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ITHACA, N.Y. — Ed Marinaro is the most iconic athlete in Cornell sports history. Not only did he set 16 NCAA records, nearly win the Heisman Trophy, and go to the Super Bowl twice with the Minnesota Vikings, but he was also an established actor; he appeared on Laverne & Shirley, Sisters, Hill Street Blues, and Blue Mountain State. We were lucky enough to speak with him, and he reflected on his life and Cornell career.
Even though he was a star athlete, he was also just another student at Cornell. His Cornell experience, in his mind, was just like that of his peers.
“My experience was not that much different from most,” Marinaro said. “You’re trying to navigate whole new social circles with a student base of ten thousand kids. It takes a special type of student to be able to do that.”
That he was. In just his first year at Cornell with the football team, he rushed for 1,409 yards, and he averaged 5.1 yards per carry. His success only continued into his second and third year of play, when he set multiple Ivy League and NCAA records, and led Cornell to a co-Ivy League Championship in 1971.
That year, according to Marinaro, “We learned how to play together as a team. It teaches you qualities that can help you learn as an athlete. It teaches you how to overcome adversity.”
It wasn’t just about the team that year, as Marinaro was both a Cornell and national celebrity. After leading the country in running, all-purpose running, and scoring, as well as setting Ivy League records for rushing, he was named the runner-up to the Heisman Trophy; he finished behind Pat Sullivan of Auburn. Due to his celebrity status, Marinaro was no longer just an average student, and had to deal with this changed dynamic.
“It was very different for me being a celebrity on campus. I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so everyone knew who I was,” he said.
He still holds many of the Ivy League records he broke that year: yards in a career, yards in a season, single-game touchdowns, career touchdowns, and touchdowns in a season.
Marinaro was then drafted in the second round (50th overall) of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. He wasn’t sure what his professional career would shape out to be, but he knew he had a solid footing from his time at Cornell.
“There were no scholarships, so it made it harder to get into the school,” he said of getting into Cornell. “It gave me the confidence that if things didn’t work out at the next level, at least I would have a good education.”
Luckily for him, things did work out at the next level. He would play in six professional seasons; he played for the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, and Seattle Seahawks. He rushed for 1,319 yards in his career. Most notably, he played in both Super Bowls VIII and IX in 1974 and 1975. And even though the Vikings were at the wrong end of both, the opportunity was still an honor.
For him, though, he is just surprised by how much things have changed since then.
“The media coverage was different. There was not a lot of social media so most people got their news by three TV stations and the newspaper,” he said. At the time it was difficult for those he knew to see him play, but he knew the memory and experience would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Unlike many athletes, Marinaro began a successful second career as an actor.
“I started studying acting in my fourth year in the NFL,” he said. “I was unencumbered at the time and was single so I took a risk to see if I could be successful in Hollywood.”
His first role on a major television show was that of Sonny St. Jacques on Laverne & Shirley, from 1980 to 1981. His first major role was then on Hill Street Blues, where he played Officer Joe Coffey from 1981 to 1986, for 104 episodes. He appeared on 75 episodes of Sisters as Mitch Margolis, from 1991 to 1994, and in today’s pop culture, he is most known for his role as Coach Marty Daniels on Blue Mountain State. This was a role he was familiar with, and he loved that a younger generation could get exposed to his work.
“I have been around football coaches for a good part of my life. It was fun getting to play this kind of character. It was actually a dream come true. Everywhere I go, I see these sixteen-year-old kids who watch it. It is crazy, ” he said.
His success, though, in both athletics and acting, was not about accomplishing big things all at once, but taking each accomplishment one small step at a time.
“I take each task at hand. When I was a freshman I wanted to make the freshman team. Then I made varsity and my next goal was to be a starter for the varsity squad,“ he said.
He is far removed from his time at Cornell, but he still likes to follow both what is going on around the community, and Ivy League football.
“The Ivy League is very competitive and over the years teams like Harvard and Yale have dominated,” he said of the league. He also said that surprises could be in store for the Cornell squad, and went on to praise Coach David Archer. “You never know what surprises you might get from a talent perspective and who is going to emerge as a good player. It might be someone you never expected would be a great athlete. There are challenges for any coach. I think we have a great coach who embraces his philosophy.”
And for current Cornell student-athletes, Marinaro has simple advice: “It just goes by so quickly. When you move on in life and go on to live in the real world all the guys that you played with, your teammates will have a special place in your lives. It is a special experience that no one else has.”
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