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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.