A sellout crowd is edgy as the University of Oregon football team approaches the line of scrimmage in the September sunshine.
Minutes earlier the Ducks, ranked second in the nation, were actually behind upstart Wyoming by a touchdown. Now they’re up 13-7, and there’s a sense they could start pulling away.
But they haven’t yet, and just about everyone inside Autzen Stadium, capacity 54,000, is thinking: It’s time for the superstar quarterback to do something.
Duck fans are spoiled. In recent years their team has ascended to elite status, always highly ranked and a perennial national championship contender. It plays at warp speed, seldom huddling on offense and almost always scoring 40 or more points.
One could argue the players are spoiled too. To pay them would be to violate the rules, but thanks to the generosity of Nike founder Phil Knight, they luxuriate in high-tech training facilities, a state-of-the-art locker room and sparkling uniform combinations.
Athletes are drawn to Eugene from all over the country, but the finest of the Ducks — maybe the best ever — hails from Honolulu.
Marcus Mariota takes the snap and looks downfield. Sensing pressure, he rolls right in search of an open receiver. Then his plans change.
Seeing their fleet-footed hero break into the open, the fans unleash a collective roar that literally wills him to tuck the football, fire up the burners and race down the sideline.
A pileup of players friendly and hostile looms near the goal line. The smart move would be to run out of bounds and preserve his good health.
Every time Mariota runs with the football, Oregon’s national championship hopes hang in the balance.
While he hasn’t missed a game in his three Duck seasons, he has gotten banged up enough to occasionally give opponents a chance. Oregon has won 32 games and lost four with him at quarterback, and he was gimpy during at least two of the defeats.
So yes, even as they marvel at his speed and evasiveness, observers hold their breath. And those are the fans — there’s no telling what his parents are thinking when he veers into harm’s way, but the family did take out a $5 million-plus insurance policy against the risk that an injury could cost him a career in pro football. They’ve since been reimbursed for the premiums by the university.
He plants one foot 10 feet from the goal line and leaps into the air. There’s turbulence shortly after takeoff as the closest Wyoming player raises his helmet into Mariota’s overhead left thigh, actually increasing his altitude without diverting the flight path.
Two other defenders miss him entirely as his body soars horizontally across the goal line, still at least 4 feet above the ground.
It’s a rough landing. Somersaulting to the turf, his head hits the leg of a teammate who then rushes to help Mariota up.
Because Wyoming is such an underdog, the game is not being televised on a major network. Still, within minutes the touchdown is the talk of the football-watching world.
“Seriously, Marcus Mariota just flew,” tweets the Pac-12 Network, which is airing the game. The Oregonian newspaper quickly posts a looping reel of the play on its website. It’s rerun countless times on TV the rest of the day.
Mariota, more than one commentator gushes, just had a “Heisman moment.”
Neither the state of Hawaii nor the University of Oregon has ever produced a Heisman Trophy winner, but Mariota has been the frontrunner pretty much all season for the award given to the best college football player in the nation.
Citing his pinpoint passing and his open-field speed, Sports Illustrated speculated he may be “the best dual-threat quarterback ever to come out of college.”
Last season’s Heisman winner was a juvenile delinquent in a man’s body, and his off-field difficulties continue. In Mariota, the nation is discovering that this season’s best player is a fine young man who never gets into trouble, at least until a recent speeding ticket for doing 80 in a 55 — in a car.
Oregon goes on to win, 48-14. Afterward, the soft-spoken graduate of Saint Louis School describes his defining leap into the end zone as a barrel-roll move he learned body-surfing at Sandy Beach.
“I learned when to tuck there — I got pounded so many times, so I never have to think about it now,” he tells a reporter. “You get smashed by that barrel, if you don’t tuck you’ll be spitting sand for a week.”
Sandy Beach. When someone recently proposed renaming it Obama Beach in honor of one of Oahu’s other favorite sons, partisan bickering ensued.
But Mariota Beach — now that has a ring to it.
Watch the flying finish, over and over if you’d like: