Even in Nashville, it's still "Cat Week"
For the first time in five years, the Cat/Griz football game will go on without Marc Mariani. But the rivalry is something near and dear to Mariani's heart, and despite the fact he's almost 2,000 miles east of Missoula, playing for the Tennessee Titans, to Mariani, it's still "Cat Week."
And the first thing Mariani did on Monday morning was remind Titans teammate Ken Amato, a former Bobcat, of that very fact.
"It's been fun between me and him," Mariani said. "The first thing I did on Monday morning was go right up to him (Amato) and tell him it's "Cat Week." I didn't have to say anything else, he knew exactly what I meant, and from that point on, we've been going at each other pretty hard about the game.
"No matter which color you bleed, this is THE week," Mariani continued. "And for the first time in a while, I'm not right in the center of it. I'm a fan now, and I kind of feel helpless. But I'm still really excited. This is what it's all about in Montana."
And while Mariani won't be able to help the Grizzlies when they host rival Montana State Saturday afternoon inside famed Washington-Grizzly Stadium, it doesn't mean his passion for a rivalry he's had such a profound effect on has wavered any. If anything, it's just as intense as it was when he was still playing for the Grizzlies.
"This week is unlike anything else in football," Mariani said. "It's the best game day there is as a player, and it's completely different than any other game day of your season. You wake up knowing it could mean your whole season. A win in that game means everything to everybody. Records are thrown out the window at that point and that game means everything."
And it certainly did to the former Havre Blue Pony.
Mariani left an indelible mark on the rivalry, playing in four games for the Grizzlies against the Bobcats, and coming out on top all four times. Not only did he never lose to the Bobcats, he had plenty of success individually as well. He scored four touchdowns, three receiving and one on a 76-yard punt return in the 2008 affair in Missoula — a touchdown which sparked the Griz to a 35-3 romp. That's just one of the many memories Mariani made and will stay with him forever.
"I got my first-ever start at wide receiver against the Cats in Bozeman when I was a sophomore," Mariani said. "So that was a great day for me. Another great Cat/Griz memory for me was also from that day, when Kroy (Biermann) chased down Derek Green to save a touchdown for us. Still one of the best defensive plays I've ever seen. Then there was the catch I had on fourth down my senior year in Bozeman. I had two touchdowns that day, but that catch, with Kevin Retoriano (MSU all-conference safety) draped all over me, that was really special because it kind of summed up the day we had against them down there.
"But honestly, the best day for me was my junior year against them (Cats) in Missoula," he added. "I only have one picture hanging on my wall here in Nashville right now and it's of me and (Mike) Ferriter and (Rob) Schulte, and Ty (Palmer) together after the 2008 game, wearing those burnt orange throwback uniforms. I had a punt return for a touchdown that really sparked us in that game, and getting to wear those uniforms against the Cats, and beating them like we did that day, that was just a day I'll never forget. It's just part of how special that rivalry is."
A special rivalry indeed. And it's one that will go on without Mariani and it's one he says is more intense than anything he's ever experienced on a football field. In other words, when the Bobcats and Grizzlies line up against each other, everything is different. It's more than just a football game.
"There's a level of passion and even a hatred that you don't feel in other games throughout the season," Mariani said. "I mean, you play hard every game, but things just really seemed to go up another couple of notches in that game. It's more physical, it's more intense and everything seems to happen even faster than in other games.
"And I really think it's that passion for playing in that game that fuels you to play like that," he added. "It's all about the state of Montana and it's all about what colors you bleed. It's a rivalry and it means so much to everyone on both sides, that it just intensifies everything on the field that day. It's something you just don't experience anywhere else but in that game."
While Mariani won't get to experience that rivalry anymore, as he's busy making a name for himself as the leading punt returner in the AFC at this point, Cat/Griz will be something he'll always be able to look back on, to draw from, and to know he's left his mark not once, but four times on the sixth-longest rivalry in the history of college football.
Not only that, but he'll having bragging rights forever over Amato and any other Bobcats he crosses paths with during his NFL career.
"It's forever," Mariani said. "We never lost to them (Cats) in my four years. In this rivalry, being able to say that means a lot because it's such a huge thing to the state of Montana. The two sides just don't like each other, and for me, to be able to say we won four times against them (Cats), it's awesome. But that's Cat/Griz. That's what it's all about. It's a passion for the name on the front of the jersey and it's a passion inside the state. It's Cat/Griz."
The Bobcats and Grizzlies will kick off at 12:07 p.m. in Missoula on Saturday. Mariani says he will try and watch the game in Nashville as the Titans are home to take on the Washington Redskins on Sunday at 11 a.m. M.S.T.