In November, around the time a middle school student coined the mellifluous slogan-that-should-be-a-Stryper-album-title, “Jesus, Girls and Marcus Mariota,” the Oregon quarterback was pulled over for driving 80 mph in a 55 zone. Weirdly, it almost felt like kind of a relief, a modest imperfection in an otherwise flawless public persona.
On Saturday night in New York City, Mariota will win the Heisman Trophy. It will not be close. He may potentially win the by one of the largest margins in the Trophy’s history, and only the most partisan of critics would be able to find issue with this, because Mariota had a near-flawless season, and he will go down as one of the best college quarterbacks of his era, as well as one of the most universally well-liked.
Mariota is not weighted with the tabloid baggage (fair or unfair) tied to previous Heisman winners Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel. In terms of public perception, Mariota is pretty much the opposite, which is, I think, one of the primary reasons he may win this popularity contest by an unprecedented margin. Mariota is a Hawaiian kid, sedate and polite and soft-spoken (even the cop who pulled him over cited his manners), so much so that his niceness has already become a potential Achilles’ heel with fretful NFL scouts who are already concerned that he might not be Alpha enough for the job. This is proof of two things: 1) NFL scouts are neurotic Neanderthals whose job is to poke holes in beauty, and 2) Mariota might never have it as good as he has it right now, this weekend.
I have no idea if Mariota will make it as a pro quarterback; of all the alchemical sciences, quarterback evaluation has become the most confounding to me. Given Mariota’s prodigious accuracy (he’s thrown six interceptions in the past two years), intelligence and ability to run and throw with an equal measure of grace, I have to imagine he has a good shot. But after tomorrow, nothing gets easier. After tomorrow, Mariota plays either one or two more college playoff games, with the national championship on the line. Those games will be watched by millions of people who typically sleep through Oregon football games; those games will become the measure by which Mariota’s college career is historically evaluated, for better or worse.
And as soon as this is over, Mariota – unless he inexplicably and unexpectedly chooses to return to Oregon for one more season – becomes a commodity. His film will be picked apart by Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper; NFL scouts and general managers with an interest in keeping Mariota to themselves will no doubt spread scurrilous rumors about his abilities, as they often to tend to do. They will find something to fret about with Mariota because this is their job, to probe for weaknesses. And whatever team does draft Mariota will then have to figure out how to construct an offense to cater to his abilities, and will have to determine whether to start him right away, and all of these discussions will weigh down talk-radio and embraceable debate programs until we reach the point that we are so saturated with Mariota talk that we don’t want to hear about it anymore.
This is how it goes for the quarterback who wins the Heisman Trophy. It is an almost inevitable reality of professional life for the college football player who exits school as the center of attention; it will no doubt happen to Jameis Winston this spring on an even higher plane, if he also (as expected) chooses to turn pro. Of all the quarterbacks to win the Heisman since 2000, the most successful pro, oddly enough, is probably Carson Palmer, who has been declared a has-been at least twice.
Nobody seems to know why it works out this way – why Heisman winners, and especially Heisman quarterbacks, have typically struggled in the NFL – but I have to imagine the added attention does not help. It’s possible Mariota will turn out to be one of the exceptions; it’s possible Mariota will win the Heisman and then become a franchise quarterback, and all this hand-wringing will seem overwrought. It’s possible that Jesus, Girls and Marcus Mariota will become a copyrighted Fathead slogan.
But it won’t be easy for Mariota, because it never is. He’ll have to deal with ignorance and stupidity and storylines that are specious and frustrating. He’ll have to struggle, and he’ll have to fail, and he’ll have to come to terms with his own mistakes, whatever they may wind up being. The strange beauty of college football is that it feels like its own self-contained little universe; on Saturday night, Mariota will be feted with a virtual magna cum laude degree from that universe. And then comes the first day of the rest of his life.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb