Ed Marinaro: The Only Person Cooler than Marty Daniels
What could be cooler than being Coach Marty Daniels, the iconic character from the show of our generation, “Blue Mountain State?” What could possibly be cooler than gaining nearly 5,000 yards from scrimmage in a legendary three-year career as an All-American running back for the Cornell Big Red? What about getting drafted by the Minnesota Vikings? How about playing in two Super Bowls? What could beat winning an Emmy award?
Before my conversation with Ed Marinaro, I knew him only for those accomplishments. However, I’ve been fortunate to learn about how his worker’s mentality and humble attitudes helped him to develop a lifestyle defined by a plethora of talents and a commitment to values of honesty and effort. I was first exposed to Ed Marinaro the same way most people my age were: Blue Mountain State. With a whistle held hostage between his teeth and a visor perched proudly atop his head, Coach Marty Daniels made his way into America’s living room one pregame speech at a time.
My second experience with Ed Marinaro would have left me satisfied for the rest of my life. When I was fifteen, I jumped into the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Day for the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. That year, I wanted to do more than make a splash. I wanted to be remembered. So I did what any teenager in 2015 would do. I sprinted towards the frozen Atlantic with “Blue Mountain State” painted on my chest. As they say, the rest is history. Two months later, this showed up at my door:
It still hangs in my room to this day.
However, forty years before, he rushed his way into America’s living room. On Saturdays, he dominated the Ivy League. 52 touchdowns later, he found himself in contention for the Heisman trophy and on his way to the NFL. Playing his way to two Super Bowls, Ed Marinaro earned every moment of his six-year NFL career.
Every year, an additional 300 people can say they made it to the NFL. With every pilot episode aired on some forgotten network, a new handful of people can call themselves a “successful actor.” However, in three years’ time, how many of these players will still be trotting proudly onto an NFL field every Sunday? How many of these actors will get to say their pilot episodes turned int o a full series? The answer to that question is, not many. An average man becomes a great when he is remembered for what he has accomplished at the highest level of his field. A great man becomes a legend when he is remembered for how and why he accomplished his feats. Ed Marinaro did not just survive in the ultra-competitive worlds of the NFL and Hollywood. He can proudly reflect on two careers that were built with one strategy: Take life one day at a time. Each day, defined by sweat and drive, has added to his legacy.
My third experience with Ed Marinaro is one I never imagined having. In one of the most surreal phone calls of my life, Ed Marinaro gave me the answers to the questions that I’ve always had.
RC: Being a Cornell football player is something that not many people get to experience. What does that title mean to you now compared to what it meant to you as a player?
EM: I was a young guy and I was very much focused on the challenges of football. It was the training, the winning, and the focus that was required to play on a team. It was something that obviously at the time, you’re not thinking of how you’ll feel forty years from now. So it was more about in-the-moment types of memories I’m sure most people would experience in the same situation. Looking back at my experience as a Cornell football player, what’s important to me now are my ex-teammates and everyone I associated with as a Cornell football player. The amount of these people that are still in my life after so many years speaks to the power of those relationships.
RC: Athletes coming out of the Ivy League have long been criticized for their strength of schedule. The NFL and NCAA may be the only two places an Ivy League education is seen as a disadvantage. Even during your Heisman-caliber season, you weren’t spared from this criticism. As you know, Penn State published a newsletter not just attacking the Ivy League, but also attacking you personally. “There are at least 15 better halfbacks…and all of them would love to play just once against Colgate — or Harvard.” How does this sit with you now as opposed to how it did when it was first published?
EM: I think that I was very aware of the feelings of the country. I was aware of how sports fans and sports writers viewed what I was doing in college. It varied among certain sections of the country. I had a considerable amount of support in the Northeast. Obviously, that differed if you asked the big schools out west or people in the Big Ten conference because, at the time, people didn’t really know what to make of what I was doing. Believe me, I never expected to achieve what I did in college. I didn’t have very high expectations. I wasn’t surprised, but everything really fell in place for me when I got to Cornell. They changed the offense — not necessarily to accommodate me — but it just really seemed to fit my style. But you know what? The only thing that I can say is that people might have been critical of me, but I did have a six-year NFL career. Which is longer than most guys coming from the bigger schools because throughout my career, I beat out a lot of guys from big-time schools. It’s kind of irrelevant because we played the same caliber of football as Jerry Rice and Walter Payton did in college. History shows that you can’t necessarily measure a player by the competition he plays against because at that age, they rise to the level of play on the field. They don’t know how much more they have in that tank until they’re challenged. It’s just something that people enjoy writing about. It was like I was like I was some sort of contradiction, being an Ivy League football player. The irony of it all is that they’re criticizing me, but two years earlier, Calvin Hill was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of Yale and became the Rookie of the Year. The Ivy League has always had a really high history of great football players going on to play professionally. It was an interesting debate at the time. At that stage in my career, I was confident, but it wasn’t easy having to prove myself to people that weren’t expecting me to be as successful as I wanted to be. But I got through it. I got through it. There’s been a stigma attached to Ivy League football players that even exists to this day because with all due respect, I don’t think that in the NFL, the Ivy League athlete fits into the culture of professional sports. I think that people have a preconceived notion of who you are as an Ivy League guy. They don’t quite know how to talk to you. When you get to that level, it can be intimidating to a lot of people — players and coaches. To be honest, they think you’re smarter than they are. It sounds kind of funny because, obviously, it’s not really true. It’s just that they’re uncomfortable with you. They don’t know how to interact with you. It’s sort of subtle, but it’s true. You have to overcome certain things just because you’re an Ivy League guy. It’s something I’m very proud of. Now, I never felt like I was the smartest guy in the room, but I had to overcome that to a certain extent. It’s easy to be critical of someone like that. People didn’t want to believe that you could be smart and a really good athlete too. We repeatedly prove them wrong. The Ivy League produces great athletes like Kenny Dryden, Bill Bradley, and the list goes on and on. I’m proud to be part of that whole legacy.
RC: Staying on the topic of Penn State, I understand you were heavily recruited there. Given they are a blue chip, national championship contender, what factors lead you to Cornell?
EM: Well, I probably had about 40 scholarship offers to play football. In fact, I had a couple [of] basketball scholarships back in the day. I’ve been asked that question many times. Even at that young age, there was something about getting to go to an Ivy League school…if I could get in to one. I knew that would be more valuable. I never thought about playing pro football. All I wanted to do was make the freshman football team when I got to Cornell. And the next year, I wanted to make the varsity team. Then, I wanted to be a starter, first string, on the varsity team. I kind of took it one step at a time. So, when I went to college, I wasn’t thinking about whether or not this was the best road to the NFL. What’s the best road to the NFL? I just knew that an Ivy League education was something that would be mine forever. It wasn’t even close.
RC: I think everyone would agree that Cornell was the right decision. If you were to go to Penn State, you would have had to join a committee of running backs that included two in your class year: Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris. As the three of you developed through college and prepared to enter the NFL, did you ever find yourself comparing your career to theirs, considering you could have been teammates?
EM: Franco and I are friends. So is Lydell. I text with Franco during the holidays. He’s been a friend. Lydell’s the same. He’s just a good, solid guy. When we see each other, we’ll occasionally laugh about that. You know what I always tell people? I say, “Had I gone there that same year with Lydell and Franco, one of us wasn’t going to play.” And I didn’t assume it wasn’t going to be me that was playing. It’s a lesson in life. When I was thinking about college, I don’t know if I was consciously thinking about this: When you’re going to college, you’re looking to go somewhere you’re going to play. You want to play. It’s no fun being second string. It’s no fun being on the bench. I advise kids that if you want to be a pro football player, you can do it coming out of any school. Go someplace you’re going to play. Be a star. Being first string at Cornell is better than being second string at Ohio State. If you’re good — especially if you’re good coming out of high school — you’re going to be on their radar. They’ll follow you anywhere you go to college if you have pro aspirations. To me, it’s a mistake if you’re picking a college because you want to play pro football. You’re priorities are a little bit messed up.
RC: Well, thankfully, I don’t have that problem.
EM: Laughs, loudly.
RC: Obviously, Blue Mountain State is near and dear to my heart. One of my proudest accomplishments is that I watched every single episode during the span of Thanksgiving weekend, 2014. That is a very teenaged sentence. In a show with such an overwhelmingly young cast and target audience, did you ever get the sense that you could let loose and act like a teenager for a little while? In other words, did it every serve as a fun escape from adulthood?
EM: Obviously, my character had to have a certain amount of authority as an actor. But I will tell you I really enjoyed doing it. The subject matter was fun. It was just a fun show to do. Anytime you do comedy, it’s just fun. I don’t think I’d want to do a drama after doing this. Comedy is just so much more fun to do. Working with a bunch of young guys kept me on my toes. It was just an overall great experience. It’s still remarkable how the show’s fan base has grown. The first year we were on was 2010. That’s eight years ago. My son is fifteen and a half; I just went to his lacrosse game. He had a game this weekend and these kids from the other team recognized me and I had my picture taken with every single kid on the team. These kids were 15, 16 and 17 years old. When the show started, they weren’t even old enough to watch it. Now with Netflix, it’s just the gift that keeps on giving. The pipeline of fans keeps growing.
RC: During the filming of the show, were you treated with a certain amount of deference when the creators of the show would choreograph practices? Was it hard to not nitpick the authenticity of the football that was being put on screen?
EM: The fun part of filmmaking is being able to create something that looks like something. It’s acting. For a lot of the football practice stuff, we had stunt people doing it. A lot of the guys played on this junior college football team — we shot it up in Montreal. They would do what they did every day in practice. They would ask me certain questions about stuff, and if I saw something that could be more authentic, I would say something. They were little things. I could probably watch some of the shows again and point out times when I said, “Why don’t you do this? It will look better. Or do this.” That was fun. It was fun being able to make it look real. If it didn’t look real, I would let them know it didn’t look real. I would probably do it in a subtle way, but it would get noticed. I think it resonated subtly with people. You see shows sometimes where it’s just not believable. Some of the more discerning people would be able to look and say, “Well that didn’t look right. That’s not how it happened.” That small contribution on my part just made it a little more special.
RC: BMS makes college football seem like nirvana and heaven mixed into one. Before cell phones and social media, was being a college football player like the Wild West?
EM: Well, Blue Mountain State was a caricature of college craziness. It was the craziest part of the college experience and being an athlete. It was crazy. What we portrayed doesn’t happen everyday on college campuses. The show was crazy every day. That’s what everybody loved about it. Nobody studied. It resonated with college kids because we created a fantasy college. It was certainly about escapism for that generation. I think what made the show special was that is was very clever. It was typical, in-your-face, Animal House stuff. But there are so many clever things in that show you might not notice. You might not see how they make it special, but it is. After you get into this business, you never look at anything in television or movies the same way. You adopt a critical eye. you never totally get involved in what you’re watching. I’m always watching things from behind a camera. I only see the camera. What I think made Blue Mountain State so popular was the cleverness of it. There were so many funny, clever things about it. That’s unique for a show that targets a young male audience — and female. I met a lot of young girls who loved the show too, which was kind of crazy.
RC: Very few people are fortunate enough to have the experience of winning an Emmy award and be drafted into the NFL. However, very few people also know what it feels like to be cut from an NFL team and have a successful TV show cancelled. Considering that unique combination, what about your character and experiences do you think played the biggest role in your success?
EM: I have lived a great life. I don’t want to say it was a privileged life because it wasn’t. I made choices in my life that worked out well. I had a lot of luck, a lot of luck. Which is what life is all about. I got lucky in so many ways. Going back to things that we discussed, I chose Cornell. I could have gone to another school and my life would have been totally different. I think that I was somewhat unlucky getting drafted by the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t know what they were thinking. I didn’t do anything that fit into their system. Franco (Harris) [is] a great running back, but he was in a system that really fit him. I could have been as effective as him. I really believe that. I came there as a runner, and they turned me into a blocker and pass receiver. I loved being in Minnesota. I played in two Super Bowls. But it’s an example of why you need to be in the right place at the right time. There are so many players that we’ll never know. You really only hear about how being “in the right place at the right time” benefits people. This is an example of how it can negatively affect someone. Who could say if I would have been better in another system? You can see this with a guy like Tom Brady. He was on the bench, but then Drew Bledsoe gets hurt and he gets to go in. The rest is history. If you’re a second string quarterback for four years, by the time the fifth year rolls around, they may think about drafting a new guy and letting you go. It’s a timing thing and there’s a lot of luck to it. My life has been made by a mental approach that I couldn’t even define. People ask me to speak at certain corporate things and I tell them that I’m not a motivational speaker. There are people that try to motivate. I tell my story and if people can relate to it, they may be motivated. I don’t speak like, “This is my way. This is how you have to do it. Do it this way.” You can’t explain success in life. You can try to explain it, but it’s not always what you did. It’s what life did. I try to teach my son that life is not fair and that there’s no such thing as good luck or bad luck. Good luck can turn out bad and bad luck can turn out good. You have to stay present and stay focused on the task at hand. It works out. I had ups and downs, doubt, and tough times my whole life, even as an athlete. For me, it was trying to stay positive, stay honest with myself, and believing in myself. Things will hopefully happen.
RC: Who’s the best teammate you ever played with?
EM: This is going to sound obvious, but the guy who influenced me the most at that time in my life was Joe Namath
RC: Is Alex Moran an elite quarterback?
EM: Laughs, loudly. I think he has the potential to be an elite quarterback, but I think he needs to get focused. I don’t think he wants it badly enough. He has the physical talent, but he’s not hungry enough.