When the call came from the Chicago Bears on Nov. 17, Marc Mariani knew his hard work had finally paid off. Sidelined by a broken left leg tibia and fibula sustained while returning a punt during a Tennessee Titans’ 2012 preseason game, Mariani eventually returned to the team only to miss all of 2013 with a shoulder injury. He was cut as the Titans finalized their 53-man roster in August and sat waiting for more than three months for an NFL team to call.
“Two severe injuries in a row? I couldn’t believe it at the time,” Mariani told Bear Report today. “It was one of those occasions where you look overhead and just see that little black cloud always raining on you. You work so hard to recover and come back then it all falls apart.”
A return specialist, Mariani established almost immediately his role as the Bears’ starting punt and kick returner.
“It’s where I feel comfortable, where I function well,” Mariani said.
Collegiately, Mariani played wide receiver and handled punt returns for the University of Montana. His 1,479 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 2009 set single-season records for the Grizzlies. His final college totals were 3,018 receiving yards, 29 touchdowns, and 5,441 all-purpose yards. He was drafted by the Titans in the 7th round in 2010 and signed to a four-year contract. He played in the 2011 Pro Bowl as a return specialist for the AFC.
While out of football this year, Mariani found the mental aspect of his situation much more difficult to handle than the physical side of things.
“I had to keep faith every single day that somebody would notice me, that some team would need me,” he said. “The workout routine wasn’t that hard. I just continued to do what I’d been taught with the Titans. I followed my diet, lifted weights as I did in the NFL, that kind of thing. But sometimes I’d catch myself doubting whether I’d ever be back in the league.”
Friends, former teammates and family members encouraged Mariani as the weeks ticked by.
“They never let me get down on myself and they always helped me keep my head in the game. However, I’ve never had a football season drag on like that before,” he said. “It was completely foreign to me to sit there and watch from the couch. It was weird. Every time I’d see a return I’d have flashbacks to my playing days. I wasn’t ready to let that all go.”
Mariani spent considerable time working out with local quarterbacks in his hometown of Havre, Montana while waiting for the phone to ring.
“The season was going along and I knew with each day that passed my chances might be getting slimmer. On the flip side of that, players do get injured so I felt that could be an opening somewhere. I was willing to play for any team that wanted me.”
The Bears definitely needed Mariani to replace an injured Chris Williams and help shore up a sputtering kick return unit.
“I’ve had some time off but I feel confident that I can help this team,” he said. “I was waiting for the call to come and I prepared for that every week. I knew it would happen fast and it happened real fast. One minute I’m getting ready to go to the grocery store, the next minute I'm headed back to the NFL. I was familiar with the Bears, and that was definitely a team I could see myself becoming a part of. Their reputation of having high quality coaches and excellent, motivated players was very appealing.”
Looking back on his quick transition back to football, Mariani has difficulty remember the details of what actually happened.
"It was a complete blur. Pack, drive to the airport, hop on the plane, then get ready to play. It was crazy."
For the former Pro Bowler, there’s no greater rush than seeing an opposing special teams unit bearing down on him.
“I know some guys say the game speeds up. For me it slows down once I have the ball. I live for that situation and savor every second. It’s a challenge to get through and move down the field but the experience of doing that is like no other. I love football and I'm so grateful to be here in this locker room right now.”
Mariani, well aware of the uncertainties in the NFL, hopes he is showing the Bears enough for him to earn a roster spot next season.
“It’s been great here so far. A super group of guys. I’m working hard to familiarize myself with the plays and with our players. I am giving this opportunity everything I have. I’ve worked to hard to get back to football and my intention is to stay in the game.”
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 17 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.