Oregon's Mariota leaned on family
EUGENE, Ore. -- It was 45 degrees and raining, which is to say it was winter at the University of Oregon. Freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota tried and failed to stay warm. If he was going to live his life cold and wet, he might as well have dived into the Pacific Ocean and started swimming home to Oahu.
Not that he didn't think about it.
"Oh, man," Mariota said one sunny day in April. By the compressed calendar of a college football career, Mariota is a veteran, finishing his second year of college as one of the nation's top quarterbacks. By the calendar of a young man's life, the chill of homesickness hovers in the recent past.
"That was probably, I don't want to say one of the toughest things, but it was tough for me," Mariota said, "especially because in Eugene it rains almost all [winter]. Coming from sunny Hawaii to rainy Eugene, it's a little different. It was pretty tough."
They arrive on campus with stars attached to their name. Many of them have spent years as the focus of attention from coaches and media who beg to know which campus they will grace with their presence. Once they arrive, they find the real world. They have to adjust to college, just like every other freshman, except that every other freshman isn't adjusting to the physical, mental and emotional demands of playing college football.
"They have the adjustment to college, the adjustment to new academic standards, they're possibly living far away from home, they might be doing things on their own they never knew how to do," said Dr. Carmen Tebbe Priebe, the director of psychological resources in the Oklahoma athletic department. "And then you add the pressure of a new system, new coaches, playing time versus not-playing time. Physically, it's demanding. The schedules they have are not the schedules they had in high school. It's just grueling across the board."
Homesickness is universal. "I moved three miles across town and I missed home," recalled Virginia Tech associate head coach Shane Beamer, the son of longtime Hokies head coach Frank Beamer.
And homesickness is evergreen. Bear Bryant got tired of getting beat up in practice as a freshman at Alabama in 1932. He wired home to his cousin in Arkansas that he had decided to leave and get a job. His cousin wired back, "Go ahead and quit, just like everybody predicted you would."
Five decades later, athletic departments had pretty much the same program to deal with the adjustment. That is to say, they did nothing. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, who grew up in Indianapolis, walked on at nearby Purdue.
"My dad and I loaded up the dorm room," Sumlin said. "He shook my hand. The next day, we had a team meeting. I didn't know anybody. The next day, we're out there at football practice with tape on your helmet with your name on it. Coaches have forgotten your name. Everybody's yelling at you because you don't know what you're doing. You've had one meeting. And oh, by the way, two weeks later, it's time to go to class. You haven't even been on campus. You don't know where you're going."
Today, of course, athletic programs pour resources into making the adjustment of their freshmen as seamless as possible. Dr. Tebbe-Priebe said that her office sends someone to practice as often as possible, just so the players see them there.
"All athletes are going to experience homesickness to some level," Dr. Tebbe-Priebe said. "It's normal. It's not something to be pathologized. It doesn't mean it's going to become a mood disorder. It could. I think that's what's hard to quantify. One day they may be excited about this new challenge. The next day, they're missing home."
Sumlin believes the NCAA's decision to allow incoming freshmen to enroll in summer school and begin working out before practice convenes in August has made a huge difference in the ability of his players to adjust to their new lives.
"You're going to class," Sumlin said. "You've got one class. You're getting to know your teammates. You've got voluntary workouts. The good thing is, if you want to go home on the weekend, there are no games. Most of our guys live within 300, 400 miles of here. The majority of our guys can jump in the car after class Friday and go home."
That helps, at least until the season begins.
"You're redshirting," Shane Beamer said. "You're not playing on Saturday. You're not traveling with the team. Friday nights are lonely. The team's gone. You're not playing. That can be tough. Whether you call that homesickness or something else, you see a lot of that. Guys are frustrated. That year is tough."
Mariota found that self-doubt has a way of penetrating a young quarterback's protection, especially when he's not playing. He called home every night. The cell phone became his lifeline. The camaraderie formed with his teammates during winter conditioning helped. But then came the spring, and the chance to win the starting job that Darron Thomas left vacant.
"I don't know if I can do this," he would say.
The doubts, the wondering if he belonged, the homesickness, all bore in on the vision of success that had driven Mariota to come to the mainland.
"But that's where my family came in," he said "They told me you're here for a reason. If you come home, you'd sit there and regret it the rest of your life. I think that's kind of what got me through it. Not that I wanted to come home. My mom, first of all, would not let me come home. She would not let me come home. But that's sometimes what you need to grow up and become mature and just go through these experiences in your life."
Mariota won the starting job. Oregon finished No. 2 in the nation. He became the Pacific-12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Mariota has emerged as a leader on one of the most talented and successful teams in college football. He still calls home every night.