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Montana to Pro Bowl a long, wonderful trip for Titans' Mariani

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Marc Mariani says he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

His father, Steve, and some other businessmen had arranged for an autograph session at the Holiday Shopping Center in his hometown of Havre, Mont., to benefit area children's charities. The date was Sunday, Jan. 9, and Mariani was supposed to greet fans from 1 to 4 p.m.

Two weeks before, he had been one of four rookies voted to the Pro Bowl. The other three were first-round picks -- Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (second overall), Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (18th) and Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty (27th).

Mariani, the AFC return specialist, was not a first-round pick, nor a second. He was chosen 222nd, going to the Titans in the seventh round.

The unexpected phone call
The Titans' website shared an inside glimpse of coach Jeff Fisher's call to rookie Marc Mariani to inform him that he'd made the Pro Bowl. Video

"I knew rosters were coming out that day and I had told Coach [Steve] Watterson [the Titans' strength and conditioning coach] to call either way" Mariani said. "I was on pins and needles. It was the same situation as draft day. I didn't want my expectations to get too high. The guys in the locker room were saying I was a shoo-in, and I was thinking of the reasons why I wouldn't be. I didn't want to go there and hear another name.

"To hear Coach Fisher was unexpected, and to hear that I was floored. It's embarrassing to watch the video. I can barely speak. I stopped on West End [a busy downtown Nashville street] in traffic. I didn't move. I was floored. It was an unbelievable moment that I won't forget."

It goes a long way toward explaining why what started out as a three-hour show at the local mall turned into a 12-hour marathon. Montanans are all about hard work and perseverance, and they love their own. They started lining up at 10 a.m. to meet their newly minted hero. The mall didn't even open until noon. By the time he was finished, Mariani figured he had met more than 1,000 people and raised about $10,000.

"The support I have in Montana and especially up where I'm from is insane," Mariani told CBSSports.com. "It's overwhelming -- in a good way. They're all so happy and so proud of me.

"I had to get on the microphone and tell people to be patient. I announced at 4 when it was supposed to be over that we'd take care of everybody. This is my home and I've had so much support and backing that I want to give it back. It ended up being a little more than I assumed."

Mariani made sure everybody in line got what they came for. He talked to them. He signed whatever they put in front of him. He posed for enough pictures to get an endorsement deal with Kodak.

He took one break to use the restroom. Otherwise, he sat at that table for nearly 12 hours. The mall closed at 5, but everyone knew they had to keep the place open.

"Whenever anyone got to the front of the line, they were so energetic that I had to step up my game," Mariani said. "It was finally their turn so I had to put smiles on their faces just like if they were the first person I had seen.

"It was a great day. I slept well that night."

Who knew it was opposing special-teams coordinators who would lose sleep over Mariani's presence on the Titans? Here was a young man who had played his high school football in Montana and made all-state as a wide receiver and yet still had to walk on at the University of Montana. Lightly regarded meant Mariani would have been regarded. He wasn't.

Marc Mariani runs a kickoff back for a touchdown vs. the Broncos on Oct. 3. (Getty Images)  
Marc Mariani runs a kickoff back for a touchdown vs. the Broncos on Oct. 3. (Getty Images)  
"To have taken the steps that I've taken to get here, it's fun to look back on now, it's gratifying," Mariani said. "It's hard for me to describe. The road was long and bumpy. But I'd never take it any other way."

If adversity builds character, Mariani is a 6-foot-1, 190-pound skyscraper. He redshirted his first season at Montana in 2005 and played sparingly as a freshman, making eight special-teams tackles. He didn't catch a single pass.

He was a bit of a factor as a sophomore, with 15 receptions for 231 yards and a touchdown, but his real impact came as a returner. Mariani led the Big Sky in punt returns, and he did it again as a junior. He also became one of the most dangerous receivers in school history over his final two seasons as the Grizzlies made consecutive trips to the FCS national championship game.

Would any of that matter to the NFL? The Titans had bigger, stronger and faster receivers. On the second day of the draft, they also had taken another receiver/returner, USC's Damian Williams.

Tennessee had been one of four teams Mariani visited before the draft. Brandon Fisher, son of now former Titans coach Jeff Fisher, was a teammate of Mariani's and a close friend. But Mariani figured once Tennessee had drafted Williams, there was no chance he would be playing in the Music City.

"After Damian got drafted in the third round ... that covered what they needed," Mariani said. "Damian is a beast. They had their guy. I was sitting there waiting and looking at other options."

Mariani and Brandon Fisher had been texting back and forth all day. When Mariani got a call during the seventh round from the 615 area code, he recognized it as Nashville but didn't know the number. The voice on the other end was Brandon's.

The joke didn't last long. In short order he put his father on the phone. Mariani was a Tennessee Titan.

All he had needed was someone to give him a chance. He would do the rest, just like he had for the Grizzlies.

"He was a little bit of a late bloomer," said Bobby Hauck, another Montana native who coached at Montana from 2003-09. "He was from a small high school, the type of guy who comes out of the middle of nowhere. He was a good high school player, but he was physically kind of immature. And he was playing at a level of competition that was hard to tell how skilled he was."

Hauck said boys in Montana gravitate toward sports because, besides hunting and fishing, there isn't much to do. Mariani said he didn't hunt much but went fishing frequently. And if there was a sport to be played, he did.

"Anything with a ball, anything where I could be competitive, it was on," Mariani said.

When Williams had some nagging leg injuries in training camp, Mariani made the most of the opportunity. He was the starter at kick returner and punt returner when the season opened.

In Week 4 he took a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against the Broncos. It was the first kickoff return for a TD by a Titan since 2001. In Week 11, Mariani victimized the Redskins with an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown. He was the only player in the league with one of each until Atlanta's Eric Weems, his NFC Pro Bowl counterpart, joined him in the regular-season finale with a 55-yard punt return for a score.

Mariani led the AFC in punt-return average most of the season. He also ranked in the top 10 in kickoff-return average. The Titans had been moribund in both departments in 2009. Mariani also put himself in the franchise record book, supplanting Derrick Mason atop the single-season return yardage list and Bobby Jancik atop the single-season kickoff return yardage list. Jancik's record had stood since 1963, when the team was in the AFL and called the Houston Oilers.

"At the start of the season, no, I wouldn't have thought that he would do what he's done," longtime Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry said. "But as you see how he works and how he adapted, you could see the possibilities as the year went on."

Mariani even impressed the fastest of Titans, running back Chris Johnson.

"I know how it feels to come in as a rookie and make it to the Pro Bowl," said Johnson, who also made the Pro Bowl this season after Maurice Jones-Drew pulled out. "I know exactly how he feels and I know the type of guy he is and how hard he works and how passionate he is and where he came from. I'm very proud of him.

"I think he's a fast guy. Every time he has broken one, he hasn't been caught."

Mariani has never been to Hawaii. He brought his whole family, and he said more than 100 people from Havre are making the trip, too.

"It has been a roller coaster and I've enjoyed every second of it," Mariani said. "It's very gratifying to be standing where I am now and I'm honored. It's an award voted on by coaches and players. It's not just my award. There are a lot of guys behind it as well."

Because Pro Bowl rosters include only four wide receivers, it's possible Mariani also will get a chance to catch passes from the likes of Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.

"It's crazy. It's unbelievable," Mariani said. "To be catching balls from some of the guys who are gonna be there. ... To walk into the locker room with the best in the world. ... I don't know what it's gonna be like. I hope I can speak.

"My expectations are high for myself, and my dreams are big, but I never could have dreamed of this."

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