#MTTop40: From walk-on to the Pro Bowl, Havre’s Marc Mariani captivated fans

(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen. We featured tight ends last week and focus this week on wide receivers.)

Defensive backs: No. 5 – Shann Schillinger, Baker; No. 4 – Greg Carothers, Helena Capital; No. 3 – Kane Ioane, Billings Skyview; No. 2 – Colt Anderson, Butte; No. 1 – Tim Hauck, Big Timber.

Defensive linemen: No. 5 – Kroy Biermann, Hardin; No. 4 – Pete Lazetich, Billings Senior; No. 3 – Mitch Donahue, Billings West; No. 2 – Dwan Edwards, Columbus; No. 1 – Mike Tilleman, Chinook.

Linebackers: No. 5 – Pat Taylor, Great Falls CMR; No. 4 – Mark Fellows, Choteau; No. 3 – Jason Crebo, Helena Capital; No. 2 – Jim Kalafat, Great Falls CMR; No. 1 – Corey Widmer, Bozeman.

Offensive lineman: No. 5 – Barry Darrow, Great Falls CMR; No. 4 – Mike Person, Glendive; No. 3 – Sonny Holland, Butte; No. 2 – Kirk Scrafford, Billings West; No. 1 – Pat Donovan, Helena High.

Tight ends: No. 5 – Will Dissly, Bozeman; No. 4 – Joe Bignell, Deer Lodge; No. 3 – Brian Salonen, Great Falls High; No. 2 – Mark Gilman, Kalispell Flathead; No. 1 – Casey Fitzsimmons, Chester.

Wide receivers: No. 5 – Gabe Sulser, Billings Senior; No. 4 – Mark Gallik, Stevensville; No. 3 – Matt Miller, Helena Capital.

No. 2 wide receiver – Marc Mariani, Havre

A fine high school player at multiple positions, Havre’s Marc Mariani exploded on the scene at the University of Montana and in the NFL as a receiver and exceptional returner.

Marc Mariani stat sheet

A three-sport standout at Havre High School, Mariani earned 10 letters in tennis, basketball and football. His high school career culminated with an outstanding senior season for the Blue Ponies in which he caught 48 passes for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns, according to Class A statistician Brian Reed. Mariani’s 16 receiving touchdowns are the second-best single season in Class A history, according to Reed. Mariani might have saved his best for last that season, catching seven passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns to help Havre cap an undefeated season with a 34-21 win over Billings Central in the 2004 Class A state championship. For his career, Mariani totaled 69 catches for 1,638 yards and 22 touchdowns, per Reed.

Mariani then famously walked on at the University of Montana. He didn’t play in 2005 and played sparingly in 2006, but he started to flash in 2007 when he appeared in 11 games. He scored his first career touchdown that season and became the Grizzlies’ leading returner. It was his junior season, though, that Mariani became a star. He reached all-American status by catching 69 passes for 1,308 and 15 touchdowns. He also returned 23 punts for 373 yards and two more scores. His senior season was even better: 80 catches, 1,479 yards, 13 touchdowns at receiver, 32 punt returns for 507 yards and one touchdown, and another 199 yards and one touchdown on kick returns. He was again named an all-American and left Montana as the program’s all-time leading receiver with 3,018 yards (Jamaal Jones has since broken the record) and 29 touchdowns, which still tops UM’s record books.

The Tennessee Titans selected Mariani in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He found immediate success as a returner, accumulating 1,530 kick return yards to finish second in the NFL as a rooki. He scored two touchdowns – a 98-yard kick return and an 87-yard punt return – and earned a spot in the 2011 Pro Bowl. Mariani set Pro Bowl records for kick returns (nine) and kick return yards (326). He had another solid season in 2011 but missed the 2012 and 2013 seasons after breaking his leg in the 2012 preseason. Mariani continued his NFL career with the Chicago Bears and had his best season as a receiver in 2015 when he caught 22 passes for 300 yards. After returning to Tennessee for the 2016 season, Mariani retired from football this past spring.

… on Mariani:

Former Havre quarterback Gary Wagner: “It’s kind of interesting how it started. We got put together as doubles tennis partners our freshman year and we were rivals, man. There was no friendship there at all. I was thinking about quitting tennis and my dad was like, ‘No way, you have to stick with this.’ I enjoyed tennis too much, so I was kind of pouting. There was some success immediately and I realized we were a lot alike, super competitive, will to win and he brought the best out in me. I feel like I might have done the same. Getting to play next to him in tennis, on the basketball court and playing football with the kid, plus being pretty close with him as one of my best buddies, what he did for the state of Montana, what he did for Havre, I think it’s awesome, putting Havre on the map. Walking on to the University of Montana, spending a couple weeks not even practicing. He wasn’t even able to get out there, and then the immediate impact he had when he was given the opportunity, I just think it shows a lot of the heart the kid had and the desire and passion to be on top of his game in everything he does. That’s just life in general. The memories I have with that kid are some of the best I’ll ever have in my life.

“It’s kind of funny, you go back and look at some of those articles written in the Havre Daily News and it will say something like, ‘Wagner to Mariani for an 83-yard touchdown,’ but it was literally a two-step drop, I would throw a hitch and he would catch a six-yard pass, make a couple moves and he would run for 83 yards. We depended on him to do stuff like that. Why risk throwing a deep ball when you could literally get the ball in this kid’s hands as quick as you can and you know something huge could happen? Those stats, they’re wild. Nothing against how we were coached, but we literally only played three full games that year — the first two and then the state championship. Other than that, our team was so stacked that at halftime it would be 56-0. Coach (Troy) Purcell called the dogs off, but as competitors we were like, ‘Let’s keep playing. Let’s keep playing.’ (Mariani’s) stats, honest to God, they could have been double what they were. It was really fun playing on the football field with him because he played both ways. I was able to sit back when we were on defense and I got to watch things. The kid was smart. He was always in the right spot at the right time. He was tiny, but he always made the tackle, it wasn’t a big hit, but he made sure he made the tackle. He never got beat deep. He was just a solid football player.”

“The first touchdown, I think was right before the end of the first half. I broke the pocket and I remember throwing this ball down the righthand side of the field, right in front of our bench, and there were three guys there. (Marc) literally jumps up over three guys, catches it, weaves in and out of another safety and then takes it to the house. I get chills talking about it right now. It was unreal. The go-ahead touchdown toward the end, after the controversial little play, I just remember the play call coming in and out, Marc breaking the huddle and he just kind of looked at me, he was walking out of the huddle and looked at me for maybe a hair longer like, ‘Let’s just take care of this.’ It probably was an alright pass, but he made it look probably perfect and he took it to the house, an 85-yard touchdown, the go-ahead, and the rest is history. The first championship in I think 40-something years in Havre, that was pretty neat. Just being with him last weekend and talking about things like that, it’s fun to think back on these memories. It brings up some pretty good times.”

Billings Central coach Jim Stanton: “You don’t ever forecast where they’re going to go. Obviously a very talented young man. Very fast. (Havre) threw the ball very well back in that time period. They executed an offense very well with a lot of receivers, but he definitely was one that was very good at the time. We played them twice his senior year. In the state championship, he caught a big one for them to really ice the game, and no one could catch him.

“So many of these kids mature so much as they hit that next level and everything kicks in when they hit that 18-year-old. There’s probably kids out there today, you’re thinking, ‘No way.’ Then they make a 10-year run in the NFL. That’s pretty awesome.”

Richie Melby

Richie Melby

A Hi-line native, Richie Melby enjoys telling the stories of Montana athletes, coaches and teams. Richie got his start in TV at KTVQ in Billings and worked as the Sports Director at KRTV. After a couple of year in Tucson, Ariz., Richie returned to his home state as the Sports Director at KTVH.
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