Grit and Passion Are Guiding Gophers LB Mariano Sori-Marin Toward His NFL Dream

Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin’s earliest football memories involved barbed wire tattoos, big hits and toughness.

Sori-Marin, a Chicago native, vividly remembers watching Chicago Bears star linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs each week. Urlacher and Briggs’ relentless playing styles influenced the former Gopher linebacker’s early passion for football. 

“Growing up as a kid from Chicago, just always watching Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs back when the Bears used to be good was kind of when I started to really fall in love with the game. Especially with their style of football,” Sori-Marin said. “They are old-school linebackers, particularly Brian Urlacher. Hitting people, the barbed wire tattoo, all of that. That’s kind of when I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

Sori-Marin took Bears games very seriously, even when he was five years old. The young football fan put on his toy Chicago Bears helmet and watched every minute of action. Sori-Marin’s father, Mariano Sori-Marin II, said tears occasionally flowed when the Bears lost to their biggest rival – the Green Bay Packers. 

“He was mesmerized just watching the football game,” Sori-Marin II said. “He would take it very hard when the Bears lost, especially when they lost to the Packers. I would always say, don’t worry about it, they’ll play again. He used to always say, one of these days, when I grow up, I’m going to play for the Bears and help them beat the Packers.”

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Sori-Marin couldn’t wait to put on his own pads. The local tackle football league typically did not let players participate until they were nine years old. However, Mariano was an exception. He convinced his mother, Katrina, to sign him up a year early. 

“My mom was like, maybe we should put you in flag. I was like, I don’t want to play flag football, I want to hit people,” Sori-Marin said. “Linebacker was the first position that I actually started playing and as the years went on, the faster kids in youth football end up moving to running back and playing receiver, so I got away from the defensive side for a while. But at heart, I always knew that I was a linebacker, but you do what your team asks you. And then senior year of high school was the next time I played linebacker. The rest is history.”

Remembering his Cuban Heritage 

Sori-Marin doesn’t take the game of football for granted though. He always remembers the sacrifices his family members made while fleeing Cuba for the United States. In 1959, Mariano’s great uncle, Humberto Sori Marín, served as minister of agriculture under president Fidel Castro’s administration. 

Humberto developed agrarian reform laws, but eventually resigned when communist ideals infiltrated the initiative. Sori Marín fled for Miami and was a key figure in the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Shortly after the invasion failed, Humberto was captured and executed by firing squad. 

Mariano’s grandfather, Mariano I and the entire family, including Mariano II, left Cuba for the United States in 1967. Unlike most Cubans, the Sori-Marin’s settled in Kentucky instead of Miami. It marked the beginning of a new lifestyle for Mariano II, the former Gopher linebacker’s father. 

“My dad (Mariano I) had special status and so he was able to get out with the family and come over to the United States. Just given the past with my dad and his family – being pro-Castro, then anti-Castro – we did not settle down where all Cubans settled down and came over, which was Miami and south Florida,” Sori-Marin II said. “We stayed away from all of the noise and came to Kentucky. And that’s where my dad and my mother raised me and my sister.”

The Sori-Marín family arrived in Kentucky with an overnight bag. They did not know any English and had no family or friends in the area. Mariano Sori-Marin I, a former doctor in Cuba, eventually earned his United States medical licenses and became a doctor at the VA hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, for almost 25 years. Sori-Marin II, who was three years old when the family first arrived in America, earned a degree from Indiana University. 

“I always tell people, I think there were only four Cubans in Kentucky when I grew up there. That would be my mom, my dad, me, and my sister,” Sori-Marin II said. “We came over with literally nothing. Literally an overnight bag. Not only that, but had to grow up where there were no Cubans, you don’t know the language, where there are no families and friends. It just makes it harder. If you grow in a community of Cubans if you go to Miami, it’s much easier to assimilate.”

While attending Indiana University, Sori-Marin II met his wife, Katrina, a Chicago native. The couple eventually moved back to Chicago, got married and raised Mariano and their daughter Analiese there. Sori-Marin II has now worked in the accounting industry for more than 34 years. Decades later, Sori-Marin II said the Sori Marín family name remains synonymous with politics in Cuba. 

“Believe it or not, the Sori Marín name in Cuba was almost like the equivalent of the Kennedy family here in the United States,” Sori-Marin II said. “A lot of people in politics, a very well-known family.”

As Sori-Marin looks back upon his family’s Cuban history, he appreciates the freedoms and opportunities that are available in America. The former Gophers linebacker is thankful he can even pursue his childhood dream of playing in the NFL. 

“To just have the opportunity to live here – that’s what makes you proud to be an American. Proud to have the freedoms and opportunities that you have. And I talk about it all the time – my life for the majority has been playing a game and there’s not a lot of places in the world where you get to do that,” Sori-Marin said. “It is cool to be able to play a game on a daily basis with a group of guys who come from all walks of life and in between the lines, it doesn’t matter where you came from or who you are, it just matters about the love and sacrifices that you pour into the teammate next to you.”

Life in the Big Ten 

Sori-Marin became an impact linebacker while playing high school football at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois. However, since Mariano missed time with injuries as a sophomore and junior, he had limited film available for colleges. 

Mariano was only hearing from Ivy League schools until Minnesota became his lone Power 5 offer. Once Sori-Marin learned about head coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers’ program, he wasted no time committing. The young linebacker immediately fell in love with the culture, coaching staff and campus. 

“During the recruiting process I was looking at schools specifically in the Ivy League. Harvard and Yale, those are just names. You look at the name Harvard and Yale, you don’t know anything about it, but you just hear that name and you know what it is,” Sori-Marin said. “But when I think of the University of Minnesota, I think of the people. I think of everybody who sacrifices to make this place so special and that’s why we’ve been able to have success here and build such a cool program under Coach Fleck.”

Sori-Marin rapidly developed and became a contributor in the Gophers’ program. During his five seasons wearing maroon and gold, the Illinois native racked up 274 total tackles (137 solo and 14.5 for loss), an interception, 10 pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Sori-Marin was known for his football intelligence, preparation and leadership within the Gophers’ defense. Each week, the veteran linebacker gained an edge over his opponents by taking detailed notes and studying film. 

“The biggest thing is how you prepare and how you study your opponent is your advantage. We talk about it in the linebacker room all the time. If you take the first step in the right direction, the angles will change in your favor. It doesn’t matter what your 40 is,” Sori-Marin said. “You could be a 4.61 guy, you could be a 5.0-flat, but if you have the ability to study and prepare better than your opponent, you’re going to take the first step in the right direction and be able to make plays and be able to execute the way you need to. I think just having that ability and having the control of – am I going to study more film? – allows me to be successful.”

Sori-Marin believes every successful linebacker has three key traits – strong leadership skills, detailed preparation habits/execution and toughness. The former Gophers linebacker learned the value of those things throughout his Big Ten career. 

“The first thing is leadership. We talk about it – the linebacker is the quarterback of the defense. You have to be able to make coverage adjustments, front adjustments, you have to be able to call out tips and tendencies and things like that,” Sori-Marin said. “The second thing is read and diagnose and execution of your film study and your game planning. Being a smarter player is a better player. So how are you studying? How are you game planning? So when you go out there you have an advantage and you can read the play pre-snap. And then the third thing is toughness. To be a linebacker, especially in the Big Ten West where you’re seeing a lot of inside run, you have to be a tough, gritty, player who is not afraid to stick his nose on anything.”

Rossi’s Impact and Building the Culture 

Sori-Marin credits defensive coordinator Joe Rossi for teaching him key football and life lessons during his career with the Gophers. He said Rossi’s work ethic, football intelligence, preparation and teaching skills changed his life forever. 

“Joe Rossi is the guru. I wouldn’t be anything I am without him. Just his ability to coach and develop players. His ability to give tips and tendencies to allow his players to play fast and physical is what makes him such a special coach. When I talk about my game plan and preparation, it all comes from Coach Rossi,” Sori-Marin said. “He is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He’s the first one in the building and the last guy to leave because he doesn’t want any stone to go unturned. He wants his players to go out on the field and be able to execute to the best of their abilities.”

Rossi’s impact extended beyond the football field as well. Sori-Marin has a notebook full of life lessons he wrote down and saved from meetings with his mentor. 

“Anything that he could think of, he could take the game and apply it to life. He has become a really good friend in that aspect too because he teaches you so much about life and the game,” Sori-Marin said. “And it’s just escalated to the point where now I think I’ll be calling him up some day when my football days are done and asking him for a job. Maybe being his linebacker coach one day. So that’s just the impact that he’s left on my life.”

Sori-Marin became a foundational player as head coach P.J. Fleck and the staff built the Gophers’ program. Mariano embraced Minnesota’s Row the Boat culture and saw the impact it had on every area of his life. Sori-Marin knows all of the lessons he learned will serve him well as he embarks on the next phase of his journey. 

“The passion and love for all areas of your life [are things I learned from Coach Fleck]. Coach Fleck talks about it all the time – academically, athletically, socially and spiritually. And how much he pours into his players, not only in the game of football, but in their life, is truly special,” Sori-Marin said. “Just looking back on my time here with Coach Fleck, I’ll be thankful for all of the lessons that he’s taught us and how much he cares about us as players and pours into our individual lives.”

Sori-Marin looks back upon his Gophers career and remembers many impactful memories. One stands above the rest though – chopping down the goal posts following the Gophers’ 23-16 win over the Badgers in 2022. 

“You come here and you realize how important that game is to the entire state of Minnesota and the community. To be able to win that as a senior at Camp Randall and chop down those goal posts one last time is something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Sori-Marin said. “And it was a really hard-fought game too and that’s what makes it all the more special. Back and forth the entire game and it really ended up coming down to the last play of the game.”

Eyes on the NFL

Sori-Marin is now pursuing his childhood dream of playing in the NFL. The former Gophers linebacker trained on the West Coast and improved all of his testing metrics ahead of last month’s Pro Day at the University of Minnesota. In front of scouts from all 32 NFL teams, Mariano posted a 4.61 40-yard dash and 4.27 shuttle time. Sori-Marin was pleased with the results and felt he made a strong impression.

“I thought Pro Day was a really successful day for me just in terms of testing. I think all of those numbers were really good for me and helped elevate my stock. And then I thought it was really cool to just be able to compete with guys that you’ve been with for the last five years again for one last time,” Sori-Marin said. “To be able to run through drills with all of those guys you worked so hard with one last time and just kind of putting a culmination to your career was special.”

Sori-Marin is going through the NFL Draft process with his former college roommate, Thomas Rush. The two of them are talking every day and keeping each other updated. Sori-Marin said the friendship between him and Rush will last a lifetime. 

“Me and Thomas have talked every day since we left here together. We lived together for the last four years and now we’re actually staying together while I’m in town in Minneapolis at an Airbnb downtown together,” Sori-Marin. “We play Xbox every day, we chit-chat every day. When you build those relationships and that brotherhood, those are going to be the guys that you’re with for the rest of your life.”

Family Above Everything 

Through all of the highs and lows of Sori-Marin’s football career, one thing has always been constant – the support he has received from his parents and sister. Sori-Marin said he wouldn’t be where he is today without them. They never missed any of his games and encouraged him every step of the way. 

“When I look at my mom, dad and sister, they are my biggest fans. They are enormous fans of the game now. They’ve come to every single one of my games,” Sori-Marin said. “I look at my sister in particular, I think she was crying more than me when my time here came to an end. That just goes to show how special this place is and how special the game is.”

Sori-Marin’s father feels the same way. He enjoys watching Mariano play football, but nothing tops seeing the person his son has become. 

“It’s been such an experience just watching him as a young kid play and then making his way up into seventh and eighth grade and then high school and Minnesota. It’s been very special,” Sori-Marin II said. “Way more importantly, what’s made me most proud of Mariano is how he’s grown up as a person. Just his qualities – his integrity, his honesty, his charm. All of those things will make him successful in life. He’s just a good person inside.”

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