When Marc Mariani stepped out in front of the crowd assembled to see him at the Holiday Village Mall on Sunday, he told them, beneath the large inflatable version of himself, how much their presence meant to him.
“I was just talking about all the places I’ve gone on this adventure,” Mariani said. “But nothing is quite like coming home and seeing this support. It’s overwhelming.”
If Mariani thought he was overwhelmed at 1 p.m., he must have been after meeting the last of the fans who came to see him nearly 12 hours later, around 12:30 a.m.
More than 1,000 people came to see Mariani at the mall, raising cumulatively more than $9,000 for local educational charities.
According to Marc’s father, Steve Mariani, Marc thought the initial plan to sign 400 photos from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. was excessive.
When he saw the response, he said to his father he was going to do everything he could for the fans.
“He said, ‘If these people are paying to get their pictures taken with me, I’m going to stay here until it is done,’” Steve Mariani said. “So we might be here all night.”
There were so many fans that six members of the 639th Combat Supply Support Company of the National Guard were brought in to make sure everything was under control, according to Staff Sgt. Hinds.
“We were told to be here to make sure everything goes smoothly and everyone gets a chance to meet Marc Mariani,” Hinds said.
Many fans lined up hours in advance, so they wouldn’t have to wait too long to meet the local hero.
The Martinko family, 13-year-old Justyn and his parents Don and Deidre, drove up from Great Falls on Saturday. They came to the mall more than two hours in advance to ensure their spot at the front of the line.
Justyn has been a Titans fan for a decade. He explained that when he was three years old, his parents were looking for some memorabilia for their young son.
“There were two helmets on the shelf, one for the Titans and one for the Browns,” Martinko said. “My dad’s a Broncos fan, so he wasn’t going to let there be a Browns fan in the house.”
Justyn’s excitement grew when local boy Mariani walked on to the family’s favorite college team, the Grizzlies, and then joined his favorite professional team
“It was icing on the cake,” Martinko said.
For most of the others, the interest started at home.
David Murray got to the mall an hour early and ended up near where the line folded over itself, in front of Sears.
Murray remembered coaching football at Havre Middle School back when Mariani played there.
He was there with a football signed by the 2009 University of Montana Grizzly football team, but he couldn’t find Mariani’s signature on it. So he was hoping to remedy that oversight.
Murray explained what he feels is so special about Marc Mariani.
“It’s because he walked on with the Griz, to make it this far, going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie,” Murray said. “He inspires the kids.”
Gina Schaff, who was at the mall with her grandchildren, interjected an elaboration.
“He allows the kids to believe that they could do this too,” Schaff said.
Schaff said she was there for her brother.
“My brother died in November,” Schaff said. “He was a big Mariani fan, so I’m here in honor of him.”
For Steve Mariani, seeing how much his son meant to this town nearly left him speechless.
“We always knew he was a good kid and a hard worker,” Mariani said. “Now everyone knows. The secret’s out.”
“We knew he was a special kid, but we never dreamed this big. It’s amazing.”