson is an applied business and economics major, and hopes one day to “run my own company, maybe some kind of a sports business.”
He says he enjoys Eugene and campus life at Oregon: “I like the small town feel. There’s not a lot of distractions, so you can concentrate on school and football.”
But during the off-season, he and the other housemates enjoy “all the outdoor things you can do here, like rafting and fishing.”
Other Hawaii players suiting up for the Ducks this season include Isaac Ava (51, above), a sophomore linebacker from Saint Louis (Ewa Beach), and Keloni Kamalani (43), a junior linebacker from Kamehameha-Maui (Kihei).
Then there’s offensive lineman James Euscher. Not an Islander exactly, but he does hail from the Portland suburb of Aloha.
THE HAWAII CONNECTION
The Hawaii connection at the University of Oregon runs deep, starting with longtime associate athletic director Herb Yamanaka, who in 2009 was selected to the UO Athletic Hall of Fame.
Coming out of Honokaa High on the Big Island, he chose Oregon because, he says, “In those days they had a reciprocating rule, where Hawaii kids didn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition – so I paid $55 a term. Isn’t that something you’d jump at?”
After graduating in 1956 with a biology degree, he taught at Eugene’s Sacred Hearts Hospital nursing school for a while, and in 1960 founded Event Management, specializing in “everything it takes to put on an event – ticket sales, crowd control, cleanup, officials, press box.” Oregon sports were a primary client, and in 1977 he was hired as associate A.D.
Today, he and his wife endow the Herb and Donna Yamanaka Athletic Scholarship, with the recipient having five years to complete a degree. The current recipient is DeForrest Buckner, a freshman football player from Punahou. “We’ve had him over to the house for dinner, and he’s a real nice young man,” Yamanaka says.
He attends football practice every day, “and I make a point of saying hi to the Hawaii boys, giving them a high five or shaka.”
Here’s what his plaque in the hall of fame says:
“Few individuals have sacrificed so much for so many for the love of an educational institution as has one of the greatest ambassadors the University of Oregon will ever know. Through his countless contributions such as the spearheading of Oregon’s efforts for three decades of co-hosting the Far West Classic holiday basketball tournament in Portland, to helping manage a trio of Olympic track and field trials and numerous conference and NCAA national championship events on the Oregon campus, in addition to the cultivation of millions of dollars for intercollegiate athletics as well as his alma mater, Herb has graciously placed the needs of others above his own. Whether it was in his role as ticket manager, concessionaire, security coordinator or fund-raiser, his motivation has been one of simplicity . . . it has always been about the Ducks’ student-athletes because that is the way that former Oregon football coach and athletic director Len Casanova would have wanted it. The Hawaii native has worked under no fewer than 11 athletic directors in almost every capacity imaginable, yet the two characteristics that have remained unchanging throughout the years have always been his heart and dedication.” -d.c.
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