Some might say that NFL quarterbacks figuratively swim with the sharks every autumn Sunday, their seasons, if not their careers, at risk every time they drop back to pass against defensive players who may weigh 60 to 70 pounds more than them and often run noticeably faster.
But fourth-year Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota — welcomed to town Thursday night as the guest speaker at this newspaper's annual Best of Preps banquet at the Chattanooga Convention Center — nearly came face to face with a real shark during his high school days in Hawaii.
"I like to body board," said Mariota, referring to riding a surfboard on one's stomach instead of standing on it. "I was out in the water one day, probably riding a six- to seven-foot wave, and way out beyond me these surfers were all riding the same wave, which is kind of unusual."
What was perhaps less unusual but more troublesome was what they were all yelling as they rode that wave.
"They were screaming, 'Shark! Shark!''' Mariota recalled. "And sure enough, right up to the edge of the water came a 10- to 11-foot tiger shark. I've probably stayed a lot closer to shore since then."
Mariota may continue to practice caution when entering the Pacific Ocean this weekend after he lands in Hawaii early this evening for a final preseason vacation, but the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner has been anything but cautious on the field during his first three seasons with the Titans.
Becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to earn a perfect passer rating in his first regular-season game, a 42-14 win over Tampa Bay and Jameis Winston — the Florida State quarterback chosen ahead of him in the draft — Mariota sent an immediate message that he belonged on Sunday afternoon football fields.
And last year, during the Titans' first playoff game since the 2008 season, Mariota made one of the most memorable plays of the year, catching a touchdown off a pass he'd thrown after it was deflected by the Kansas City defense.
Seeing it floating through the air, Mariota ran toward the end zone and caught it for a touchdown that ignited a come-from-behind road victory, the Titans' first postseason win since the 2003 season.
"I probably get asked about that play at least twice a week," he said.
Asked if he'd ever thought it might not count, that there would be a rule against such a play, Mariota explained, "I actually had a play like that happen in practice one day when I was at Oregon. So I was pretty sure it was a touchdown. But you're also always taught to bat a ball like that down. As I've said many times since then, I was in the right place at the right time."
Success in athletics is often about being in the right place at the right time. Titans fans surely hope the arrival of new head coach Mike Vrabel and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur will put Mariota and his offense in the right place to score at will against the salty defenses of the AFC South.
"It's my third system in four years," the quarterback said. "But I like it. Matt is doing a good job, and we've got a lot of guys who can make plays."
The Best of Preps banquet is all about honoring those athletes who were the best at making plays for their high schools and sports. Thursday night was more of the same, the Convention Center ballroom filled with more than 1,000 athletes, family members, coaches and supporters of area high school athletics.
But it's also, in Mariota's words, about "hopefully giving them inspiration."
The biggest inspiration from Thursday night may have come from the winners of three special awards that are presented every year at the Best of Preps banquet.
It came from watching the touching video on Sandy Sandlin Unselfish Sportsman winner Joe Smith, whose YCAP boxing program targeting at-risk youth — many of whom have become foster children in the Smith home — have, in the words of one former student, "shown me what a real family is."
It came from watching the gripping story of Meigs County football player Martin Smith, who won the Bobby Davis Heart and Desire Award after he somehow overcame losing his mother and brother in a span of 24 hours.
It came from watching the Guy Francis Going the Extra Mile Award winner Judy Rogers, who retired this spring after giving 42 years of her life to the Special Olympics movement.
In perhaps the most emotional moment of the night, Special Olympian Susan Turner looked into the camera during Rogers' prepared video and said, "Miss Judy gives the best hugs ever," then later added, her eyes filled with tears, her hand touching her heart, "I love her so much."
As he was wrapping up his time on stage Thursday night, Mariota told our area's best young athletes, "Absorb as much knowledge and information as you can. Then go back and help the next guy."
Help in the same way that Joe Smith and Judy Rogers always have, never forgetting the power and comfort of a really good hug.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.