Preparing to make a dream a reality
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Former Havre High and University of Montana star wide receiver Marc Mariani has already lived out one childhood dream. Now, with one phone call, he's about to embark on another. Mariani recently wrapped up the most prolific career by a wide receiver and kick returner in Montana Grizzly history. What began as a walkon situation where he had to fight for every rep in practice and every chance to get on the famed turf of Washington-Grizzly Stadium turned into a career spanning four years, many UM records, ultimate team success and plenty of You Tube highlights. However, as Mariani prepares to either hear his name called during the 2010 NFL Draft, which begins tonight in New York City, or get a call to be signed as a rookie free agent, it's like being a walk-on all over again. "It is really similar to what I went through when I first got to Montana," Mariani said. "Because it was like the program was invested in the scholarship guys so they were going to get the first opportunities. In the NFL, it's the same thing. Teams are invested in high draft picks, so players like me, guys from the FCS, we are at a bit of a disadvantage coming in. The argument is, for the FCS guys, who you played against, who was your competition? How would you have done if you played up a level? So that's something you have to overcome. "But at the same time, I've learned these teams have great scouts, great executives, and if you can play, they see through the small school stuff somewhat," he added. "And while I definitely feel like I have to prove myself all over again, the bottom line is, whether you're a firstround pick or a free agent, you all have to do the same things to make the team. You have to prove yourself once you strap it up on the field and I'm ready to do that." And while Mariani is fairly certain he won't be one of those high draft picks this weekend, he will be looking for his name to possibly be called somewhere between the fifth and seventh rounds. Various internet draft polls have Mariani anywhere from a fifth-round pick to a free agent signee. The draft is a crap shoot and as players come off the board, teams change their approach to what they are looking for throughout the three days and seven rounds. Still, Mariani, the Griz record holder for career receiving yards, career touchdown catches and career all-purpose yardage has been hard at work, preparing for not so much this weekend, but what he'll have to endure after he finds out his NFL destination. "Everything has happened pretty fast," he said. "One day, we're playing for the national championship and it seems like the next thing I'm doing is preparing for a completely different life. It's been overwhelming at times, it's been a lot of hard work, but it's been an awesome experience going through this process." Mariani's preparations for the NFL came in two phases once his UM career was over. First, he prepared for UM's Pro Day, which he says was all about the numbers. The drills scouts put every player through in order to see how players stack up against fellow draft prospects, but also against standards set by current NFL players. Mariani spent several weeks training for his Pro Day at St. Vincent Sports Performance Center in Indianapolis with agent Buddy Baker. Baker also represents several other current NFL players who are UM Alumni. UM's Pro Day was March 12 and Mariani had a solid outing in those drills. He had a vertical leap of 36.5 inches, a 10-4 standing broad jump and a 4.5 flat in the 40. He also caught the ball cleanly the passing drills he was put through that day. "That was the first part of the training," Mariani said. "Everything I did from January to March 12 was to prepare for that day. Those are the numbers teams were going to look at and it was the last time I'll probably ever have to run a 40 in a straight line again. So all I did was prepare for that day." After Pro Day, Mariani, and workout partners Shann Schillinger and Shawn Lebsock went back to work on what they know best — football. He said he went back to regular lifting, working on adding some weight, working on catching balls and running routes and fielding punts and kicks when he could. He says that the most important thing is being in the best football shape of his life when NFL mini-camps convene on May 16. Those are the things that will either make or break Mariani as an NFL player. And the closer the draft approached, the more hectic things got for Mariani. He's been doing plenty of talking on the phone to various NFL franchises. He's also been traveling. He's been to visit the Indianapolis Colts, the Atlanta Falcons, the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. He says the entire process has been an amazing experience and what he's learned is, he already was, and is on plenty of NFL teams' radar. "It's been a hectic last few weeks," Mariani said. "It's been a really interesting process and I've learned a lot. The main thing is, I've been traveling and trying to improve my stock. "Obviously the highlights, my stats from college and my Pro Day numbers are important," he added. "But I've found out that the finish, the hustle and the run after the catch have become pretty attractive to teams. They like that they see those things in me. Also, the return ability I have, that increases my stock a little bit. Every rookie has to play special teams, and If you can't early in your career, that makes it tough. It will be tough for me as a return guy because there are less return spots. But my return ability is another advantage I have. Other feedback I've gotten is for the most part, I'm a character guy, a guy that's going to go in there and work as hard as I can and not be a distraction to the team. I'm just a guy who will go in there and do whatever it takes to get the job done." And Mariani certainly is that. Long after he went from being a walk-on from Havre High to one of the biggest stars in UM offensive history, he was still known as a hard working, no-nonsense player, a leader to his UM teammates and a guy who did whatever it took to get the job done. Case in point — his never-say-die performance which led Montana to a miraculous come-from-behind victory in the first round of the 2009 FCS playoffs against South Dakota State. A game which in many circles has become known as the 'Mariani Game'. And when Mariani gets his shot at the NFL he'll continue to be that hard-working, character guy who will always do what's asked of him, and whatever it takes to help his team win football games. And while he waits for the biggest phone call of his life, (the 2010 Draft starts tonight and runs through Saturday night) he isn't afraid to reflect on where he's been or what he's about to do. And like he's always done, he's taking nothing for granted. "It's been an awesome experience," Mariani said. "I've just finished living out a childhood dream and now I'm about to take on another one. This is a chance of a lifetime, a dream come true really. "Every kid who loves this game dreams of one day playing in the NFL," he added. "And now that I'm getting the chance to possibly fulfill that dream, it's awesome. It's hard to sleep some nights. I have to wake up and pinch myself every day."