wen Marecic distinguished himself at Stanford as the only two-way starter in major college football. Now he’s doing it again in the Stem Cell Institute, where two years into his research, he has already been first author on a potential game-changing medical paper.
“I felt like it was time to climb a different mountain,’’ said Marecic ’10, who graduated with a 3.8 grade point average in human biology.
Working with mice in the laboratory, Marecic and his team discovered skeletal stem cells that form the bone or cartilage or bone marrow, and could be responsible for how an injury of the bone heals. The name of the paper is, “Identification and characterization of an injury-induced skeletal progenitor.”
“That’s a pretty sophisticated hypothesis,” said Professor Michael T. Longaker, an MD and Co-Director at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine at Stanford, who mentors Marecic. “Not only did he do it, he designed the experiments with the team, was able to get the results, wrote and revised the paper, and it was published in one of the top medical journals. That’s a pretty remarkable two-year journey.”
Marecic has always thrived on challenges. Currently completing pre-med classes during the day at San Francisco State and working in the stem lab at night, often until 3 or 4 in the morning, he has demonstrated the same work ethic, passion, attention to detail and humility that made him special in football. He is leaning toward becoming an orthopedic surgeon and and will apply for medical school next year.
“Becoming a doctor has always been in the back of my mind,” Marecic said. “I think one of the big wakeup calls was having the opportunity to play in the NFL and seeing a lot of guys who were pretty young – in their early 30s – who suffered orthopedic injuries, which in the game of football is the norm. While a lot of guys can come back pretty quickly, repeated traumas in the locker room was really a wakeup call for me. This direction in medicine is really one that I want to pursue.”
Those who know him have little doubt he will succeed.
Jim Harbaugh, his former head coach at Stanford, once called him “the perfect football player.” Marecic was a relentless, hard-working overachiever whose actions always spoke louder than his words.
After clearing the path for running back Toby Gerhart and protecting quarterback Andrew Luck in his first three seasons, Marecic blossomed as a senior, starting at fullback and inside linebacker. For many, his biggest achievement was scoring touchdowns on both sides of the ball in a 13-second span as Stanford routed Notre Dame 37-14 for its first road victory in the series since 1992.
What Marecic remembers most is the victory.
“To be honest, it never really sunk in,” he said of his personal accomplishment. “Winning at that stadium was huge goal of ours and it meant a lot. In that way, it was exciting and relief as a player.”
The first touchdown came on a 1-yard dive. On the second score, he intercepted a pass and returned it 20 yards.
“Everyone was kind of shocked when they saw the flowing blond hair cross the goal line,” said starting center Sam Schwartzstein. “It was exciting and everyone on the bench was saying, ‘Didn’t we just do this?’ There were some great plays in that game, but that was definitely the cap moment.”
Sparked by Luck, Stanford finished 12-1 and defeated Virginia Tech, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl. Marecic was First Team All-Pac-10, finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy balloting, receiving three first-place votes, and won the Paul Hornung Award, presented to the most versatile player in college football.
“I’ve never seen a guy work so hard and never get tired,” said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football and Marecic’s offensive coordinator, who lifted him off the ground when he returned to the sideline after the interception against Notre Dame. “He could go all day and play both sides of the ball and never show any wear or tear.”
More than once, Shaw went into the office of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and expressed concern they were playing him too much.
“Are we doing something bad?” Shaw said. “Is this wrong? Because I just watched a guy play 100 plays in a game and never pull himself out. But then in the fourth quarter, he’s just as fresh as he was in the first quarter. I’d never heard of that before.”
Neither had Fangio.
“I think the one thing people don’t know about him is he was a pretty fierce competitor and extremely tough, and if somebody tried to challenge him with a little extra business in any way, shape or form, in practice or in a game, he was coming back right at them,” said Fangio, now the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears. “He had that nice, controlled mean streak in him that when somebody ignited it, it was there.”
Fangio often tried to rest Marecic during practice, but he refused. When he sent in a sub, Marecic chased him away.
“I don’t think there are many guys who could do what he did from an emotional and mental toughness standpoint, more so than the physical part of it,” Fangio said. “He just never caved in.”
Marecic cracked more than one helmet during his time at Stanford.
“If it wasn’t common knowledge, you always had a sneaking suspicion that if you were to go against him in practice, some sort of equipment would be falling off, whether it would be an ear pad flying out of your helmet or something else,” Schwartzstein said. “You knew the way Owen hit was different than anyone else.”
Luck, now a star with the Indianapolis Colts, said Marecic was admired by every player.
“Owen was highly, highly respected,” he said. “As a teammate, he was great and you knew he had your back. His work ethic was incredible, he kept his mouth shut and was a lead-by-example type of guy. But when he spoke to the team, which was rare, he had a point to make and you listened. He gave a 110 percent every play. He was special.”
A fourth-round pick and the 124th overall player selected in the 2011 NFL Draft by Cleveland, he played two seasons with the Browns, mostly as a blocking back, then rejoined Harbaugh with the 49ers in 2013 for one season. By then, Marecic was ready for a new challenge.
“The most remarkable thing about Owen is that he has taken that discipline and desire on the gridiron, then had the courage to say, ‘I want to be a physician,’ and that requires a totally different skill set,’’ said Longaker. “A professional athlete that goes to the bottom of the rack, where you feel like you’re in everyone’s way.”
Longaker knows about character. He played point guard at Michigan State and backed up All-American Magic Johnson in 1979 when the Spartans defeated Larry Bird-led Indiana State to win the NCAA title.
“There’s that whole perfect player thing, but that was one one-thousandth of him,” Longaker said. “That was imposed on him but it doesn’t define him. I have great respect for him that he just took that in stride. And now, in the Stem Cell Institute, no one cares. It’s like, ‘Marecic, where’s the data?’ ’’
So much, in fact, there is wall of fame outside Longaker’s office reserved for published papers and a place is saved for Marecic.
Not that Marecic is perfect.
“As clumsy as he is in the lab, I don’t know what Harbaugh was thinking,” said Longaker. “He’s broken more beakers than anyone on the team.”
Joshua Garnett and Michael Rector, senior starters on the football team, are also majoring in human biology and spent part of the summer working in the stem cell lab with Marecic.
“In football, you would hear all these stories like, Owen Marecic would wake up at midnight, couldn’t sleep and would just go lift. And then you go in the lab and he’s wearing gloves and a lab coat and just joking around, doing surgery on mice. The guys are talking to him like he’s a regular guy. I’m like, ‘Wow, man, do you guys know who that is?’"
» Joshua Garnett
Marecic wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I would always say as a player, I wanted to be defined or thought of as more than just an athlete,” said Marecic. “That’s one of the best things about coming to Stanford. You truly are a student-athlete and have a lot of opportunities outside athletics where you can really try and make a difference.”
Marecic is grateful for contacts and connections he made at Stanford. He remains close to many former teammates and attends home games.
“It’s had a bigger impact on me than I thought and has opened a lot of doors personally, just having the confidence or knowing of how to start the next step,” Marecic said. “A lot of the lessons I learned about myself from playing football are applicable beyond that as well.”
Not that studying to become a physician has come easily.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” said Marecic. “I knew there would be times when guys went back to training camp and as we say, long nights in the lab. I just think it has taken a commitment I was ready for.”
So does Longaker.
“One thing I’ve noticed in my 15 years here is that Stanford student-athletes thrive in not being pigeonholed,” he said. “Whereas an experience at another college, mine for example, you felt strange bringing books on trips. Here, it’s pretty typical.”
Marecic grew up in Portland, Oregon and nearly attended West Point.
Owen Marecic and Dr. Michael T. Longaker
“I think a lot about how things have worked out,” said Marecic. “The team I walked into at the time. We knew there was a lot of energy when Coach Harbaugh was recruiting us and we knew that there was something going on. I don’t know if we fully realized how far we could go with it.”
In 2006, the year before Harbaugh and Marecic arrived, Stanford went 1-11. Slowly but surely, the culture changed and the team improved to 5-7, 8-5 and then 12-1. In 2010, the Cardinal finished as the fourth-ranked team in the country in the AP poll.
“What we did on the football field was great and is something we will always have as a group and team,” said Marecic. “But it’s kind of funny walking around campus because everybody here has a story like that, where they’ve done something great or overcame something great to be here. It’s pretty humbling and inspiring.”
The same can be said of Marecic.
“One thing that has always struck me about Owen and his character, you meet a lot of nice people, but Owen always stuck to what he was going to do,” Schwartzstein said. “If I’m going to be a great fullback, I’m going to have to do all this extra work. And that’s just what he did. When he has his mind set to something, there’s really nothing that can get him off it.”
Marecic has already inspired Garnett.
“Just seeing Owen in there, being a great football player and excelling in science and in the lab was really humbling and encouraging to me,” he said. “It’s saying, ‘You can do it.’ If I work hard, I can be just like Owen and do the things he’s doing.”
Longaker has never seen a student in the stem cell program advance so quickly without a science background. Then again, Marecic has always been driven.
“I think he has a calling,” he said. “He broke a lot of bones and now he’s trying to fix them.”
» Michael T. Longaker