Even if Marc Mariani hadn’t obliterated Pro Bowl return records on Sunday, even if he hadn’t had the chance to field an astounding nine kickoffs, the former Havre High and University of Montana football star would have still been in heaven as he departed Honolulu for the colds of the mainland on Monday night.
That’s because Mariani just wrapped up a week’s worth of experiences even some of the best football players on the planet might not ever get. But the fact is, not only was Mariani’s trip to Hawaii one of the highlights in a year that has already included so many, but he did in fact make the ending to the week one to remember.
Mariani set records for most kickoff returns in the Pro Bowl (9) and most return yards (326) on Sunday, records that could belong to him for quite some time. And as he got ready to head back to the mainland on Monday, he can now look back on the week that was as something right out of a fairy tale.
“Aside from the second quarter score, and the fact that we (AFC) didn’t get the win, the game was an unreal experience,” Mariani, who was one of just four rookies to play in Sunday’s Pro Bowl said. “I couldn’t have written a better script for how things would go in the game.
“Just to be able to play in the game, to be selected, to be a part of it all was tremendous, and an amazing honor,” he added. “But to be able to go out and make the plays, to contribute is unreal. And to earn the respect from all of these great players by going out there and making the plays in the game, it’s really special and it’s something I’ll always be proud of.”
And it wasn’t just the game Mariani was excited to be a part of.
Going to the Pro Bowl makes you part of an elite club each year. It means, at least for the last 365 days, you were one of the top roughly 70 players in all of the football world, and that fact was not lost on Mariani all week.
But what was even more special to him is what he got out of the experience before the game and away from football. Being a fan of the game, it was a dream come true for Mariani to be amongst AFC teammates like Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Ray Lewis, Darell Revis and others all week, and he says, just being a part of that fraternity is something he’ll cherish forever.
“I think the coolest part of going to the Pro Bowl is hanging out with all the guys behind the scenes, in the locker room, at restaurants or at the hotel. It’s those moments as a player, you don’t get to experience them often, so I certainly tried to soak it all in. And it’s really neat to have that experience, to just be able to talk to each other like regular guys, and it’s little things like that that I’ll always remember about this week. I learned at the end of the day, we’re all just overgrown kids who love to play the game of football, so that was really special to just be around that and be a part of it.”
And as much fun as players have at the Pro Bowl, Mariani was also on the job. With the Titans, he’s surrounded by great players like Chris Johnson and Michael Griffin, two of the four Titans who also played in Sunday’s game. But this week, he was also surrounded by future Hall of Fame players and he certainly made the most out of the experience.
“Every player there is a great football player,” Mariani said. “So I just tried to really soak that in and learn as much as I could from all of them, because they are all great professionals. But I think the four that really stood out for me were Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne. I really look up to those four guys and it was a great experience to spend time with them and get a chance to really be around them.”
And with aspirations of becoming a full-time NFL receiver, Mariani certainly took notice of Wayne and Welker, two of the best in the game at this point.
“I got to know those guys and they are both great guys and true professionals,” Mariani said. “They both are at the top of their game, so for me, it was a chance to really learn from them. I got a chance to pick their brains about playing the position and just about this game in general. So that’s something really special I’ll take away from this experience.”
Of course, the game, the practices, the hanging with the greatest players in the NFL, it's a dream come true for any football player, but especially one who’s taken the road Mariani has to get to this point. But he also made sure it wasn’t all business. He spent plenty of time enjoying his first trip to Hawaii, taking in the sights, spending time with his family and throngs of friends and supporters who made the trip from Havre, Nashville, Missoula and all points beyond.
And in the end, there wasn’t a better way to cap off what has been a dream ride which started when a game against Villanova all the way back in the 2009 FCS championship game ended and it culminated with his record-setting day amongst the NFL’s elite in the tropics of Hawaii.
“To look back to where I started and what it’s taken to get here, it’s just unreal,” Mariani said. “The last year has been amazing, and this week was the perfect way to end it. I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest dreams, and I dream big. It’s simply an experience I’ll have and remember for the rest of my life. It really is a dream come true.”