Retire Marcus Mariota’s No. 8 For History’s Sake

Retire jersey No. 8. Not just at the University of Oregon, but at every local school, in every sport.

The only jerseys with that number anywhere in Lane County from now on should be worn by fans who remember and celebrate Marcus Mariota and all he represents — both on the football field and off it.

Our culture obsesses over novelty and innovation, so we don’t value history much — especially when we’re in the midst of it. Retiring the number will mark and teach history after this thrilling moment has passed.

Young Charlie Papé divulged on national television last month that everyone at O’Hara Catholic School talk about only three things: Jesus, girls, and Marcus Mariota. Young athletes everywhere will be asking their coaches if they can wear No. 8 on their backs.

Wise coaches should reply, as Mariota no doubt would, “Follow his lead and do your best. Then people might someday retire the number you’re wearing too.”

Years from now, youngsters will still be talking about Jesus and girls, but they may not know the Mariota story. The omission of No. 8 will give us opportunities to retell it.

Not to be outdone by a middle schooler, one fan was interviewed on camera after the Ducks finished off its Pac 12 championship game, “Marcus is not only the best football player in the country! He may be the best football player ever!” It was a remarkable moment, because Phil Knight doesn’t give many interviews.

All that was before the College Football Playoff pairings were announced, before Mariota swept the national awards circuit and brought home the University of Oregon’s first Heisman Trophy, before he wowed the crowd with his heartfelt acceptance speech and before he delivered David Letterman’s Top Ten List.

Retiring a jersey number isn’t easy. A college football team travels with 85 players, not counting those who are injured and won’t play. So what? Doing what’s hard is part of the tribute.

Mariota sat out his junior year at St. Louis High School in Hawaii, knowing he would be lightly recruited without a game day highlight reel. He has stayed true to his high school sweetheart, even though the entire country has fallen in love with him. He played with pain that we’ve only heard rumors about. He cried when his team lost and then came back stronger. He wore a tuxedo on Letterman. None of that could have been easy.

Shared billing with Jesus notwithstanding, we’ve learned the 21-year-old is not perfect. He was caught speeding in Veneta after midnight not long ago. According to the gospels, Jesus was never caught speeding.

A detail from that incident was reported only last weekend by ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. Mariota was driving back from a Boys and Girls Club banquet, where he had given a speech. His first mistake was staying afterwards until every kid got an autograph and a selfie.

The trooper reported that Mariota was respectful and cooperative. He paid the ticket without fanfare. Less than four years ago, the takeaway quote from a similar infraction was, “We smoked it all.”

If Mariota is being equated with Jesus, then Joey Harrington was our John the Baptist. Joey Heisman’s image on a Times Square billboard put the Ducks on the map and began building what’s now a national brand. But uniforms and billboards can do only so much. Eventually, talent and character matter more than uniforms.

All the more reason to hang this uniform up and remember the young man No. 8 represents.

It’s a new age for University of Oregon athletics now. Good players in every sport and young people everywhere are asking themselves, “What would Marcus do?”

If enough follow his footsteps to the University of Oregon, we may even fill all the student housing that has boomed during his years here. For that, the city of Eugene will be forever grateful.

The city has no jersey numbers they can retire, but they do have an “eight” they can dedicate to our Mariota memory. Eighth Avenue soon will be extended to connect downtown to the Willamette River. At least that new portion should be named Marcus Way.

Like Mariota himself, the timing is almost too perfect. Eighth Avenue downtown is being reconfigured for two-way traffic.

University of Oregon coaches reinvented football around a zone-read offense. They needed a “dual threat” quarterback who could pass or run the ball, forcing defenders to “look both ways.” They searched everywhere for a player who could become strong enough, fast enough, and smart enough.

They found Marcus Mariota. The rest is history.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.