HONOLULU — When Marcus Mariota wriggled out of the grips of three would-be Michigan State tacklers in September on a comeback-sparking play, some saw a reason why he could be the NFL’s top overall draft pick.
“This,” Sports Illustrated wrote in a scouting report afterward, “was also an example of his ability to make clutch plays when the team needs them.”
Watching back in Mariota’s home state of Hawaii, Rick Chong saw something else. Something few others, unless they’d been watching youth soccer in Oahu around 2001, could have spotted.
Chong, a former youth soccer coach of Mariota with the Honolulu Bulls club, saw a memory of practices at Waialae Iki Park near Oahu’s eastern shore where a tall, skinny elementary-aged boy learned to hone the nimble footwork that has transformed him into a national star in another sport.
“If you want to be a good soccer player you have to be creative and be able to think on the fly,” Chong said. “You have to be able to look at a situation and, in a split-second, find a solution.
“Soccer gave him his quickness. That’s what gets him out of the Michigan State play, where the coach thinks, ‘I got him!’ … and Marcus pulls the rabbit out of the hat. Those are soccer feet.”
Eventually, futbol gave way to football. Compared with his credentials earned on the gridiron, highlighted by being the first Oregon Duck and Hawaiian-born player to win the Heisman Trophy, soccer remains a footnote that is mostly unknown off the islands.
But those who witnessed Mariota play club soccer since his start at age 7 staunchly believe the quarterback’s record-breaking success, which he will parlay into likely a high first-round selection in Thursday’s NFL draft, is rooted in the influences he learned from the beautiful game.
His quick feet, improvisational skills amid a fast-moving game and level-headedness are hallmarks that all can be traced to not only his Pop Warner days, but his youth spent with club or high school teams with the Honolulu Bulls and Saint Louis, respectively.
“I believe he learned from the game you have to solve your own problems,” said Phil Neddo, the Bulls’ director of coaching. “Don’t count on the guy on the sideline in your ear. In soccer, you just can’t do that.”
Soccer was an early passion he fed with superb athleticism. After he stopped playing club soccer at age 13 to focus on football, his playmaking smoothed out his rough edges as he continued playing soccer at Saint Louis School each winter. Despite little time to train, he became an all-state defender as a junior.
In one game against rival Punahou late in his high school career, Mariota was moved forward from the back line — where his speed could chase down most any advancing striker — to scoring position. Punahou respected Mariota enough to shadow Mariota with its most athletic player: Ka’imi Fairbairn, who went on to become UCLA’s starting placekicker.
“He loved soccer, he loved football,” Chong said. “Obviously soccer took a second seat but if football took a second seat he would have been a very, very good soccer player. He’s the kind of athlete that soccer doesn’t keep very often.”
Mariota was not preternaturally gifted in soccer, but was molded, in part, into the football player he is today through Saturday morning workouts under the direction of Neddo, who picked up footwork drills from Dutch coach Coerver Viel, and Chong, a Saint Louis alumnus whose sons played for the club. Starting around 7 a.m., the players drilled grueling technique work for 75 minutes in humid weather.