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Marcus Mariota Can Save the Heisman Trophy

Greg CouchNational ColumnistOctober 23, 2014

Ryan Kang/AP Images

Nobody is perfect. And the more we build up athletes as if they are, the more it comes across as a setup, just waiting for the juicy fall. That doesn't mean athletes aren't willingly participating. It's a two-way street. 

But we can't afford another phony. Not now. So I asked Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback, outright: Have you ever signed autographs for money? 

"No," he said, laughing. "Not at all."     

It's a start.

We tiptoe lightly into Mariota, who seems so mellow and selfless and who starts conversations with hospital kids even as he walks off the field after a loss. He is on a new University of Oregon video with other students in a campaign against sexual assault. "To be a Duck," he says in the video, "is to treat women with respect."

It's a message football—at the pro and college levels—needs to be sending right now.

Here's the thing: Marcus Mariota can save the Heisman Trophy. He needs to win it. The Heisman, college football and even the NFL need him to win it. 

But one thing first: Have you ever been in trouble? "Growing up, it was always that I had to answer to my parents if I ever got in trouble," he told Bleacher Report. "Messing around in class, stuff like that. For me and my brother, that was the last thing we ever wanted, any teacher or coach (to call home). We knew we would be disciplined."

Mariota is the anti-Jameis Winston, the anti-Johnny Manziel, the anti-Cam Newton. Three of the past four Heisman winners have been great players on the field but trouble off. And the debate is always whether off-field stuff should be considered at all in a vote for the most outstanding player.

"That's up to Heisman voters," Mariota said. "It's out of my control, quite frankly. If people want to use that as a trait, they can.

"For myself, I just try to represent where I come from, my family, this university in the right light. There is no extra responsibility with being a Heisman Trophy candidate."

Doug Benc/Associated Press

Now is the time to let off-field issues factor in. The Heisman is decided by vote, not stats, meaning it's left up to opinion. Honestly, I usually feel the opposite way about this. But what is wrong with scoring extra points for character? Today, that stands out.

Apparently, I'm not the only who feels this way. Last year, when the Florida State attorney was investigating a rape allegation against Winston, most Heisman voters stood strong that they weren't going to let that affect their vote, particularly if he hadn't been charged.

This year, he still hasn't been charged and is playing well. And Florida State is undefeated. But Winston's bad behavior—stealing crab legs, jumping on a table and performing a vulgar chant against women—has to turn off voters. That and Florida State's actions in blocking the rape investigation.

There are still no legal charges, but according to Bovada (via Odds Shark), odds are he won't even be a finalist this year.

Voters are looking for something different.

As Sports Illustrated first noticed, this year the Heisman Trust, which usually describes the award as being for the outstanding college player "whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity" left off the "with integrity" part. Heisman officials say that was a mistake.

Yes, it was. Now more than ever we need that part. And the top candidates now are Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and Mariota. Both are considered high-character guys.

Mariota didn't talk about Winston's troubles. But the things he said stood in contrast to Winston anyway.

He mentioned wanting to represent where he comes from. Mariota said several times that his understated personality is the function of being from Hawaii.

"In Hawaii, it's definitely a culture of respect," he said. "Certain traits that you kind of (learn) growing up, I guess you're taught as a kid. Some of which are being humble and respecting others, especially elders, being quiet, letting older people speak."

Remember what TV mics picked up from Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher on the field minutes after Saturday's win over Notre Dame? He quietly told an excited Winston to calm down.

"Don't give them that overexuberant look. Act very passive right here and get people back on your side. You understand what I'm telling you? Humble. Humble pie."

Mariota doesn't have to "act" passive to get people on his side. It's genuine. So is the humble pie.

After Oregon's loss to Arizona, his worst game of the year, he stopped to talk with some kids who he thought were just fans. It turned out they were from a hospital. Just a few days earlier, Mariota had autographed one of his jerseys for another teenager at that same hospital.

Keep in mind, after that loss, it appeared that Oregon's national title chances and Mariota's Heisman chances had disappeared.

"I was kind of walking off the field and one of the kids had my jersey on," he said. "I just went up and introduced myself."

He shook all the kids' hands and "kind of got the opportunity to meet them and get to find out more about them." 

Mariota would be deserving of the Heisman just based on his play too. He has significantly upped his game from last year despite Oregon's offensive line problems. He has completed 70.2 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 191 passer rating. Winston's rating is 160, and he has thrown six interceptions.

If there is an issue with Mariota, it's that he's too quiet, too unassuming. It was an issue for him in high school, where coaches weren't sure he would be a leader, and he said Oregon's coaches have been trying to get him to be more vocal too.

He told me he still has never yelled at a teammate. And he believes "leadership is not digging into somebody, but talking to them and explaining what you want from them."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Do you believe? Because last year, the talk was that Winston was so selfless in contrast to the previous year's winner, Manziel. I fell for it too. He would name his linemen during press conferences and say how he much loves them. When I went to Florida State to talk to him last year, I had to move some chairs to set up a camera—and he joined in, helped out.

That stood out to me because it's not what superstars usually do. I thought it to be evidence—positive evidence—of who he was. Turns out, I was wrong.

And now I'm saying that Mariota is going to save the Heisman?

Seriously, when was the last time you were in trouble?

"Uh, um, uh," Mariota said. "I can't really pinpoint a certain time. Maybe I was in elementary school or something and I was messing around and got sent to the principal's office." 

Cross your fingers, but that doesn't seem like an act.

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. He also writes for The New York Times and was formerly a scribe for FoxSports.com and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch

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