Owen Marecic sits on a wooden stool in Stanford's Athletic Hall of Fame room, his long blond locks twisted into a bun and his 6'1", 244-pound build evoking an odd cross between Grandma Moses and the Incredible Hulk. A few feet away a clutch of cameras and microphones await coaches and teammates to be interviewed, and on either side of Marecic are glass cases containing relics of and tributes to Stanford athletes who rose above the rest. The whole room radiates limelight, which Marecic always does his best to deflect. Asked about the most gratifying aspects of playing football, he doesn't talk about knocking an opponent on his back. What Marecic revels in is "having the whole defense work together to stop a play, or having the whole offense work together to achieve some greater goal." Marecic says this in a voice as soft as a lullaby, the last thing one would expect from a man Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh calls "the perfect football player."
"In 30 years of being in college and pro football, I haven't seen a guy like him," says Harbaugh. "He does everything right, all the time, the first time. He has everything—strength, humility, intelligence. He's everything I envisioned being as a football player."
As the Cardinal's starting fullback and middle linebacker Marecic (pronounced mah-REE-sik) isn't just perfect, he's unique: He is the only player in I-A who is starting on both sides of the ball. In last Saturday's 68--24 blowout of Wake Forest he played 52 snaps in the first half—27 on defense, 25 on offense. (With the game's outcome secure he played sparingly in the second half.) A handful of players have started both ways in the last 20 years, most of them at wide receiver and cornerback, such as Georgia's Champ Bailey (1996--98) and Ohio State's Chris Gamble (2001--03). Unlike those two Marecic, a senior captain, is playing a brutally concussive combination that was the province of such football legends as Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski and, more recently, Chuck Bednarik, the so-called Last 60-Minute Man who had menaced opponents as center and linebacker for Penn back in the 1940s before moving to the NFL. "On a team like ours middle linebacker is the identity of the defense, and fullback is the identity of the offense," says Harbaugh. "That's where real football players play. Vince Lombardi would be proud of Owen Marecic."
Harbaugh wasn't sure Marecic could pull off this particular double duty when he asked him to consider it in the spring of 2009 as a way to beef up Stanford's defensive depth. There are good reasons no one goes both ways anymore: Today's game is far more physical and infinitely more complex than it was even 20 years ago, and because of NCAA-mandated time limits on practice, there is far less time to absorb it all.
"What Owen is doing is really hard," says Harbaugh. "For one thing he is playing the two most physical positions on the field. How many guys are in that kind of shape or are physically talented enough to do that? Then there's the mental part. Most guys couldn't comprehend a pro-style system on offense and a pro-style system on defense. It's multiple packages, fronts, coverages, blitzes, personnel groups, plays, adjustments. Who's smart enough to get all those things the first time and actually go out and do them on the field?"
Underscoring his old school rep, Marecic seems surprised by all the fuss over his double duty. "I like having the opportunity to help out the team in any way I can," he says. "I just like being in the game. You can get into the rhythm of the game a little bit playing both sides."
Teammates and coaches marvel at how Marecic is able to keep his body tuned and his playbooks straight, all while scoring enviable grades in human biology, his interdisciplinary major. (Last spring his 3.887 GPA was the highest on the team.) "He's definitely not a sleep-in kind of guy," says junior tight end Coby Fleener, who rooms with Marecic.
There are classes, weight workouts, film sessions, meetings, practice. Last year when he was filling in at linebacker in short-yardage situations, Marecic carried an offense playbook under one arm and a defense playbook under the other as he scrambled between meetings. This year he focuses on defense one day, offense the next. Whatever the day, he makes stops in the training room to stretch or to get in the tub—"everything he can do to keep playing," says trainer Steve Bartlinski.
Even the evening provides an opportunity to improve something. "We'd have weight workouts in the morning, where we squatted and did all the leg stuff," says Toby Gerhart, who nearly won the Heisman last season while running through holes blasted by Marecic, "and at night a couple of us would go to the student rec weight room to work on our 'pretty' muscles, the arms and stuff. But Owen would be in there loading up the leg press and doing more squats and lunges, all the heavyweight stuff the rest of us were avoiding."
Yet football doesn't completely consume Marecic. "That's the last thing we talk about when we go out to eat," says his mom, Maryfran. Marecic and his parents have breakfast the morning after every game, and the discussions range from the latest in snowboarding equipment to politics to flu outbreaks—an area of interest in his human biology studies.