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Not playing a lot at Clemson hit Mario Goodrich hard. Then he grew up, finished strong

Clemson cornerback Mario Goodrich, center, is interviewed by ESPN’s Tom Luginbill, left, after being named the MVP of the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Clemson cornerback Mario Goodrich, center, is interviewed by ESPN’s Tom Luginbill, left, after being named the MVP of the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

AP

Mario Goodrich III was showered with orange and white confetti.

He raised his arms in elation while wearing the brown Cheez-It Bowl MVP belt that resembled the ones WWE wrestlers flaunt. Somewhere a few hundred feet away at Camping World Stadium in Orlando were his moms, Kendra Morris and Michelle Goodrich, also celebrating with happy, tear-stained cheeks.

Thousands of miles away, Goodrich’s father and Michelle’s husband — known as Big Mario — was at his home in Kansas City trying to keep up with the calls and texts that were coming in about his son’s standout bowl performance. An illness prevented him from physically being at the game. Instead, he was tuned into ESPN as “Baby Mario” recorded a pick-six and game-winning forced fumble to help Clemson beat Iowa State 20-13. The victory improved the Tigers’ streak of double-digit winning seasons to 11.

“I felt a lot better, for some reason,” Mario Goodrich Sr. said. “I didn’t feel sick anymore after I watched it.”

Excitement doesn’t equate to being surprised, however. If you ask either of the Marios, Kendra or Michelle, Baby Mario’s final game with Clemson is what’s been in him all along.

Coming to Clemson

Kendra Morris laughs now when thinking about her son playing football as a 5-year-old. At the time Mario, who turned 22 on Jan. 12, wasn’t bigger than any of the other kids, but he still managed to run them over.

“This football just came so natural to him at 5,” Morris said. “It was like he just took it and ran with it.”

In high school, Mario Goodrich III was a two-sport athlete, playing football and basketball at Lee’s Summit West High School in Lee’s Summit, Missouri southeast of Kansas City. In football, he was an ESPN 300 player, 247Sports’ No. 6 cornerback in the Class of 2018 and Missouri’s third-best overall player, according to Rivals.

Mario, who had around 19 Power Five Conference scholarship offers, was originally committed to Nebraska. He later pivoted to Clemson, becoming the first Tigers signee on record from Missouri.

“It was a good environment and we felt comfortable with the coaching staff and everything they had to offer,” Big Mario said. “It was a relief off our back, really, because we did a lot of visiting other schools, but we just felt comfortable with that situation.”

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Clemson cornerback Mario Goodrich (31) follows a play during the first half of the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

Hitting a low point

Looking back, it’s easy to see where Mario — the second-to-youngest for Morris and Big Mario’s youngest — didn’t take football as seriously as he could have. He was on his own in South Carolina and enjoying college life while trying to figure things out as an adult. The Missourian also struggled with injuries as a sophomore, so it was understandable that he wasn’t as good as he knew he could be.

Still, Mario remained as upbeat and outgoing as ever. It wasn’t until his junior year of college that Morris, Big Mario and Michelle Goodrich noticed a change in their son.

At first, Mario felt assured in his position as a go-to cornerback for the Tigers, except for one thing: Clemson was stacked with defensive backs in 2020. That meant Mario had to share playing time with more people and work harder to prove he deserved to see the field at all. The weight of not getting the playing time he wanted and sitting out games as a junior was one that manifested in the cornerback becoming withdrawn.

The Goodriches and Morris noticed that phone calls with Mario were shorter. Texting became the preferred method of communication. They may not have always addressed his seemingly subdued spirit, but the concerned parents did what they could.

Big Mario assured Baby Mario, already a confident young man, that he was good enough and belonged. Morris encouraged her son to stay prayed up, making sure he knew everything would work out in the end. Faith is something his parents instilled in him at a young age.

“I think (prayer) was real big because he’s there by himself,” Big Mario said. “It was a lot of lonely nights. He was feeling like he was by himself. I mean, we could talk to him but some of those lonely nights, he doesn’t want to talk.”

The elder Goodrich saw his namesake hit a low point after Clemson’s 47-40 double-overtime loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7, 2020. Mario had missed three games in the season and didn’t see the field at all in South Bend. In the previous two games he’d been in, he played a total of 21 snaps and had one tackle.

The next time the Tigers played the Fighting Irish three weeks later, however, the outcome was different for Clemson.

And Mario, too.

Shifting gears

After the loss to Notre Dame, something changed for Mario.

The dark moment for him was just that: a moment. No sooner than it had come, it dissipated and he was back to being his normal self. The cornerback started and had two tackles with two interceptions over 40 snaps played a week later in a 52-17 rout of Pittsburgh. It was the first multi-interception game by a Clemson player since Cordrea Tankersley’s two-pick game against Virginia Tech in the 2016 ACC Championship Game. It also earned Mario ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors.

He then had a season-high 55 snaps against Virginia Tech before the Tigers earned a rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC championship.

This time, he played.

Mario tallied a season-best five tackles as the Tigers avenged their only loss of the regular season 34-10. Clemson lost the next game to Ohio State in the College Football Players semifinals 49-28. Mario broke his hand during the contest making a tackle but still capped off his junior season with good momentum.

Months later, when the 2021 season began, Mario had earned a starting role alongside Andrew Booth at the cornerback spots. Right out the gate, he had a career-high 13 tackles in the season opener against Georgia, then notched seven tackles two weeks later in the ACC opener against Georgia Tech.

Even through the difficult times of his junior season, Morris said her son never expressed an interest to leave Clemson to transfer somewhere else. Besides, she had accumulated too much Clemson orange paraphernalia for her son to leave, she joked.

“He might have had a thought about it but he just decided he was going to stay at Clemson,” Morris said. “That’s where he wanted to be. … He’s always been a starter, so he just had to wait his turn.”

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Clemson cornerback Mario Goodrich (31) shows off the belt given to him for being named the MVP after the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

Feeling cheesy

Morris and Michelle Goodrich were in the stands at Camping World Stadium when it happened.

Clemson was up 6-3 in the third quarter when Tigers defensive end Justin Mascoll got a hand on one of Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy’s passes. In an effort to avoid a turnover, Purdy tried to bat the ball down — he turned the ball over anyway, as Mario Goodrich III came down with it. He cut toward the sideline as his teammates blocked for him all the way into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown.

One quarter later, the Cyclones were facing fourth-and-2 from their 36-yard line with 42 seconds left in regulation. Purdy ran five yards, picking up the first down — but Mario punched the ball out, forcing it backward. Purdy recovered it at the 37 with Mario getting hands on Purdy to make sure he was down, rendering the quarterback’s run null in void.

Mario got up, wagged both index fingers, clapped three times and then headed back to Clemson’s sideline, celebrating the whole way.

“We cried. We went crazy, we did,” Michelle said. “It was literally like watching him in high school all over again just on a different level.”

Morris’ tears represented more than just pride in her son. When the fumble happened, she said she believed that Mario would be the game’s MVP. The event manifesting brought about even more emotions.

Once the game was over, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney praised the all-grown-up Baby Mario. The senior exemplifies sticking out hard times instead of quitting, Swinney said.

“Adversity is good for us and it makes you depend on God, makes you dig deeper,” Swinney said. “The biggest thing in our program, our goals are to graduate our players, to equip them and develop them as men, to have a good experience and win a championship. He’s the epitome of all those things. He’s equipped. He’s developed, and he’s transformed.”

It wasn’t always easy, though. Swinney recalled Mario had more than a few trips into his office as a younger player, which drew a grin and a head drop from the senior.

“I greatly appreciate him and the rest of the coaching staff just pushing me to become a better man on and off the field and just in my daily life, really,” Mario said.

What’s next

Morris said she feels like the recruiting process is starting all over again.

Mario, who added all-ACC first team honors to his senior year accolades, is now part of the NFL Draft process as he takes a step toward his dream of being a professional football player. He’ll have one last game at the Reese’s Senior Bowl on Feb. 5 before turning his full focus on preparing for workouts, combines, pro days, interviews and everything else that comes with draft prep.

When asked how Mario Goodrich III would feel about getting drafted by the hometown Kansas City Chiefs, Big Mario said his son hasn’t mentioned it, but would probably prefer going somewhere warm. After all, that had been another selling point for Clemson during recruiting.

When it comes to projections, Big Mario has heard some peg his son as a fifth- or sixth-round selection. The NFL Mock Draft Database has him as high as No. 97 overall with a consensus spot of 140.

Mario smiles at it — he’s unfazed by the predictions. Just like he knew what he was capable of coming to Clemson four years ago, he knows what he can do at the next level.

“Some people were telling him, if you come back, you could come back out and you’ll be ranked a lot higher if you come back this year, but he just feels like he’s ready,” Mario Goodrich Sr. said. “It’s almost like he knows he’s not going in the fifth round. He can’t wait to show them or prove them wrong, so he’s excited about the challenge.”

Mario Goodrich III career Clemson stats

  • 2018: No starts, 7 tackles, 3 pass breakups in 113 snaps over 14 games
  • 2019: No starts, 13 tackles, 2 pass breakups in 205 snaps over 13 games
  • 2020: 4 starts, 16 tackles, 2 INTs, fumble recovery, pass breakup in 237 snaps over eight games
  • 2021: 12 starts, 48 tackles, 2 INTs, forced fumble, 8 pass breakups in 561 snaps over 12 games

Alexis Cubit serves primarily as the Clemson sports reporter for The (Columbia) State newspaper. Before moving to South Carolina in 2021, she covered high school sports for six years and received a first-place award in the sports feature category from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors in 2019. The California native earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Baylor University in 2014.



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