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Originally published April 21, 2013 at 8:56 PM | Page modified April 27, 2013 at 10:18 AM

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Luke Marquardt's long road from Skyline benchwarmer nears the NFL

Luke Marquardt, a hulking lineman, could be the first player from Skyline High in Sammamish to be drafted in the NFL. Yet he barely played football in high school.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Luke Marquardt at a glance

Height: 6-feet-8 ½. Weight: 317

High school: Skyline High School

College: Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, Calif.)

Notable: Coaches from the 49ers, Broncos and Chargers attended his pro day workout, according to NFL.com.

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God gave Luke Marquardt gifts that he gives very few people.

The first is size, the kind that makes him look like Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians. Marquardt is 6-foot-8 ½ and weighs around 315 or 320 pounds, depending on the week. The second is coordination, the kind that allows him to operate that frame without looking foolish. The third is athleticism — the quickness of foot to not just be huge but also swift.

These traits earned Marquardt an invitation to February's NFL combine, and will likely make him an NFL offensive lineman if he's picked during the three-day draft starting Thursday, which would make him the first player from Skyline High School in Sammamish ever selected.

At this point you are probably thinking two things. The first: Why haven't I heard of Luke Marquardt? And the second: What didn't God give him?

Stuck on the bench

If you are a man of faith, like Luke Marquardt is, you have an unwavering belief that life has a plan. But if you are a 17-year-old kid dreaming of a college scholarship and instead find yourself riding your basketball team's bench ... you start to wonder. You don't question your faith. You question your plan.

What are you doing right now, God? This isn't what was supposed to happen. This isn't in my plan.

Luke doesn't remember Skyline's opponent the night reality hit hardest, but he remembers almost everything else. He had one of his best weeks of practice his senior season, and his coach told him he'd play more in Skyline's next game.

A scout from Seattle University was coming to watch. Luke couldn't wait.

Instead, he played only a handful of cleanup minutes. He couldn't believe it. He got in his blue Ford Explorer after the game and drove home accompanied by his own doubts.

This isn't what was supposed to happen. This isn't in my plan.

The plan, Luke's plan, had already detoured years before. He loved football, and started at quarterback in middle school in Colorado and Texas. When he moved to Seattle his freshman season, his family picked Skyline, in large part, because of the school's powerhouse football program.

Luke was going to play quarterback there, too.

He never made it past the freshman team's backup. After that season, the Skyline coaches told him of their own plans: With his build — he was already 6 feet 1 — they envisioned him along the offensive line.

"Luke didn't like that idea at all," Pam Marquardt, his mother, says.

So he quit. He shunned the sport he loved for one he thought was more practical given his height: basketball. He didn't make varsity at Skyline until his senior year. Even then he spent most of his time on the bench.

And on those drives home after another disappointing game or practice, there were times Luke became so emotional he had to pull his Explorer over and stop.

Off to college

In the spring of Luke's senior year, Pam Marquardt filled out questionnaire after questionnaire to send to college coaches. She never stopped believing in her son and wanted him to have a chance, if one existed.

Pam, a rare four-sport athlete at North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, always pushed Luke into sports. When he quit football, she used to drive by practices and plead with him, "See them out there, see them out there?" Pam gave Luke his competitive fire, and none of this would have happened without her hand.

One of the people she reached out to was Victor Santa Cruz, the football coach at Azusa Pacific in Los Angeles. Santa Cruz receives plenty of emails from hopeful parents, but not many that include this detail: My son is 6-foot-9.

"It's like God orchestrating the whole thing," Santa Cruz says.

Luke hadn't played football since his freshman year and was actually visiting the school for a basketball tryout. But Santa Cruz saw a project. He watched Luke scrimmage with the basketball team, then took him outside for 30 minutes to watch him catch passes.

"That was enough," he says.

By the time Luke and his parents returned home, Santa Cruz had sent an email offering a spot as a tight end and a $5,000 scholarship. Azusa Pacific, the school which produced former NFL player Christian Okoye, costs more than $30,000 per year.

Luke redshirted his first year at the school, then spent most of the next season playing tight end. With three games left and the offensive line crippled by injuries, Luke offered Santa Cruz his services along the line. He also made it clear he wanted to return to tight end. Santa Cruz didn't hesitate to accept.

But when Santa Cruz and his staff reviewed film of Luke's first game at tackle, their minds were made up: They wanted him to stay there. Luke didn't agree.

"I was kind of a prima donna back then," he says.

His coaches countered with an aggressive sales pitch, and the irony couldn't have been more striking. Their biggest selling point: Luke, who once quit the sport to avoid the offensive line, had a chance to make the NFL if he became a tackle.

This time he accepted a change in plans.

Turning heads

Luke is Paul Bunyan with shoulder pads. When he put an elementary-school boy with muscular dystrophy on his shoulders, it was a surprise the boy didn't need an oxygen mask and parachute. He is so big that the first time Issaquah basketball coach Jason Griffith saw him at church the summer after his redshirt freshman season, the only thing he could blurt out was, "Luke ... what happened?"

Even at the NFL combine, where large men aren't in short supply, Marquardt turned heads. The first morning, Marquardt walked by offensive tackles Eric Fisher of Central Michigan and Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M on the way to breakfast. Both are candidates to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, and both stared as Marquardt passed.

"I just know that look," he says.

Mike Tanier, from Sportsonearth.com, handed out tongue-in-cheek awards from the combine and dubbed Marquardt the best action-movie hero. Daniel Jeremiah, an analyst for NFL.com, wrote, "When I asked for a body-type comparison, I was given two names: Ivan Drago from Rocky IV and former professional wrestler Sid Vicious."

Luke had surgery for a hairline fracture on his right foot on Thursday. It was an injury that forced him to miss his entire senior season at Azusa Pacific and kept him from doing on-field drills at the NFL combine. But he held his pro day at Azusa Pacific on April 11 in front of about 20 position coaches and scouts. He is often projected to go in the late rounds of the draft.

"It is hard to find a player with his length and ability that can bend and move as well and easily as he does," one NFC scout said.

Yet genetics only provided the framework. No amount of work can make a man as tall as Luke, but as a high-school senior, Luke was more bean stalk than giant.

"There's no way you could have predicted you'd be looking at that man today," Griffith says.

The first time Luke was tested at Azusa Pacific, he bench-pressed 225 pounds three times. At the NFL combine, he did it 31 times. He arrived at APU as a 220-pound freshman and left 100 pounds heavier.

"My desire was to be the hardest worker on the team," he says. "Through the results that I've had, it's clear that's been the case."

Not too soft

There are two questions that always come up from NFL coaches or scouts.

The first: What is Luke's aptitude for learning football? After all, he has only played tackle for two full seasons. Will the mental side of the pro game be too much?

The second is one Luke calls "the Christian question": Is he going to be passive? Is he going to be physical enough in the NFL? Is he ... soft?

Luke is a devout Christian. He spent most of his summers doing missionary work in the Dominican Republic or Cyprus or Malawi. He comes from a missionary family and played football at a small Christian school.

"I absolutely hate that question," Luke says. "I pride myself on being the tough man on the team. Yes, I want to be an example to others and reach out to other people. But that doesn't mean I'm going to be soft on the field. I can be a person of Christ outside the field, but on it I'm going to rip your face off."

Santa Cruz agrees, and has developed a standard response.

"You wouldn't want to be in front of him right now," he tells scouts and coaches. "He'd probably throw you through a window."

Santa Cruz has no doubt this is where Marquardt belongs. And after a road filled with detours and questions, Marquardt knows, too.

Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or jjenks@seattletimes.com

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