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For Mariota, arrival in Washington comes with cool connection, ability to share experiences

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Quarterback Marcus Mariota has been in Washington for a little over a month, and with joining a new team often comes a period of adjustment. The signal caller isn't fazed by the transition, though. To him, all these coaches and teammates at Commanders Park are already family.

"I try to get to know everybody. I try to just be myself," Mariota said. "I really believe that locker room is 100 guys who are my brothers."

That approach to becoming a Commander is significantly influenced by an aspect of Mariota's identity that has been a guiding force for as long as he can remember: his Polynesian heritage.

Born and raised in Hawaii and half Samoan, the quarterback learned early on the value of being humble, an "us" over "me" mentality and pride in where he comes from and what he represents.

Few in Washington grasp this reality and understand many of Mariota's deep-seated values quite as well as the quarterback's new position coach Tavita Pritchard. The two have a decent amount in common. Pritchard is also Samoan and played quarterback in the Pac-12.

"I grew up watching him [Pritchard] beat USC. I'll never forget that," Mariota recalled. " My dad would always be like, 'Hey, Tavita is playing' or 'Hey, Jeremiah [Masoli]' is playing. I always grew up watching Samoan quarterbacks. To be able to be in the same room with Tavita is really cool for me. It's kind of a full circle moment almost."

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The two actually used to be on opposing sidelines. When Mariota became the starter at Oregon as a redshirt freshman in 2012, Pritchard was coaching against him at Stanford. Now, over a decade later, representing the burgundy and gold together comes with a lot of pride and excitement.

"When I first saw him when he came here to sign his contract, man, it honestly felt like somebody I knew forever." Pritchard said. "The circle is small. We take a lot of pride in this fraternity that is Polynesian quarterbacks."

For Pritchard, that pride has very personal roots. His uncle is Washington State legend Jack "the Throwin' Samoan" Thompson who was a third overall pick in the 1979 draft. Thompson was a key figure in helping to change the idea that Polynesian football players were just linemen type guys. There is an argument to be made that Mariota, who was the first Polynesian Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, then pushed the needle on that narrative further than any single signal caller before him.

"Marcus has elevated what my uncle helped start…to have Polynesian quarterbacks not be a surprise is something that Marcus helped make happen," Pritchard said. "I'm floored that I get to work with him because of the pioneer he has been for Polynesian football players and specifically quarterbacks. For our people in this category, he'll go down in history."

Any attempts of glorifying his legacy aren't exactly zealously embraced by Mariota. Humility is one of Mariota's defining characteristics. Suggestions that he might have put Polynesian quarterbacks on the map are immediately met with a slew of names of all those who came before him. At the same time, when he goes to work each day, Mariota is keenly aware of all he represents that is so much bigger than just himself.

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"There's been such a lineage of players of Polynesian descent that have been quarterbacks that have played at the high level, whether it's division one or even the NFL. To be able to be a part of that and continue to carry the torch, it's been a pretty special responsibility and one that I don't take very lightly," he said. "I just do my best to be able to continue to grow and to continue to represent that."

He's been carrying that torch for ten seasons in a handful of cities across the country, and 2024 is set to be his second year playing for an NFL team on the Eastern seaboard. Though he is living a good 4,800 miles away from his native Hawaii, the Polynesian diaspora has made it so he is never too far from a Polynesian pocket of some kind. Finding those areas and those points of connection wherever he has been is important to the quarterback.

"Food is something that's really part of our culture, and everywhere that I've been we've always tried to find something that reminds us of home…I think that's important because I want to share some of those things with my daughter, and also sharing some of that with my teammates," he said. "Guys may have never had a loco moco or a palusami. Just to be able to share those things and to expand people's ideas of who Polynesians are and what they're about, I think is pretty cool."

That's undoubtedly part of what's so special about this time of the year in the locker room. Players with different backgrounds and different stories are coming together for this time, and everyone learns a new thing or two along the way. Mariota – the quarterback, the man, the history-maker – is going to take this team to a new level by being who he is.

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