Interview by Shawna Wiggs | Photography by Gabriel Burgos | Written by McKenna Kelley | Art Direction by Heather Fitzpatrick
Google Tampa Bay Buccaneer Ali Marpet, and you’ll notice something. Unless he is on the football field, nearly every photo of Marpet shows him giving the camera a thumbs-up.
“It’s my signature move,” Marpet says. “It’s my go-to in pretty much all pictures.”
He’s been giving a lot of thumbs-ups the last few years. The Hobart and William Smith Colleges alumnus became the highest-drafted player in the history of Division III football when the Bucs selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Now entering his third season with the Bucs, Marpet is changing positions on the offensive line, moving from guard to center.
Marpet sat down with South Tampa Magazine two days before reporting to One Buc Place for training camp to talk football, life off the field and food — lots of food.
Q: Back in 2015, you were the only Division III player invited to the Senior Bowl, and just months later you became the highest-drafted pick in the history of D-III football. What does it mean to you to have had this much success in your career coming from a small university?
A: It’s totally unique. I also feel like I am representing small schools and the fact that small-school players can be successful in the NFL.
Q: It’s kind of a misconception, then, that players from small schools can’t make it.
A: Yeah. The school that you come from does not necessarily define what your NFL career is going to look like. I think that there’s a lot of bias toward bigger schools [producing more NFL players].
Q: You also earned the all-league selection two times playing basketball at Hastings High School back in New York.
A: For a while, I actually thought that I was going to play basketball in college at the Division III level — I was actually considering playing both football and basketball.
Q: What made you change your mind?
A: I think I realized that I had a little more potential playing football. I was kind of maxed out at 6’4 and was never going to be a dominant college basketball player.
Q: Are there any skills you took from the court that you apply to football?
A: Just in general, I think you can always draw from other sports [experience]. For instance, early on I was a basketball player. My freshman and sophomore years in high school, I had a gym coach convince me to play football. I had played football before, but I was thinking about not playing [again]. He convinced me to play because he thought it would actually help make me a better basketball player and that there would be things I could draw from football. For whatever reason I stuck with football, and it ended up working out.
Q: You will be making a transition from guard to center this upcoming season. How did that change come about?
A: We signed J.R. Sweezy from Seattle, an offensive lineman — a guard — and this is going to be his first year healthy with us. I think the reason I’ll be moving to center is so he can play guard, and then from there Coach Koetter made the decision to put me in center. I think that Coach Koetter’s just trying to figure out how to put the best five offensive linemen on the field, so [he’ll go with] whatever configuration that looks like. He thought that looked like me at center, so we’ll see how it plays out.
Q: What do you look forward to the most in getting to play this new position?
A: Center’s unique in that the center is responsible for getting the offensive line all on the same page. Another thing about [playing] center is that it’s kind of a game within a game. You see certain things, and you have to be able to figure things out on the fly to get us in the best position to block the defense. It’s a new challenge.
Q: What can be expected of the Buccaneers this season?
A: Obviously, for every team, our eyes are on the Super Bowl. That’s why we play the game. I think that’s what we’re always going to shoot for.
Q: Do you have any personal goals that you want to accomplish this season?
A: To play my butt off at center [laughs] and be able to successfully transition.
Q: Do you have a favorite Buccaneers player that you look up to?
A: When Logan Mankins was with us — he was an offensive lineman for the Bucs my rookie year — he was the big guy and the one I’d most like to play like.
Q: You do a lot of charity work within the Tampa area, from shaving your head to raise awareness for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, to visiting wounded warriors at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa. What drives you to do this kind of work for the community?
A: It feels like the right thing to do. As an NFL player, you do have a platform to impact a lot of people. I think it’s important to maximize it and be out there in the community.
Q: Your parents both have careers in the arts. Your mother is a musician and founder of the festival called Mamapalooza, and your father is a fashion videographer and director. Did this ever inspire you to work toward a career in the arts?
A: No — if anything I think it may have driven me to not work in the arts [laughs]. I knew for a while that I might have been able to do some work for my dad, but I really didn’t have much interest in doing that. I grew up around fashion shows and kind of wanted to stay away from that [laughs].
Q: If you hadn’t become a professional football player, what career would you have chosen?
A: I studied economics in college with a plan to work in finance, preferably in New York City. Later on, when I was a junior in college, I was less interested in doing that and thought that I might want to get my master’s in physical education and be a teacher and coach. My junior year it was like, what am I going to do? Am I going to continue playing football — which was a long shot, but I thought, maybe I’ll train and try to play football. Maybe I’ll take classes to work toward my master’s in physical education. Maybe I’ll do an internship somewhere in finance. That was kind of the dilemma for me my junior year of college.
Q: How did that play out?
A: I asked a lot of people. I talked to a lot of Hobart alums who worked in finance. They at least gently suggested that I try football, and if football didn’t work out I would have something to fall back on.
Q: What was your first major splurge after signing your contract with the Buccaneers?
A: I don’t think I splurged. Dinners, maybe? [laughs] I like eating out, so I think that’s the biggest change; I eat out more.
Q: Do you have any favorite restaurants in Tampa?
Q: As an athlete, healthy eating is key to staying in shape. What healthy foods do you always keep in your fridge?
A: For breakfast, it’s always some form of oatmeal with peanut butter, eggs, a banana and Greek yogurt. That’s always breakfast.
Q: All together?
A: All together. It’s a hearty breakfast. Everyone’s got eggs, but I crush, like, eight eggs at a time. It’s quite a bit.
Q: How do you like your eggs?
A: I have to switch it up. It’s hard to [eat them] some mornings, but more often than not it’s scrambled. But you have to do it low and slow with a lot of TLC. Otherwise it becomes difficult to eat. There is a method because if you [eat them] too fast then it becomes hard. You’re choking them down, and it’s no fun.
Q: What’s your favorite cheat meal?
A: Green Lemon’s Taco Tuesday. That’s a cheat meal. I might do a bit of overeating there as well. I usually get four or five Gigante Chicken tacos, three tuna — but I get the tuna on Bibb lettuce. That’s a healthy alternative and you don’t get all carbed up from the tortillas — and then the Cerdo Perfecto [pork tacos]. I’ll get like two of those. Then I’ll get an Americano [grilled chicken taco] and, they took mahi off the menu, so now it’s shrimp.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re away from the game?
A: I’m a big beach guy, so I usually go out to St. Pete Beach. My dad and my mom both have places in St. Pete. My dad’s place has a pool, so I usually hang out and lounge around his pool and do sort-of staycations over there.
Q: We heard you like to read. What is your favorite book, or who is your favorite author?
A: I think my favorite book right now, and it could always change, is “The Book of Joy.” It’s a conversation between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it’s a pretty interesting book. I’d recommend that one.
Q: We’ve established that you don’t love fashion, but do you have a favorite clothing brand or style?
A: Hawaiian shirts are a pretty constant theme. I’m also not a fan of pants at all. I don’t like jeans. I don’t like khakis. I wear them when I have to, though. For instance, I went to Bern’s in shorts. I didn’t know you have to wear pants. Luckily they had pants for me, so I had to put those on over my shorts.
Q: Wait, they loaned you pants?
A: Yes, they loaned me pants, and they actually fit pretty comfortably. I enjoyed the rest of my dinner, but it was a little bit of a hiccup in the night. I was trying to get around it, but it’s a hard and fast rule [laughs]. Don’t go to Bern’s with shorts on. They were the khaki shorts, at least. The khaki shorts are my dress shorts [laughs].
Q: Tell me about the road trip where everyone dressed like you.
A: For our away games, there’s a dress code. Usually you have to wear a suit, but for West Coast trips you’re able to wear any sort of collared shirt. Usually I wear a Tampa Bay Bucs polo and khakis — I try to dress down as much as I can. There was one trip — I think it may have been a preseason game because for the preseason you can also just wear collared shirts — the rest of the offensive line all wore what I would normally wear. I knew they were doing it, but they all wanted to look the same, so they all wore a Bucs polo and khaki pants. Also, I’m a big fan of Hawaiian shirts, so when we went out to San Diego, the entire offensive line wore Hawaiian shirts out there.
Q: You were born and raised In New York, but you’ve lived in Tampa now for a few years. Is there anything you miss about being in your home state?
A: Some food. It’s always about food for me, huh? Bagels and pizza are the two things where I’m aware when they’re done well. I’ve found some bagel and pizza places down here that are solid, but generally that’s what I miss the most. Eddie and Sam’s, in my opinion, has the best pizza. St. Pete Bagel Co. has the best bagels.
Q: What are some of your favorite things to do or favorite places to visit in Tampa Bay?
A: Picnic Island Park. It’s near my house. I hang out there and read and relax. I’m always at One Buc Place [laughs]. So it’s between One Buc, my house and the park. That’s where I spend most of my time.
Q: The thumbs-up is a statement of yours.
A: It’s just in pictures in general. It’s my signature move. I obviously can’t trademark a thumbs-up; it’s been around forever, but I’ve adopted it. It’s my go-to in pretty much all pictures. I think in almost any picture of me you’ll see a thumbs-up.