Stanford's Owen Marecic is the ultimate throwback—the only I-A player to start on both offense and defense
Owen Marecic sits on a wooden stool in Stanford's Athletic Hall of Fame room, his long blond locks twisted into a bun and his 6'1", 244-pound build evoking an odd cross between Grandma Moses and the Incredible Hulk. A few feet away a clutch of cameras and microphones await coaches and teammates to be interviewed, and on either side of Marecic are glass cases containing relics of and tributes to Stanford athletes who rose above the rest. The whole room radiates limelight, which Marecic always does his best to deflect. Asked about the most gratifying aspects of playing football, he doesn't talk about knocking an opponent on his back. What Marecic revels in is "having the whole defense work together to stop a play, or having the whole offense work together to achieve some greater goal." Marecic says this in a voice as soft as a lullaby, the last thing one would expect from a man Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh calls "the perfect football player."
"In 30 years of being in college and pro football, I haven't seen a guy like him," says Harbaugh. "He does everything right, all the time, the first time. He has everything—strength, humility, intelligence. He's everything I envisioned being as a football player."
As the Cardinal's starting fullback and middle linebacker Marecic (pronounced mah-REE-sik) isn't just perfect, he's unique: He is the only player in I-A who is starting on both sides of the ball. In last Saturday's 68--24 blowout of Wake Forest he played 52 snaps in the first half—27 on defense, 25 on offense. (With the game's outcome secure he played sparingly in the second half.) A handful of players have started both ways in the last 20 years, most of them at wide receiver and cornerback, such as Georgia's Champ Bailey (1996--98) and Ohio State's Chris Gamble (2001--03). Unlike those two Marecic, a senior captain, is playing a brutally concussive combination that was the province of such football legends as Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski and, more recently, Chuck Bednarik, the so-called Last 60-Minute Man who had menaced opponents as center and linebacker for Penn back in the 1940s before moving to the NFL. "On a team like ours middle linebacker is the identity of the defense, and fullback is the identity of the offense," says Harbaugh. "That's where real football players play. Vince Lombardi would be proud of Owen Marecic."
Harbaugh wasn't sure Marecic could pull off this particular double duty when he asked him to consider it in the spring of 2009 as a way to beef up Stanford's defensive depth. There are good reasons no one goes both ways anymore: Today's game is far more physical and infinitely more complex than it was even 20 years ago, and because of NCAA-mandated time limits on practice, there is far less time to absorb it all.
"What Owen is doing is really hard," says Harbaugh. "For one thing he is playing the two most physical positions on the field. How many guys are in that kind of shape or are physically talented enough to do that? Then there's the mental part. Most guys couldn't comprehend a pro-style system on offense and a pro-style system on defense. It's multiple packages, fronts, coverages, blitzes, personnel groups, plays, adjustments. Who's smart enough to get all those things the first time and actually go out and do them on the field?"
Underscoring his old school rep, Marecic seems surprised by all the fuss over his double duty. "I like having the opportunity to help out the team in any way I can," he says. "I just like being in the game. You can get into the rhythm of the game a little bit playing both sides."
Teammates and coaches marvel at how Marecic is able to keep his body tuned and his playbooks straight, all while scoring enviable grades in human biology, his interdisciplinary major. (Last spring his 3.887 GPA was the highest on the team.) "He's definitely not a sleep-in kind of guy," says junior tight end Coby Fleener, who rooms with Marecic.
There are classes, weight workouts, film sessions, meetings, practice. Last year when he was filling in at linebacker in short-yardage situations, Marecic carried an offense playbook under one arm and a defense playbook under the other as he scrambled between meetings. This year he focuses on defense one day, offense the next. Whatever the day, he makes stops in the training room to stretch or to get in the tub—"everything he can do to keep playing," says trainer Steve Bartlinski.
Even the evening provides an opportunity to improve something. "We'd have weight workouts in the morning, where we squatted and did all the leg stuff," says Toby Gerhart, who nearly won the Heisman last season while running through holes blasted by Marecic, "and at night a couple of us would go to the student rec weight room to work on our 'pretty' muscles, the arms and stuff. But Owen would be in there loading up the leg press and doing more squats and lunges, all the heavyweight stuff the rest of us were avoiding."
Yet football doesn't completely consume Marecic. "That's the last thing we talk about when we go out to eat," says his mom, Maryfran. Marecic and his parents have breakfast the morning after every game, and the discussions range from the latest in snowboarding equipment to politics to flu outbreaks—an area of interest in his human biology studies.
It's likely Marecic will be hunting NFL linebackers long before he gets to viruses. "He's probably got more of a future as a fullback, but this year's experience as a linebacker is going to make him more attractive to an NFL team," says Cardinal defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who spent 24 years in the NFL. "A guy who can play more than one position is really valuable."
Jeff and Maryfran Marecic couldn't possibly have seen all this unfolding for their older son two decades ago. Yet little Owen was unusual in some respects. "He didn't like to be pushed in the stroller, and he didn't like to be carried," says Maryfran. When his little brother, Ian, came along two years after him, Owen was happy to push him in the stroller.
Marecic loved testing himself physically and mentally—the first words he spelled out loud, says his mom, were Tyrannosaurus rex—and he was flat-out competitive. When Owen was a junior at Portland Jesuit High, an uncle in Boston challenged him to a bet to see who could keep wearing shorts the longest through the winter. And so it was that Marecic, on his official visit to Stanford in May 2006, stood up in front of a gathering of nicely dressed coaches, faculty and fellow recruits and said, "You may all be wondering why I'm wearing shorts... . "
When Marecic was growing up in New Jersey, Boston, L.A. and Portland (the family followed the career of Jeff, an information technology executive), he played soccer, basketball and baseball, but he was never as drawn to those sports as he was to football. In Pop Warner and early high school Owen played mostly quarterback. But when the family moved to Portland before Owen's sophomore year, Jesuit coach Ken Potter suggested Marecic's physique might be a better fit at fullback and linebacker. "Owen just said, 'O.K.,'" says Potter. "There wasn't an iota of a question."
At Jesuit, Marecic distinguished himself off the field with a beastly work ethic, frequently doing lunges for 30 yards up a 15-degree-grade hill while carrying a 45-pound plate. "Most of our athletes couldn't do it more than one or two times," says Potter. "Owen would do 15 sets."
On the field Marecic helped Jesuit win back-to-back state titles in his junior and senior years, earning Oregon's defensive player of the year award at linebacker and second-team all-state honors at running back as a senior. Potter told every coach who dropped by that Marecic was the best football player he had coached in 24 years. Yet only Stanford, Army and Yale made offers. "A lot of the coaches said, 'I'm not sure he can play linebacker, and we don't have a fullback [in our offense],'" says Potter. "Now when I talk to these coaches, they're like, 'Well, we should have had a fullback.'"
A few weeks into his first Stanford training camp Harbaugh asked Marecic to deliver some "wise words" to the team after practice. The freshman was already the team's starting fullback—after steamrolling an upperclassman linebacker on consecutive plays on the first day of practice—but he was still an unfamiliar face. As this group of still mostly strangers gathered around, Marecic began to speak, and many of his teammates, leaning in to focus on his soft voice, heard him for the first time. "Here was a really quiet guy who hadn't said anything to that point," recalls Gerhart. "And he delivered a talk about love for the game, about passion. He referenced Black Hawk Down and talked about not turning your back on others. He gave this profound speech, and it blew everyone away because he never said anything. Whenever he got up there after that, everyone was excited to hear what Owen would say because he always gave these great speeches. People would start chanting, 'The Wisest, the Wisest is coming up!'"
Marecic's value to the team has never been measured in statistics—in three-plus years he has had 19 carries for 38 yards and five touchdowns, 17 receptions for 183 yards, and seven tackles, a fumble recovery and a sack—but in other ways. Offensive coordinator and running backs coach David Shaw likes to pause game film to show other running backs how explosive Marecic is out of his stance. Freeze, and there it is: The ball is being snapped, and Marecic has taken a step, and no one else on offense has moved. "Owen is the fastest fullback out of his stance that I've ever been around," says Shaw.
On those infrequent occasions when he doesn't get it right, Marecic will slap his helmet and mutter to himself to refocus as he reenters the huddle or stands on the sideline. "He always looks at it as people are counting on him to do this, so he is extremely conscientious," says Shaw. "He wants to be as close to perfect as he can be. Players like that are rare, but they are usually the great ones."
After a recent photo shoot on the team's practice field Marecic walked slowly across the turf, filling his helmet with bits of athletic tape and other detritus left behind by his teammates, quietly tsk-tsking their carelessness. His golden mane may seem a rare nod to vanity—he admits that after a lifetime of crew cuts he was curious about how long hair might look on him—but it has a higher purpose. After his tresses reach the requisite 10 inches, he plans to lop them off and donate them to an organization such as Locks of Love that makes wigs for cancer patients.
Harbaugh is so taken with Marecic that the coach recently wrote a 900-word prepping-for-battle tribute to him—peppered with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ernest Hemingway—and read it to the team before the first day of practice. A sample passage: "Now is the time to think of only one thing, that which I was born for. The thousand times that I've proved it meant nothing. Now I am proving it again."
In his office Harbaugh keeps one of the several helmets Marecic has cracked while at Stanford. At Harbaugh's request Marecic signed the helmet, along with words he lives by: TODAY GIVE ALL THAT YOU HAVE, FOR WHAT YOU KEEP INSIDE YOU LOSE FOREVER.
Marecic doesn't get what the big deal is. "These things happen," he says of the busted helmet. "I don't see the glamour in it." To others, it's obvious: It's just the kind of relic that would look at home in Stanford's Hall of Fame.
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"I haven't seen a guy like [Marecic]," says Harbaugh. "He does everything right. He's everything I envisioned being as a player."
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
CARDINAL TWIN While recent two-way starters have been receivers and corners, Marecic is a force at fullback and linebacker.
PETER READ MILLER
DEFENSE This is Marecic's first year starting at middle linebacker, a spot Harbaugh calls the "identity of the defense."
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
OFFENSE Marecic's quick first step helps him excel as a fullback, where he has started for four years, and gives him a chance to play in the NFL.