NEW YORK — "There is this kid at my school in Hawaii," Marcus Mariota started to say as reporters leaned closer to listen over the lunchtime din at a Times Square hotel.
"His name is Tua Tagovailoa and he is pretty special," Mariota said.
The prescient comment came at a Pac 12-hosted media gathering just hours before Mariota was awarded the 2014 Heisman Trophy and it would be nearly three years later before most heard the name again and began to glimpse just how "special" Tagovailoa really was.
That "kid" arrived in New York, one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy who will be awarded Saturday night on national television, and Mariota is hoping to be there among the Heisman alumni to see him follow in his footsteps.
"Oh, it would mean the world (to see that)," Mariota said in an interview.
Count him among the early believers in Tagovailoa, going all the way back to when Mariota was in high school at Saint Louis School and Tagovailoa was a fourth-grader in Ewa Beach.
While some other high school kids snickered at the elementary school kid trying to hang with them at a football camp, Mariota said he saw his earnestness and ability. "He just had a natural ability throwing the football," Mariota recalls. "I think we were all standing there — we were in high school, and he was over there throwing with the little kids — and to see the way the ball was coming out and his natural ability to spin the football was pretty remarkable. We figured he had some talent, that he could be pretty good."
Mariota, as is his nature, befriended the youngster, taking him under his wing, working with him some.
Over the years they have texted, congratulated each other and talked about their journeys.
And when reporters at the 2014 Heisman gathering asked if there would be another quarterback who might someday follow in his footsteps, Tagovailoa was the name Mariota unhesitatingly gave.
This week Mariota said, "It is awesome to see how far he has taken it."
After following Mariota to Kalaepohaku, winning the starting job as a sophomore and leading the Crusaders to a state championship and setting the state passing yardage record as a senior, Tagovailoa came off the bench as a true freshman to guide a comeback over Georgia in the College Football Playoff national championship for 2017.
This year, with relief help from Jalen Hurts in the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa directed the Crimson Tide to a 13-0 record and No. 1 spot in the polls.
Until injuring both ankles and being forced to depart the SEC title game in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa was the Heisman favorite in what has since became a race too close to call with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray.
Mariota, who gets a vote as a Heisman alumnus, declined to say how he filled out his ballot (voters rank three players), citing the Heisman Trust confidentiality pledge he has taken. "Just from what (I've) observed from afar, what he's been able to do in this season is pretty remarkable," Mariota said. "I think being able to play in only (two) full games, he had incredible numbers throughout. He's definitely deserving to be at the Heisman Trophy ceremony."
However it goes, Mariota, who said he hopes to attend depending on his schedule, said, "I hope he enjoys his journey. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I hope he continues to represent not only Hawaii, but the Polynesian culture to the best of his abilities. I'm just very proud of him."
This article is written by Ferd Lewis from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.