POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 30, 2011
Even considering the high standards he holds himself to, Marc Mariani may have outdone himself this time.
Seventh-round draft picks out of FCS colleges generally have a hard enough time just making an NFL roster. But to close out his rookie season with the Tennessee Titans with a spot in the Pro Bowl?
"I couldn't have imagined it," Mariani said. "It's on a whole other level."
On an AFC roster that includes several of the NFL's most recognizable names, Mariani's is one that might require a second look at the roster.
This time last year, he was coming off an appearance in the FCS national championship game as a standout wide receiver at Montana and hoping for a shot to break into the league.
The Titans selected him with the 222nd pick in last year's draft. He didn't catch a pass in his first season, but earned a job as a kick returner and led the league with 1,530 yards and 42 returns of more than 20 yards.
He scored his first touchdown as a pro on a 98-yard kickoff return against Denver. He also returned a punt 87 yards for a score against Washington.
Not bad for a guy who had to walk on at Montana before earning All-Big Sky honors.
"For me, all I wanted was an opportunity," Mariani said, "and now I'm here and I could never have dreamed it.
"I have high expectations for myself, I set my goals extremely high. But the Pro Bowl was even out of my realm."
While the big-name college programs remain well-represented on the rosters — Miami (Fla.) alone has eight players in the game — coming from a small school is part of the fun for Mariani, who said he'll have about 100 friends and family members in town from Montana for today's game.
And spending a week surrounded by guys who've established themselves among the elite is part of his continuing education.
"To be able to learn from these guys and pick their brains on some stuff on how to be successful, there's not a whole lot of better guys to ask than this crew out here," Mariani said.
Austin lands in Hawaii
It's been a whirlwind couple of days for Dallas receiver Miles Austin.
Austin had been spending the winter back on the East Coast and was visiting ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., when he received a phone call on Thursday inviting him to the Pro Bowl. He arrived in Honolulu on Friday afternoon and participated in the NFC's final practice yesterday.
"Fresh legs," Austin said.
Even with the late notice, with the prospect of leaving the East Coast chill behind, "it didn't take any convincing" to get him on a plane to Hawaii.
Austin was a late addition to the NFC roster when Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson pulled out due to injury. Minnesota linebacker E.J. Henderson and Denver cornerback Champ Bailey also received last-minute invitations.
Austin is in the process of setting up a foundation and had a first meeting scheduled when he received his second Pro Bowl berth.
"I guess I had a pretty good reason to end up missing that meeting," he said.
The Aloha Stadium parking gates will open at 9:30 a.m. today. The fees are $10 per car and $25 per bus/limousine. Alternate parking is available at Radford High School ($5, no shuttle) and Ford Island (free, shuttle included, opens at 10 a.m.).
The turnstile gates open at 11 a.m.