Office of Communications and Marketing
Mariia Diahilieva ’26 was a high school exchange student in New Hampshire when the Russo-Ukrainian War escalated in February 2022.
Q1: What initially drew you to enter the coaching field?
A: I was fortunate enough to have a lot of great mentors in my life growing up. Despite losing my father tragically at a very young age (8), I had a number of important people step up including my mother, older siblings, aunts and uncles, coaches and family friends. Those people invested in me and made a significant impact on my life during my formative years and I will forever be grateful for their support and belief in me. I thought what a better way to repay those individuals that invested in me by becoming a mentor to young people by using the game of football to mold young men and teach life lessons that will hopefully carry with them long after their playing days are over.
Q2: What do you enjoy most about coaching?
A: There are a lot of things that I enjoy about my job: putting a game plan together for our opponent every week, competing each and every day as a unit whether it be on game day, practice, the weight room, or our offseason program, going out on the road for recruiting and getting the chance to meet some great young men, their families and coaches. But, without question, my favorite part of the job is building relationships with our student-athletes and my staff. We spend so much time together year-round and I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see a group of young people from all different backgrounds come together as a team for one common goal. There is something special about being a part of something bigger than yourself and the game of college football provides that for our players, coaches, alumni and parents. Probably the best part of my job is seeing a young man come into our program and develop not only as a student-athlete but as a person as well.
Q3: From your perspective, what makes Merrimack a special place for student-athletes?
A: I think, without question, what makes Merrimack a special place for not only our student-athletes but for the entire student body, is the community that we are all a part of. Every time our program brings a group of recruits on campus for a visit I always tell them that as impressive as the campus is with all the new dorms, academic buildings and updated athletic facilities, the people here will make your experience at the College a memorable one.
Q4: As a coach, how do you enhance the student-athlete experience for your players?
A: We want to instill a sense of pride in the Merrimack Football Program and the College that goes beyond wins and losses and even GPAs. There is no question that we want to be very successful in the classroom and on the field but we want to do it without sacrificing our core values and beliefs. We want our student-athletes to be proud of the culture of Merrimack Football and be able to look back 10 years from now and know they had a big hand in what Merrimack Football stands for and what we believe in.
I always tell our coaching staff if all we accomplish with our student-athletes is to teach them X/Os and make them better football players, then we are missing the boat. It’s about developing them as people first and student-athletes second. As a coaching staff, it’s about finding that balance where our student-athletes know that we are going to be there for them no matter what they may go through, but also loving them enough to hold them accountable and teach them the value of hard work, discipline, sacrifice and the importance of being a part of something bigger than themselves. Our program has a motto and belief that there is no greater compliment than being called a “great teammate,” someone that other people can rely on and depend on.
Q5: What was it like to play in the NFL?
A: When I was in middle school I wrote an essay about my goal of playing professional football. I was fortunate that my family and the people in my life including my middle school teacher were supportive of my goal and didn’t feel the need to let me know that less than 1% of the football-playing world will be lucky enough to play at the professional level. You add in the fact that I was an Irish Catholic kid from Massachusetts playing the running back position – those odds were probably even more stacked against me. But despite those odds, I was fortunate enough to be able to live out my dream of playing at that level. And for me it was never about money or recognition, it was about playing the game I love at the highest level and accomplishing something very few people get the chance to do. The opportunity I had to compete with and against some of the very best players and coaches in the world on the biggest stage was certainly a life-changing experience and one that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Q: Why do you have a passion for the sport of football?
A: Growing up in a family full of athletes I loved competing in all sports at a very young age. But there was no question that football was the one I gravitated to the most. I remember going to watch my older brother Sean at one of his high school football games for the first time, and after seeing the atmosphere on game day on Friday night under the lights I think I was instantly hooked. I also loved the strategy and the X/Os that are a part of the game and, like most people that love the game of football, I really enjoyed the physicality of the sport. There is also no other sport where an individual relies as heavily on the 10 other guys on the field to do their job as the sport of football does. To be successful in this game you need all 11 guys on the field and all 110 guys in the locker room to be on the same page doing their job to the best of their ability. In that sense football really is the ultimate team sport.
Q: If you could have competed in any other professional sport, what would it have been and why?
A: I would have to say MMA or some type of combat sport. Grappling and striking are disciplines that have always come pretty natural to me and I have dabbled with both of those during my football playing career as a hobby. I have so much respect for the individuals that compete in those sports. Similar to football, MMA, grappling and boxing require a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline, as well as physical and mental toughness. Also, similar to football, it requires a versatile athlete with multiple skill sets to be successful.