Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota plans to make all the right moves as he starts the 2016 season in September.
The surprise of the morning when Marcus Mariota arrives at the luxury condominium tower One Ala Moana for a HILuxury fashion shoot is that he says yes to a donut when offered a variety of pastries. Not what most health-conscious athletes might choose.
“I’m trying to put on weight,” the Tennessee Titans’ star quarterback explains.
And with good reason. He came out of the University of Oregon weighing about 218 pounds, and was suddenly in the National Football League last fall trying to avoid men who outweigh him by 100 pounds and more—and he would miss four of 16 games because of two knee injuries.
Now listed at 222 pounds, he could have consumed the whole box of pastries and still not filled out a pair of trousers for the first of three fashion “looks”— 38-waist deep red denims from Adriano Goldschmied that, with the assistance of his mom Alana, have to be pinned tighter at the back. (Dad Toa and younger brother Matt will arrive soon after. This is not the typical NFL “posse.”)
“Red … denim … hmmm …” he says, “I think I could do that.” That’s saying something for a guy whose personal style preference, admittedly, is “Nike T-shirt and shorts and slippers,” which is how he arrived.
Matched with a long-sleeve, white dress shirt with a light paisley print— left untucked—the red jeans are a good casual look on his lanky but muscular 6-foot-4 frame as photographer David Murphey fires away out on the lanai.
Back inside, he changes into another pair of jeans and a sweater—and gets a touchup on his makeup.
“I’ve had a lot of makeup on the past couple of days,” he says—the previous day he did a First Hawaiian Bank commercial shoot.
That’s what happens when you’re a Heisman Trophy winner taken No. 2 in the NFL Draft and blessed with boy-next-door smile and manners.
In the end, the photographer snaps more than 100 images of each look, and there isn’t a bad photo there. Mariota is a natural.
“He was truly very relaxed,” says Murphey. “He looks as good on camera as he does on the field. He required very little prompting. Because he’s an athlete, he’s very aware of his surroundings and his body movements—that’s the feeling I got.
“And I have to say, I know he’s a celebrity, but he’s so humble, and I enjoyed meeting his family just as much as meeting him. They even helped out by moving furniture around.”
After the photo shoot, Mariota and I find a quiet room to talk as the HILuxury photo shoot crew packs up. Mariota admits that during the shoot—his first style shoot, but likely not his last—“I was a little bit [out of my element], but a couple of those outfits I wouldn’t mind copying and wearing … the red pants I actually liked. The white leather jacket, though, was a little out of my comfort zone.”
So what was with the donut? “I really am trying to put on a little bit of weight. It’s funny, for me right now and my nutrition, finding the good habits of gaining weight [is a challenge],” he says. “I think [the extra pounds] will help me be a little more durable, take some of those hits a little better … I hope to get up to 225—230 would be ideal—but that’s a lot of weight.
It’s finding a happy medium between weight gain and still being able to run.”
Because stories abound of athletes who fritter away fortunes, a question about spending splurges has to be asked of a thoroughly middle-class kid who suddenly became a multi-millionaire— his four-year contract with the Titans guarantees $24 million. And that’s just for starters, assuming he stays healthy and succeeds, because second contracts in the NFL tend to be the big ones. Throw in national endorsement deals with Nike, Subway, Nissan and Beats by Dre, plus local deals in Hawai‘i and Nashville, and money shouldn’t be a concern.
But it is. “To me, football is such a short period of your life, it has to sustain you for your whole life,” he says earnestly. “I want to make sure I’m spending money wisely and investing so that my family and my kids and their kids are taken care of.”
So no big splurges?
“I did buy a place in Nashville and a place in Eugene, but other than that, nothing crazy,” he says.
Of his Nashville digs, Realtor.com reports: “The neutral-toned bathroom has a bit of whimsy with tiling that evokes zebra stripes—but otherwise, the penthouse’s design is serious, clean, and oh-so-luxurious. Mr. Mariota paid $1.05 million for a penthouse condo at the Icon, a luxury building in downtown Nashville. The three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath unit has 15-foot ceilings and a 200-square-foot private terrace.”
His Nashville condo, wrote Beth DeCarbo of the Wall Street Journal in a story about NFL players’ homes, is a 1,890-square-foot penthouse: “Listing agent Chad Wohlers, of Parks Real Estate, says Mr. Mariota was ‘drawn to the privacy of the penthouse because there is controlled access to the penthouse floor.’ Three-bedroom penthouse apartments are unusual in Nashville, Mr. Wohlers adds. ‘I believe he wanted the space because he is so close with his family.’”
“Yeah, that’s real important for me,” Marcus says. “Even for buddies who come into town, I don’t want them staying in a hotel, I want to enjoy their company—that means more to me.”
Okay, it’s a nice place, but it ranks among the smallest homes of NFL quarterbacks.
What about fancy wheels? Because of his association with Nissan through its Heisman House marketing campaign, says Mariota, “Nissan has been very nice to my family and I, and I have a car in Nashville they allow me to use, and another car my parents and friends can use as well.”
The only frittering away he’s doing might be an apple fritter.
He’s also using his newfound wealth to fund his Motiv8 Foundation. Since its launch in 2015, Motiv8 Foundation has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to create and support programs that promote a healthy lifestyle for thousands of youth.
In many ways, Nashville is the perfect landing spot for Mariota, who in college said he loved going to school in Eugene, Oregon, because it’s a relatively small town “and I’m from a small island.”
Not that Nashville is small—the home of country music is also home to about 2 million people in the greater 13-county metro area. Still, no one is mistaking Nashville for Chicago or New York.
“I’m very fortunate—Eugene was a special place, and Nashville reminds me a lot of both Hawai‘i and Oregon … I’ve been very fortunate to have [Nashville] cross my path, and I look forward to spending a lot of time there.”
His involvement in the community includes helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity in April. His parents and girlfriend Kiyomi Cook happened to be in town, so he enlisted their help as well.
“I just like being a part of the community, and this is a great way to get involved,” Mariota told The Tennessean. “We have some free time in the offseason and this is a good way to spend it. I got to meet the family when we started working and it’s all about giving them a roof over their heads, and I’m happy to be part of that.”
As for football, Mariota says the biggest surprise about the NFL was “the complexities of the defenses and the speed of the game. The speed you see right away in workouts and practices, and it speeds up a notch in preseason, and then when you finally get on the field in a regular season game, it was some of the fastest football I’ve ever been a part of. (They also play pretty fast at Oregon.) From that standpoint, with all the different defenses and systems coming at you, I was very fortunate to have incredible coaches to keep me level-headed and make things simple for me, and the guys around me helped a lot too.”
Then there were the losses—13 of them against three wins. In fact, he lost more games in one season in Tennessee than he did in the previous four years—one loss during a state championship season at Saint Louis and five losses at Oregon in three seasons, and one of those was in the national championship game.
“We were talking about that [with his family],” he says with a rueful laugh. “[The losses] didn’t sit well with me.”
I asked about the first regular-season game in which he became just the second rookie quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in his first game—Fran Tarkenton was the other— and Mariota did it in the first half.
“That first game with Tampa went so well,” he recalls. “My parents were there and we said, well, that wasn’t as tough as we thought. And then we lost seven straight, and (laughs, kind of) it’s not that easy either! It’s a part of the process, learning, and that’s part of the fun, I like a challenge. Hopefully this year we get things headed in the right direction.”
Pointing the way is a win over Jacksonville in Nashville last December 6: Marcus became the first player in NFL history to pass for more than 250 yards, run for more than 100 yards and throw three touchdowns in a single game.
The new season begins Sept. 11 with a home game against Minnesota, and hopes—and expectations—are high in Nashville after the Titans picked up several talented free agents in the off-season, then added more young talent in the draft.
“Yeah, and those are expectations I put upon myself,” he says. “I’ve always had a higher standard for myself, and that didn’t change when I got to this level. I look forward to accomplishing some of those achievements in the next few years.”
One of those draftees, by the way, is 2016 Heisman winner Derrick Henry of Alabama. Meaning this will be the rare season when a Heisman-winning quarterback is handing off to a Heisman-winning running back. Roger Staubach at the end of his Dallas Cowboys career in the late ’70s handed off to a young Tony Dorsett, but this is the just the second time back-to-back Heisman winners will share a backfield—as Barry Sanders and Andre Ware did with the Detroit Lions in the early ’90s, with mixed results.
When I mention he was the tenth most-sacked quarterback in the NFL last season, Mariota blurts out, “I was?” Then he laughs. “That’s part of it … We’ll definitely improve that number—it’s a learning process. Again, that’s why I have to gain a bit more weight.”
His teammates have all the confidence in him.
“He is a great, great quarterback obviously,” running back DeMarco Murray, one of those new free-agent acquisitions, told TitansOnline.com. “But he is also a great person. And a guy like that, you definitely want to be playing with and give your all. He is a quiet leader; he leads by example. But when he speaks everyone listens. I think he respects everyone, and everyone respects him. He works extremely hard. I have never been around a quarterback who works like he works.”
Veteran tight end Delanie Walker, one of Mariota’s favorite targets, likes what he’s seen in pre-season workouts: “Marcus is just a leader. You can tell he is starting to be more vocal … His throwing is always going to be good. He looks faster, and he seems like he is grasping the offense really well. I am excited to see what he does.”
One thing they know for sure: While there’s no doubt that Mariota is a good guy and generally cool-headed, he also is a tough-nosed football player who puts team first. I read back to Mariota notes I made following the third pre-season game last August.
“The stats are solid on the road at Kansas City against a good Chiefs defense—Mariota goes 7-of-11 passing for 99 yards while running three times for 22 yards—but the big news is that the mild-mannered Mariota can bark when challenged. When sacked by a Chiefs’ lineman, who then stands over Mariota taunting the rookie, he jumps up and talks a little trash.”
Mariota laughs, and starts his answer almost before I finish reading: “He happened to be the leading sacker from the year before, Justin Houston. I just have a pet peeve of guys standing over me—to me it’s disrespectful. I just wanted him to understand it wasn’t all right with me. But he’s a good guy, we talked about it afterward. You know football is a competitive game, when you step onto the field personalities change in between the lines … But if you’re disrespecting me or my team-mates, I don’t think there’s any place for it.”
It should be noted that on the Titans’ next offensive series, Mariota completed three of four passes for 32 yards as he guided the Titans to a touchdown.
Pet peeve him at your own peril.
“It’s good to see a quarterback with that fire in him. He’s not taking any mess,” says running back Antonio Andrews. “When everyone sees him fight like that, it makes us want to fight even more.”
Meet the real Marcus Mariota. OK, and this is the real Marcus Mariota, too:
Following the interview, I ride down the elevator with Marcus and his family as they discuss where to go for lunch—Marcus wants a big burger. Waiting in the lobby are two children, brother and sister, 9 and 11. They’ve heard Marcus will be coming through. Marcus sees them watching him, afraid to say anything, so he breaks the ice.
“Hey, guys, come on over,” he says. “You want a picture?”
Of course they do, and practically trembling with excitement provide a cell phone. Photos are snapped, everyone smiling.
And I’m reminded of a quote from poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
On this day, as most, Marcus Mariota leaves people feeling good.
It’s just his, well, style.