He holds a distinct place in both Ivy League and NCAA history, as the first player to rush for 4,000 career yards. And 35 years later, the mere mention of Ed Marinaro's name still conjures up gridiron memories.
Ed Marinaro can pinpoint when he became famous. "Rutgers, my second varsity game," he remembers. He rushed for 245 yards, breaking Gary Woods' record of 205 yards, set in 1962 against Penn. "I had never been interviewed before," he adds.
He was not heralded as an up-and-coming star with one newspaper article even tagging him as a potential liability. A piece on the Cornell team listed "Chief Problems" as "too many inexperienced men," naming Marinaro as one of the inexperienced.
Twenty-six days later a headline blared "Marinaro Cracks Two Big Red Marks," after his record-setting performance in the Rutgers game. It would be the first of many headlines in a storied college career.
Marinaro was looking for nothing more than "making the freshman team" when he came to Cornell, having chosen it "for the Ivy League aura," despite having received more than 50 scholarship offers to play football or basketball. He says offensive coach Carmen Piccone was responsible for setting up the running-oriented offense that suited him so well. He used it to full advantage.
Two weeks after Rutgers Marinaro broke his new rushing record with a 281-yard game against Harvard, in "one of the finest football performances by a football player ever seen at [Cornell's] Schoellkopf Field," trumpeted the New York Times.
Setting a slew of NCAA, Ivy League, and team records, Marinaro also set the NCAA season rushing record with 1,881 yards in 1971, as well as the career rushing mark of 4,715 yards. He set eight NCAA career records and tied another. His 174.6 career average yardage per game is still an NCAA all-time mark.
He majored in hotel management, putting in time at the Statler Hotel on the Cornell campus. "I wanted to study business and was drawn to human resource management," Marinaro remembers. He found balancing academics and athletics challenging. "I was distracted by adulation," he says. "Neither Cornell nor I were prepared. I wish I had worked harder."
The attention culminated in the vote for the 1971 Heisman Trophy. That year he led the nation in scoring, rushing and all-purpose running, was named All-American for the third time, and won the Maxwell Award along with virtually every other major award. But he was the recipient of a negative publicity campaign when it came time to vote for the Heisman. "There are at least 15 better halfbacks... and all of them would love to play just once against Colgate or Harvard" stated a Penn State newsletter. Marinaro came in second to Auburn's Pat Sullivan, despite winning three out of five geographical regions.
Taken in the second round of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings, Marinaro went on to a six-year NFL career with the Vikings, New York Jets, and Seattle Seahawks. He did not meet with the same level of success he had in college, though he did get to play in Super Bowl VII with the Vikings in 1973. "I wasn't with the right team in the NFL. They were too conservative," he says. "I didn't get to use my talent." When he moved to the New York Jets "I went over 100 yards for two weeks in a row, then got hurt. It happens to a lot of players. You need luck," says Marinaro.
But a new career was opening up for him -- acting. "I met people through Joe Namath, who encouraged me, and spent an off-season in an acting workshop," remembers Marinaro. He moved to Los Angeles after retiring, and within a few years started landing television roles, including a stint on "Laverne and Shirley."
Then he auditioned for "Hill Street Blues." It was "supposed to be for four episodes, then [my character] would die. But they liked my relationship with Betty Thomas (who played Officer Lucy Bates in the show)," he says. Marinaro would go on to play Officer Joe Coffey for five seasons. Interestingly he volunteered to have his character die in the show and, in an episode entitled "Iced Coffey," his character was killed while interrupting a variety store robbery. Even so, he values what "Hill Street Blues" did for his acting career. "It gave me credibility as an actor. There's still a stigma attached as an athlete."
Marinaro's made dozens of television and movie appearances since then, and is currently "working on a production company to make small budget movies to appeal to the AARP-baby boomer generation. I've met with AARP Executive Director (and former Penn football great) Bill Novelli on this." He's not interested in sports broadcasting, though. "Early on I did a Viking-Bears game for ESPN," he recalls. "I didn't like being on the periphery of something I was once in the center of."
This past season Harvard's Clifton Dawson eclipsed his Ivy career rushing record. "Nobody likes to see his record broken," Marinaro says, "but I was rooting like heck for him. The record stood for 35 years, and it was a different time."
"I'm most proud of being an Ivy athlete," he concludes. "You're there because you want to be there."
— Stephen Eschenbach