One play in October underscored the violence of football as much as any this season for Stanford.
Of course it involved Owen Marecic.
The Cardinal junior fullback was the recipient of a helmet-to-helmet hit after catching a pass on the sideline near Arizona State's end zone. His helmet went flying after the collision.
Parents Jeff and Maryfran Marecic let out a gasp — like many of those who witnessed the play at Stanford Stadium. But their son picked himself off the turf smiling.
"We could see he wasn't hurt," Jeff Marecic recalled.
This season, Marecic has been putting the hurt on opponents as the main blocking back for record-setting rusher Toby Gerhart. Marecic has become a West Coast football folk hero not only for his bone-chilling blocks but also because he has played some defense since starting linebacker Clinton Snyder was lost to a season-ending injury.
The energetic two-way player with straggly blond hair has been described as the heart and soul of the Cardinal (8-4), which will meet Oklahoma on Thursday in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
For all the attention Stanford's high-octane offense has received, Marecic has made few headline plays, carrying the ball seven times for 14 yards and scoring three touchdowns. (He also has one touchdown receiving.) But he's the guy who makes the big plays happen.
"He just stones people," Gerhart once said. "And he's never satisfied unless he pummels the guy."
Yet for all the helmet-popping mayhem he unleashes on a football field, Marecic is not a violent fellow.
"It's more of a matter of physics to him than one of power," Jeff Marecic said. "It's not about the big hit."
Perhaps not, but the player from Tigard, Ore., has become a big hit with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. When the former NFL quarterback arrived in Palo Alto in 2007, he began instilling toughness in his program. No player embodies the coach's style more than Marecic (pronounced Mar-EE-sick).
"In 30 years of being around football and football teams, I've never seen a guy like this," Harbaugh said.
The coach likes to say Marecic cleans up anything in the path of the Cardinal backs. The player says, "I'm just playing football."
Playing the game his way, however, raises questions about concussions and head injuries, one of football's most troubling subjects these days. The Marecics have followed the growing body of research about possible long-term effects of minor collisions on the field.
"Head-to-head contact is a pretty serious matter," said Jeff Marecic, who also once played football.
He takes heart knowing his son masters proper blocking techniques instead of trying to use brute strength to overpower an opponent. Marecic, a human biology major who might consider medical school, has reflected on what the stresses of football do to the body.
"What is really interesting is the body seems to adapt to it," he said. "More than anything, your body's ability to adapt to your environment, such a violent environment, is something special."
Marecic shows little sign of concern about the possibility that his powerful hits — he has cracked three helmets since playing at Stanford — could have consequences.
"I'll find out later on down the road," he said. "I feel great right now, which is all you can ask for."
Marecic's matter-of-fact approach hasn't changed since he played at Jesuit High in Portland, Ore. He played quarterback as a freshman at Agoura Hills High in Southern California until the family moved to Oregon in 2004.
Jesuit coach Ken Potter turned him into a linebacker/fullback. Potter, for one, isn't surprised that his protégé has emerged as a rare two-way player this season. In the age of specialization, Marecic started at fullback and linebacker against Oregon. Mostly, though, he has filled in on defense for only a few plays.
"Owen Marecic is the best complete player I've ever coached in high school," said Potter, who has been at Jesuit for 23 years.
Harbaugh couldn't agree more.
"I just love him," he said.