Mariota path to Heisman began with Bob Apisa
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Mariota path to Heisman began with Bob Apisa

Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech was touching and soon popular on Youtube. Fans listened to words spoken with humility that have been missing from recent Heisman winners of questionable character.

The Oregon All-American quarterback thanked his college, coaches and Ducks teammates. The acceptance words from the 21-year-old of Samoan and German ancestry included, “To Hawaii nei (beloved Hawaii)” as he mentioned his Honolulu high school, St. Louis, located in his native state of paradise.

Then he concluded, “To the Polynesian community, I hope and pray this is only the beginning. Young Poly athletes everywhere, you should take this as motivation and dream and strive for greatness.”

He switched to his Samoan tongue for his final words:  Fa’a a fe’tai tele lava.” (Thank you so very much).

Mariota’s graceful speech was actually scripted by Bob Apisa a half-century ago. Apisa was the first Samoan All-American college player as a Michigan State fullback from Honolulu Farrington on the Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 national championship teams. He also was the first Samoan athlete of his stature to stage a clinic in his native America Samoa in 1973.

“Those are things I’m very proud of,” Apisa says. “When I went to Michigan State, I wanted to represent my family, Hawaii and Samoans.”

The quote was taken from Chapter 13 of “Raye of Light,” my book with pioneer black quarterback Jimmy Raye on Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football under Spartans head coach Duffy Daugherty. Daugherty, in addition to defying Jim Crow laws in the segregated South to provide opportunities for Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington, Raye and others to escape the South, had a pipeline to Hawaii long before anyone understood the talent bubbling up from the lava rocks.

No less an authority than Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, the first Samoan head coach at any college level who became Navy’s all-time winningest coach after beating Army for the 13th straight year last week, credits Apisa for breaking down doors for Polynesians.

“I see Bob Apisa as not only a trailblazer for Samoan and Polynesians players but for coaches as well,” Niumatalolo states in Chapter 13. “You have to be a player before you’re a coach. There are a lot of Samoans and Polynesians coaching now. Bob was a pioneer who opened doors for us.”

Niumatalolo, who was born in Hawaii in 1965, Apisa’s first All-American season, added: “Everybody I grew up with knew about Bob Apisa. He went to the mainland and was the first one to make a name for himself. I don’t know if the younger kids these days still know about Bob Apisa, but they should.”

When Mariota got off to a fast start in the 2014 season, Apisa eagerly awaited Mariota’s opportunity to become the first Samoan Heisman Trophy winner. Hawaiians and Samoans narrowly missed out in 2012 when Notre Dame's Manti Te'o of Honolulu Punahou was the runner-up. Apsia spoke of the pride he would feel in Mariota for Samoans and Polynesisans when he was the keynote speaker on Michigan State’s homecoming weekend Sept. 25 before the Downtown Coaches luncheon.

“I’m very, very proud of him,” Apisa said. “He’s a great tribute to the Heisman Trophy, to Samoans, the state of Hawaii and the whole United States. He’s a role model for the whole country.
“Two years ago we had a Heisman winner who flips the cash money sign on the field. Then last year we had a Heisman winner who walks out of a store thinking he doesn’t have to pay for crab legs. What’s wrong with that picture?”

The first sentence of Heisman Trophy Trust mission statement reads: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

Integrity has been a box to check that Heisman voters began to skip over beginning with USC’s Reggie Bush in 2005. Bush won the award and was later the first – and only – Heisman winner forced to return his the famous bronzed statue when NCAA sanctions against him and the school determined he was ineligible as a USC athlete for taking money from an prospective agent.

Texas A&M’s Johnny “Cash Money” Manziel won in 2012 and Florida State’s Jameis “Crab Legs” Winston in 2013. They both faced suspensions the following season -- a half-game by the NCAA for Manziel in 2013 and a full game by his university president for Winston in 2014.

Apisa said of Mariota, “Here you have a kid who was brought up right by his parents. I could tell by look of his father, Toa (on the Heisman TV presentation show). It’s a breath of fresh air to have a guy like Marcus that players throughout the country can aspire to be.

“Humility is not an innate trait. It is something that grows within you from your parents. I’m so proud of him.”


Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."