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ONE INCREDIBLE RIDE

Marc Mariani officially retires from the NFL

 

Courtesy Photo

Havre's Marc Mariani announced his career as an NFL player is officially over. Mariani played seven years between two stints with Tennessee and one with Chicago.

Marc Mariani always knew the time would have to come — the time when he would officially have to say that he was no longer playing football. After all, Mariani is a seven-year veteran of the NFL — and for any player that has laced up the cleats and put on a helmet in the NFL, that day always comes.

And it has now for Mariani, the one-time Havre Blue Pony great, who turned his dreams of playing football at the highest level possible into an incredible reality, a reality that took him to a standout career with the Tennessee Titans, twice, as well as the Chicago Bears.

“It’s crazy looking back now,” Mariani said from his home in Nashville on Thursday. “I was no different than any other kid who loved playing football. I had dreams when I was young, dreams of having a career in the NFL, of playing this game at the highest level. When I was young, I dreamed big. So as I sit here now and reflect on it all, it’s been an unbelievable journey, a roller-coaster ride filled with highs and lows, with a lot of incredible and great moments, and some tough times as well. So it’s crazy to think I’m saying goodbye to something that I have been so passionate about since I was 5 years old. It’s pretty emotional. But it’s all been a true blessing, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity I was given.”

As far as professional football goes, Mariani may have dreamed about it playing in his backyard, or with his good friends at parks around Havre during his childhood. But dreams only go so far. No, his journey took him to a place of hard work, dedication and the ability to overcome long odds and plenty of adversity.

It started with a highly successful Blue Pony career, one that included Class A All-State honors and being a major part of the 2004 state championship team. But even then, the odds of playing in the NFL were certainly stacked against him.

He went to the University of Montana as a walk-on, not a preferred walk-on even. So just making the cut at Montana was an uphill battle. Just two weeks ago, Montana head coach Bobby Hauck, on a stop in Havre, joked about Mariani’s nickname during his freshman year at Montana being #106. That was in reference to the Griz having 105 players on the roster, with Mariani being 106. So from that standpoint, the NFL was a long, long way off.

And yet, Mariani says, in that year, his first as a Grizzly, the road to an incredible run in the pros was born.

“That first year of college, that was the hardest, biggest challenge of my entire football career,” Mariani said. “But that’s also when I learned and picked up so many habits that have helped me get to where I am. I really fell in love with the process, the challenge of competing, and the ability to fight through adversity during that year. I fell in love with wanting to work hard, to fight to achieve small goals every day, and eventually turn those into bigger goals.

“I had everybody telling me I couldn’t do it that year, that I wasn’t going to make it,” he continued, “so everything I learned that year really stuck with me. That year really shaped who I became as a football player.”

Who Mariani became was one of the greatest wide receivers and kick returners in Montana’s storied football history. And his transformation from a walk-on out of Havre High to an All-American at Montana, also led to him being picked in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

That April day was the culmination of Mariani’s journey through childhood, high school and college football, a dream fulfilled. But it didn’t mean his new journey wouldn’t have the same kind of road blocks that he faced during that first daunting year in Missoula.

However, by that time, Mariani’s drive and determination, along with his incredible talent, speed and skill, was firmly entrenched, and during his rookie season with the Titans, he reached unprecedented heights, setting all of Tennessee’s return records and being selected to the 2011 Pro Bowl in the process.

During Mariani’s first stint with the Titans, he returned a kickoff and three punts for touchdowns and was one of the top return men in the NFL until a horrific leg injury in 2012, sidelined him for the better part of the next two seasons. And though he was a favorite among Tennessee fans, he was eventually cut by the Titans in 2014 but was signed by the Bears late in that season.

He would finish that season with the Bears and would go on to have one of his best all-around years of his career with Chicago in 2015. That year, he had 22 catches, was excellent on punt returns and major plays as a starter, including huge catches on NBC’s Sunday Night Football against his childhood team, the Green Bay Packers. The next spring, though, Mariani was let go by the Bears, but was immediately brought back to Nashville, where he was Tennessee’s punt and kick returner for the 2016 season.

And while that would be Mariani’s last in the NFL, he remained steadfast about not giving up on his career. He continued to work out and look for an opportunity until the 2018 season came to an end. And while that opportunity never presented itself, Mariani can now look back and be at peace with all he’s done to carve out one of the greatest professional careers a Havre Blue Pony has had in any sport.

“There’s always the what-ifs,” Mariani said. “There have been some frustrations, too. Breaking my leg, that obviously set me back. And then, there was the part of my career where I was chasing the opportunity to play more and be a bigger part of an offense. So, like anyone in this business, you’re always going to have had those frustrations and those tough times. You’re always going to look back and feel like you could have done more. Like you had more in the tank.

“But, through all of those tough times, I also really realized how blessed I’ve been to have the opportunities I was given. To be drafted in the seventh round by a team that didn’t have a starting return man at that time (Titans), that was a huge blessing for me. And after my injuries, to get that call from the Bears, that was another incredible opportunity I was given. So, through the process and the journey, you realize just how precious those opportunities to play in this league are, and I’m so very grateful for all of the opportunities I was given.”

And like he had done so many times before, Mariani made the most out of his opportunities at the professional level. He finished his brilliant career as a return man with 3,766 kickoff return yards for an average of 24.3 per return, with a 98-yarder for a score against the Denver Broncos his rookie season. He also has 1,275 career punt return yards, including a long of 87 (twice), and three more TDs. And while he had always hoped he would be, and should have been, more of a factor for both the Titans and Bears as a wide receiver, he finished his career with 27 catches for 324 yards. In all, Mariani appeared in 70 games as an NFL player.

During his time in the NFL Mariani was also more than just a player. He was a fan favorite, especially in Nashville. He did tons of charity work with both the Titans and the Bears and, of course, did so much for his home communities of Havre and Missoula, as well, including bringing the NFL Play 60 to Montana.

No, there’s no disputing just how impressive, special and incredible Mariani was as an NFL football player, especially when he was met with such long odds time and time again throughout his time on the field.

It’s a career that will be remembered forever, not only by Mariani and his family, but to so many who followed it, who admire him and who have seen him as a role model and an example of how to achieve your dreams, no matter how far away they seem.

And, because of the way Marc Mariani achieved his dreams, and especially how he did it, he can now be at peace with what he’s done as a football player. And, as emotional and hard as it is, he can now say goodbye to the game that he loves so dearly. And he can do it with no regrets, and no more what-ifs.

Courtesy Photo

Marc Mariani retires with over 5,000 kick return yards and four touchdowns in his seven-year career.

“I’m so grateful for everything I was given,” Mariani said. “I reflect on it all now, and I think, it’s just been an amazing journey. To even be drafted into this league, it’s something that's so special. And then to be able to do things like make a Pro Bowl and make plays for your team on Sundays, wow. Even after I broke my leg, I still had four more great years of playing football. So I can honestly say, it’s all been a blessing and I’m so thankful I got to do this for a living as long as I did. And realizing through it all, especially these last two years, where I was training but not playing, what an incredible opportunity I was given, and what a blessing it’s been. That’s helped me be ready to hang ’em up, and be happy and ready to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

 

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