It’s a little after 9:00 a.m. on a sunny Southern California day, and Marcus Mariota looks like he could use a cup of coffee.
Mariota is late arriving at Prolific Athletes in Carlsbad, after spending the early morning volunteering at a nearby school. Before he can launch headlong into the day’s workout, the Heisman Trophy winner poses for pictures for the cover of STACK Magazine. Mariota holds back a yawn, turns it into a smile, and graciously steps in front of the camera.
One can forgive Mariota for feeling a little sleepy. For several months this off-season, he trained six days a week at Prolific, working with trainer and facility owner Ryan Flaherty to pack on more muscle and refine his already notorious speed. The training sessions were several hours long and consisted of work both on the field and in the gym.
“They’ve helped me gain weight and prepare my body,” Mariota says of the workouts. “It’s only going to benefit me [in the NFL].”
The 21-year old Mariota follows every direction from the photographer with an energetic, almost boyish smile on his face. A lot has been written about his quiet personality, and Mariota has said he feels shy in front of the camera. Before the 2015 Rose Bowl, the Oregon quarterback said, “I don’t like being in the limelight. I don’t like the spotlight.” Yet he appears to be getting more accustomed to the attention. When he steps onto the field for some action shots, he seems in his element, energetically moving through three-step drops before tossing the ball while the photographer clicks away.
But Mariota looks super-energized later, when asked about his Hawaiian heritage. After fielding several questions about himself and his goals with brief but thoughtful answers, his eyes light up when he responds to a question about his upbringing. He says, “My family, and where I come from, are my roots. I learned who I am through them. If I’m struggling on a rep, or don’t feel up to a workout, they’re my motivation to push myself.”
Built on the Hills of Hawaii
During his workout at Prolific, Mariota trains alongside 15 other football players. Like him, most are rookies, although a few have already played in the NFL. During the sprinting technique drills and, later, the full-on sprints, Mariota runs with blazing-fast wide receivers and defensive backs—guys who should be faster than a quarterback. Mariota matches them stride for stride.
Speed has long been one of Mariota’s deadliest weapons. His ability to dodge rushers, create time in the pocket, roll out and run for first downs helped him become one of the most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks of all time. During his last season at Oregon, he passed for 4,454 yards and 42 touchdowns and ran for 770 yards and 15 more scores.
Like so much else in his life, Mariota credits his speed to his upbringing. “When I was back home in Hawaii, my dad really believed in building speed with hill running,” he says, adding that that he carried on the tradition throughout his time at Oregon. “I’d try to find an incline or steep hill and run 10 or 12 sprints on it. It really helped me to build that quickness and speed,” he says.
However, Mariota’s rise from Hawaii to stardom in Eugene did not happen quickly. The self-described “tall lean kid” was a multi-sport athlete at Saint Louis High School in Honolulu, but on the football team he spent most of his time sitting behind another standout QB, one who would eventually go on to play Division I football. Mariota didn’t get the starting job until his senior year.
But before the season began, he got a lucky break. His play drew the attention of Mark Helfrich, Oregon’s current head coach, who was then the team’s offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly. Helfrich offered Mariota a scholarship before the season even started.
“He was an unknown because he didn’t play,” Helfrich later told the Seattle Times. “The more you talked with people around the high school and the football team, he kind of took on this legendary-like status of just a great person, great student. Then to watch him play! I can remember calling Chip and going, ‘This guy’s unbelievable.’”
Mariota redshirted during his first year at Oregon, serving as a backup quarterback. The following year, he won the starting job, then went on to post video game-like numbers for the next three years.
But for all his gifts on the field, what coaches and trainers talk about most are Mariota’s work ethic and decision making off the field. Prolific strength coach Ryan Flaherty says, “We know the talent is there. But he has the intangibles,” adding that Mariota is humble, lives his life the right way, and doesn’t drink or party.
“I try my best to hold myself to a higher standard, because I know in the bigger picture I represent much more than myself,” says Mariota, who is the first person of Samoan descent to win the Heisman. “I don’t ever want to put whom I represent in a negative light. So I try to be the best person I can be. It has really helped me become who I am as a person and a football player.”
According to Flaherty, Mariota’s willingness to sacrifice things like spending time with friends so he can put in more work at the gym or in the film room puts the quarterback in good company. “All of the world-class athletes I’ve worked with, whether it’s Serena Williams or Russell Wilson, share one similarity. They all make the right decisions,” Flaherty says. Now that Mariota is a Tennessee Titan, Flaherty expects big things from him. He says, “My goals for Marcus are huge. I believe he could be one of the, if not the best, quarterbacks in the NFL.”
Living the Dream
Later, Mariota works in the weight room under Flaherty’s watchful eye, performing upper-body exercises like Push-Ups and Pull-Ups to build his strength and add weight to his 6-foot-4 frame. He’ll need that extra muscle mass to protect his body from the crushing tackles he’ll absorb in the NFL.
“NFL scouts and general managers wanted to see him bigger,” Flaherty says. “The less muscle mass, the less protected your bones and joints. Most QBs like to have a little bit more weight so they can withstand hits.”
The first few weeks of training at Prolific helped Mariota gain six pounds of muscle, and he entered the NFL Combine at 225 pounds. Despite the extra weight, he ran nearly as fast—4.52 seconds in the 40-Yard Dash—as he did as a much lighter athlete coming out of high school. Flaherty says the goal is to get Mariota up to 235 pounds by the time NFL training camp gets under way.
Mariota knows the work will help him realize his longtime dream. He says, “Growing up as a kid, I had visions of [preparing for the NFL]. But the journey for me was a little different. For all the obstacles I was able to face and the challenges, it really helped me prepare for this moment and for these opportunities. I am thankful I was able to go through that.”
The training session ends with a killer core circuit. Mariota grinds through 45 reps of Sit-Up variations, then moves into 15 Toe Touches. After the last rep, he collapses on the ground, looking exhausted with a towel over his face. But after a moment—perhaps one in which he reflects on his family and growing up in Hawaii—he bounces back, saying that this is his favorite part of the workout. Then he bangs out another set of the whole routine.