EUGENE, Ore. — Marcus Mariota's routine after most football practices last season at Oregon included a brisk walk to the locker room, a shower and a stop at the snack bar in the Ducks' training facility to grab a Clif bar and bottle of water.
Mariota's daily drive from the practice field to Oregon's academic campus is not a long one, crossing the Willamette River, cutting through a snarl of on-ramps, exits and merges and then turning east through a corridor of restaurants priced to fit a college student's wallet.
But before all of that, Mariota would train his eye on the left median of the first intersection of his journey, the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Coburg Road. Then he would slow down, even if the light was green, roll down his window and hand the bar and the beverage to the person standing there with a sign asking for help.
"Every damn day," said former Oregon quarterback Dustin Haines, a frequent passenger on those commutes. "That was eye opening. But that's the way he is."
Mariota acknowledges that he never has stopped missing his family or his Hawaiian home since he arrived in Eugene in 2011. But his years on the mainland have been marked by good habits brought from home and others developed at Oregon.
There are the daily stops on the roadside and the weekly unannounced visits to the Boys and Girls Club. There are the 20 hours-plus of football study in season, and 20 credit hours plus countless study time, also in season.
Those habits have helped him develop into a leading candidate for the Heisman trophy and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 player who owns or shares three school records and is threatening many more. Those habits also helped him don a cap and gown before this, his junior football season.
Lost in the late July revelation that Mariota's class load this football season amounts to a total of two elective credits in golf and yoga is the fact that Mariota's class load last football season — when he was playing at a level that had some scouts projecting him to go first in the 2014 NFL draft — totaled 20 credits. Ten of those were in physiology and human anatomy, two classes that many Oregon students avoid taking in the same term because of their rigor.
"The best thing I can say about him," said Scott Frost, Oregon's offensive coordinator, "is he's done absolutely everything right since he's been here."
There are multiple reasons Mariota has started every game of his career at Oregon, but the biggest might be the preparation he did before first leaving home. Haines remembers that when he first met Mariota while training before the 2011 season, Mariota already knew the entire Oregon playbook. "I was like, 'Wow that's impressive,' " Haines said. "It took me probably three-quarters of my freshman year to understand the basic stuff."
Soon after that Mariota met Steve Stolp, who would become his academic adviser, in Stolp's office at Oregon's Jaqua Academic Learning Center. Stolp asked him what he was interested in studying, and Mariota had a prepared answer: science, specifically a path that would lead him to working in physical therapy or sports medicine. "We try and let kids choose the path they want," Stolp said. "A lot of times they say pre-med and they don't mean it. He definitely meant it."
After he earned Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors in 2012 and first appeared on a Mel Kiper mock draft, he met with Stolp and sketched out on the walls of Stolp's office a plan to graduate in 3½ years (Mariota will officially earn his degree in December upon completing his two remaining elective credits). He would have to eschew 15- or 16-credit hour quarters typical of full-time undergraduates in favor of 20- and 22-credit quarters, plus biology in the summer. Mariota accepted the challenge, which is why he found himself taking the exam for his Biology Theories class at the 2013 Manning Passing Academy while other counselors were being chastised for staying out too late.
"At that time," Stolp says, recalling the meeting, "I don't think he knew he was going to be as good as he is. The fact he had that foresight and worked diligently to get where he is says a lot about him. He's his own self-starter. He doesn't need any motivation."
But it helped to have a partner. That was Haines. For Mariota's first two years at Oregon they were paired as roommates for road games. And for all three of Mariota's years they were general science majors, frequently in the same classes. "We were able to lean on each other when we needed to," Mariota said.
They developed their own habits in that time: quizzing each other on the sideline during breaks in team workouts; consuming pizza and Pog juice during 12-hour study sessions each Sunday at the Jaqua Center; learning the routines of the cadaver lab in the basement of Klamath Hall; and getting used to the lonely walk from the practice field to the quarterbacks meeting room where they would take proctored midterms, pausing only to remove their shoulder pads.
"He's just single-mindedly committed to not only being a great football player, he literally closes the academic center down," Stolp said of Mariota. "I know for a fact we were kicking him out of there when the building closed most nights."
Haines sees parallels in the way Mariota learned the playbook and the way he learned his anatomy curriculum, especially in the cadaver labs. "We'd have to memorize all the parts and organs," Haines said. "He could just remember it like that."
Frost has seen the same from a coaching standpoint.
"Anything you say, he's going to remember two years later," Frost said, "and he's also extremely quick-witted, so it doesn't take him a long time to figure out x plus y equals this. He just sees it, which is a great trait to have."
But Mariota is not without some bad habits.
For one, he found himself frequently apologizing to Haines over the years for his tendency to fall asleep the night before games while Haines was still talking to him.
During games, Mariota has rushed for more career yards than any other Oregon quarterback. But many of those yards have been gained carrying the ball in one hand. Last season that tendency led him to finish second to Auburn's Nick Marshall in FBS with 11 fumbles. Mariota lost only three, but one of those was deep in Stanford territory in a 26-20 loss. He says Frost and head coach Mark Helfrich have been "hands on" with him this offseason in order to correct it. "Anytime I'm rolling out, I always have to have two hands on it," Mariota said. "That's been kind of a cancer for me. It's an old habit I have to break."
The other offseason point of emphasis, one driven by Mariota, has been improved footwork. No Oregon quarterback has a higher completion percentage than his 65.8, but he and his coaches think it can be even better. He says he is determined to live up to an adage he was told at a young age: that a quarterback throws with his feet.
"I think he's one of the very best players in all of college football, if not the best, and I think he was last year," Frost said. "That being said, there's always ways to improve.
"I'd like to see him have an absurdly high completion percentage, because that's the kind of passer that he is, and a lot of that has to do with making sure his body's in the right position to throw. Some of the passes he made uncharacteristically poor throws on, and I know there weren't many of them, it was because his feet weren't pointing in the right direction, his weight wasn't in the right place, and his body wasn't set the way it needed to be to make an accurate throw."
Thanks to his classroom efforts over the past three years, Mariota will have more time than ever to work on improving his play this fall. But even in 2013, he found a small way for his class time and football time to work in concert, not competition.
One of the basic premises of his human anatomy class was learning about muscles and how they interact with joints. Mariota became a living specimen when he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee before the Stanford game.
"I kind of had a crash course on knee stuff last year with what happened," he said, "and for me it was interesting to learn about an MCL and then go into treatment and see what they did for it. It was kind of a fun way — well, not a fun way — but a way to apply what I was learning."
And despite the drastically reduced class load, he expects a similar academic-athletic synergy this fall. Some of the stretches in his one-credit yoga class, Mariota explains while pointing to his legs, will loosens the tension around the quadriceps that can cause patellar tendinitis. "That will be good for me, too, to get the body healed up after a game," he said.
It's yet another good habit for a player who accumulates them like yards, points and space in the Oregon record book.
Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption misstated the name of Oregon's football stadium.
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