Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner have won championships together, literally.
Not only did the duo help lead the Havre Blue Ponies to the 2004 Class A state football championship, but they teamed up to win a pair of doubles championships together in tennis for HHS.
To say they’ve done a lot together is an understatement.
And just last fall, Wagner showed he could also be a Mariani fan. Wagner was in the stands or on the sidelines for several games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 2009, cheering on Mariani as he completed his run with the Montana Grizzlies. After Carroll College, the team in which Wagner starts at quarterback, lost in the NAIA semifinals a year ago, Wagner was back in Missoula the next weekend, watching Mariani and the Griz in their historic FCS semifinal win over Appalachian State.
A year later, a lot has changed for both players, and now it’s Mariani’s turn to support his old friend through a championship run.
While Mariani is playing wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans and is the leading punt returner in the NFL coming into Sunday’s home game against the Houston Texans, he’s also been following Wagner’s run with second-ranked Carroll , all the way to Saturday’s NAIA national championship game in Rome, Ga.
And he couldn’t be more excited for the signal caller who once threw him plenty of touchdowns, dating all the way back to their days at HHS.
“I’m super excited for him,” Mariani said. “We’re the best of friends and I’ve been hoping he gets this chance for a long time. He’s worked really hard to get this opportunity, he’s put in his time and waited for his turn to get this chance to play in a national championship game and he deserves this moment.
“We’ve talked every week all season long,” he added. “He’s been waiting, really for five years for this moment to get here, and now he has that chance he’s worked so hard for.”
Wagner has seen national title games with the Saints before. He was a redshirt when Carroll won the 2005 NAIA title, was the holder and backup QB during Carroll’s national championship win in 2007, and then he had to painfully watch the Saints lose to Sioux Falls from the sidelines in the 2008 title game, as his first year as a starter was cut short due to a broken leg.
But Saturday will be his first time playing quarterback in a national championship game, and playing in one, and making a difference in one is something Mariani knows well.
Mariani played in back-to-back FCS title games with the Grizzlies and had two of the top four best receiving games in the history of FCS championship game. But what he remembers most is Montana coming up short against both Richmond in 2008, and by two points to Villanova last year.
“It’s really hard to put into perspective what guys who get to go through a playoff system go through, what Gary is going through this year and what I went through with Montana,” Mariani said. “The feeling of going through those extra four games, and for me, then standing on that field in Chattanooga twice, after not being able to quite get it done, when you’ve worked so hard to get there, for me, to have that happen twice is brutal.
“So what I would tell Gary, what I am going to tell him is, you’ll remember this game every day for the rest of your life and there’s no second chances when it comes to playing in a championship game. I would go back and replay the games I was in a second if I could and if I was able to change the outcome of those games, but that’s not something you get to do. You can’t go back. So I’m just going to tell him to seize the opportunity he has. I’ll tell him, there’s a lot of hype and excitement, a lot of media attention and a lot of anxiety surrounding a championship game and the sooner you can kick all of that out of your system and just play football, the better. I’ll tell him to just play and make sure he has no regrets when it’s over.”
Sound advice from a player who knows about championship games.
But Mariani isn’t just giving a good friend advice about how to handle and play in Saturday’s championship game, he’s also a supportive fan, and is excited that his longtime friend will get his chance to quarterback Carroll to a possible sixth national championship on Saturday.
And while he says he’s unsure if he’ll be able to squeeze in the 200-mile drive from Nashville to Rome on Saturday, as the Titans have a morning practice and more game preparation for Sunday’s bout with the Texans, one way or another, he’ll be watching Wagner play his last collegiate game, just like Wagner did from his TV set a year ago when the Griz fell short against Villanova.
“I couldn’t be more of a fan or more excited for him (Wagner),” Mariani said. “This is a very cool time for him, and he’s earned this moment. So I’m really excited and very happy for him.”
The Saints play Sioux Falls at 2:30 p.m. M.S.T. Saturday in Rome, Ga. The game will be nationally-televised on CBS College Sports Television. Mariani and the Titans take on the Texans at 11 a.m. M.S.T Sunday in Nashville.