Wiedmer: Titans' receiver Mariani almost back to normal (with video)

Wiedmer: Titans' receiver Mariani almost back to normal (with video)

May 9th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Titans wide receiver Marc Mariani signs a football as Titans Radio personalities Rhett Bryan, left, and Mike Keith look on Wednesday at The Academy in Hixson.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

It's been nearly six weeks since Louisville reserve guard Kevin Ware fell to the basketball court in total agony on Easter afternoon, his right tibia snapped in two and sticking through his skin during a Midwest Regional final win over Duke.

But for Tennessee Titans wide receiver and kick returner Marc Mariani, it seems like yesterday, perhaps because he suffered almost exactly the same injury to his left tibia last August during an exhibition game against Arizona.

"Because I was taped up, the public didn't see the bone," he said Wednesday afternoon during the Titans Caravan stop at the Academy sporting goods store in Hixson. "But I saw it."

Nearly nine months later, Mariani is just now returning to something close to normal, finally running routes this past week, though still a month or more removed from contact.

"The minute I saw it [Ware's injury], I knew exactly what he was in for," the fourth-year pro continued. "The tibia is a brutal bone to break."

Last season was another brutal one for the Titans, their 6-10 record keeping them out of the playoffs for a fourth straight winter.

In what is surely his last, best attempt to save his own coaching career, Mike Munchak reached out to former Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- the disgraced former New Orleans Saints assistant most often linked to Bounty-gate -- to help stiffen a defense that surrendered 30 or more points seven times and ranked 27th in yards allowed.

"You should see him in meetings," said linebacker Colin McCarthy, who was injured much of last season, of Williams. "That will get you fired up. I think you'll see us bring lots of blitzes, lots of disguises."

There is no disguising the enthusiasm of Mike Keith, the longtime Voice of the Titans, as he discusses the season ahead.

"I have never been this excited about a draft," said Keith of the team's four SEC picks, including first-round lineman Chance Warmack from Alabama and second-round wideout Justin Hunter from Tennessee.

"Throw in 12 free agents and nine coaches who are either new or at different positions and I don't think there's any question we're going to be better, much better."

It took six months for Mariani to get enough better to simply jog. But just returning to Chattanooga -- the site of some of his best individual moments during a Montana career that saw the Griz lose twice in the I-AA title game at Finley Stadium -- seemed to make his outlook better.

"I loved that stadium," he said. "Some of my best college memories were in this town, even though we lost. Two of the best games of my whole career were here."

Indeed, in back-to-back title game appearances in 2008 and 2009, Mariani caught a total of 16 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown.

"We went to the Aquarium both years," he said. "It was amazing. This whole town is just a very cool place."

September, October and November were very cold months emotionally for Mariani after the injury. His teammates were struggling, and all he could do was watch.

"You just felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Yet the Titans Nation never let Mariani down.

Said Keith: "You have to understand that Marc's probably one of the five most popular players on the team. I did a total of 53 sessions with our fans the past few months and in every one of them one of the first questions I was asked was about Mariani."

Backing that up, the player said he'd received "Thousands" of cards and emails.

"Every time I'd finally empty out my mailbox it would fill up again," he said. "The fans have been amazing."

Yet his most cherished gift during his recovery came from former Titans wideout Derrick Mason.

"It's Leonardo, one of the [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles," Mariani said. "Every day during my rehab I'd get him out. He was my mascot."

Mariani smiled easily as he spoke. The worst is over for him. Life will soon be back to normal, or as he perfectly described it, "I'm trying to get back something that took me 25 years to build."

But he also knows that 150 miles up the road in Louisville that same recovery process is just beginning for the national champion Cardinals' Ware.

"We're both part of the Joe Theismann Club," said Mariani, referring to the former Washington Redskins quarterback who suffered the compound fracture of all compound fractures in his final NFL game.

"No one wants to be in that club, but we're both in it now. But Joe reached out to me, and I've tried to reach out to [Ware] a little bit. You just hope he knows he can make it back."

You just hope Ware's got a mascot as powerful as Leonardo.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.