By Gino Blefari
While enjoying the College Football Playoff national championship game Monday night and the dramatic duel between two exceptional quarterbacks—Oregon Duck Marcus Mariota and Ohio State Buckeye Cardale Jones—I was reminded of a Chinese proverb:
“Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.”
The Duck pun is somewhat unintentional. The message, of course, is that true leaders through their actions—not necessarily their words—inspire others to achieve.
Though Mariota and the Ducks lost the title game, there’s no question the quarterback led Oregon football with the talent, skill and composure rarely seen from a college athlete. He has additional credentials worth mentioning. Mariota won the 2014 Heisman Trophy—college football’s MVP honor—and was the 2014 consensus national player of the year. As a three-year starter, Mariota led the Ducks to a 36-5 record, and set an NCAA record by passing for a touchdown in all 41 career starts. He is the only three-time, first-team all-Pac-12 quarterback in conference history.
The soft-spoken Mariota was rarely penalized and widely recognized by teammates and opponents for his sportsmanship, character and selflessness. Good guy. Lethal competitor.
In accepting his Heisman last month, Mariota said the award belonged to his Oregon teammates and coaches, and thanked other coaches and teachers in his life for the “countless life lessons that have shaped me.” Mariota credited his Polynesian elders for teaching him “humility and respect” and to be “mindful and faithful.” Finally, through his tears, Mariota thanked his parents for their love and sacrifice.
Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich said his quarterback has “everything you’d want in a football player.” I humbly add that Mariota is beyond his years (he’s 21) as a leader with confidence, intelligence, drive, poise, focus, perseverance and the ability to inspire a disparate group of athletes to the brink of their greatest goal.
In speaking to reporters after the loss, Mariota simply said: “It’s a gift to be a part of this team.”
Hats off to Ohio State, which has a remarkable quarterback of its own. Sophomore Cardale Jones began the year as the team’s No. 3 player at his position, and started only three games all year—the last being the national championship. Still, Jones engineered a relentless Buckeye offense that eventually wore down the Ducks and keyed his team’s victory.
The future looks bright for Ohio State, just as it does for Marcus Mariota, who announced Wednesday that he’ll forgo his final year of college eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Mariota, who already earned his bachelor’s degree in general science, is prepared to lead—on or off of the football field.
Let this soaring Duck serve as reminder to all of us that talent, drive and vision, combined with humility and respect, are the playbook for effective leadership.