As Survivor: Winners at War comes to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) is just weeks away, there’s no better time than now to honor the revolutionary reality TV competition. Welcome to Survivor Week, a celebration of the show’s best moments and characters.
In his five attempts in the past 18 years to win the CBS reality TV gauntlet Survivor, Rob Mariano has always sought extreme control over the island chaos in his midst. He has tamed thickets of palm trees and bamboo, drawing on his construction experience to build serviceable sleeping huts and seaworthy vessels. He has sized up his fellow contestants, each with motivations as tangled as the jungle canopy above them, and “run the numbers,” as he puts it, to figure out the loyalists he could squeeze and the threats he should shiv. (He also found a rad woman who wanted to marry him, but more on that in a bit.)
He is particularly skilled at the art of the confessional interview, distilling petty tribal inside baseball into catchy Godfather references with the lasting command of an on-message politician. In 2013, when Rob Mariano published a slim volume called The Boston Rob Rulebook: Strategies for Life on the heels of finally winning Survivor on his fourth try, Get Organized was one of the titular strategies for life. “One of the first things you do when you go camping,” he wrote, “is get organized. You set up a shelter. You gather wood. You build a fire. It creates a feeling of comfort in an otherwise uncomfortable environment.” Back in the comforts of the real world, however, all of the fastidious alpha energy of the guy known best as Boston Rob manifests a little bit differently.
“He’s hyper, hyper-organized,” says Mariano’s agent, Jamie Lopez. “There have been, I’m going to say, several occasions where he phoned me from his car, and I asked him what he’s doing, and he’s literally crossing state lines, going on a six-hour drive to retrieve some sort of Tupperware.” Like everyone who talks about Boston Rob, Lopez can’t help but imitate the guy’s accent, the one that still sounds like it’s bubbling up straight from the murky bottom of the Charles River, even though Mariano and his family have lived down in Pensacola, Florida, for years. “If you stack it up just right,” Lopez-as-Mariano exclaims, “I can fit 30 of these in my drawer!”
Speaking by video chat from Florida, the real Boston Rob confirms nearly all of this. “There was a time where I drove to, I think, every Target within a 30-mile radius because I wanted to complete one cabinet,” he admits, as palm trees sway outside the windows behind him. He is wearing a dark Mariano Construction T-shirt and a backwards hat that was once navy but is now faded from sun and sand and home renovation work into a dusty, familiar shade of grey. “I am slightly addicted to the OXO containers. It’s been such a hard process because my wife is not. I’ve got to, like, line everything up and organize it. And I promise, it feels like some days she’s just messing with me cause she’ll put it back differently. I’m like, how hard is it to put it back the right way?”
Amber Mariano, who first got together with Rob when they filmed Season 8 of Survivor 16 years ago—and who won the title of Sole Survivor that year by one vote over him, moments after he proposed to her—would like to point out that she is a generally organized person. “My hangers all have to hang in the same direction in my closet,” she writes in an email. “I like clothes folded a certain way.” Her house would be spotless, she says, if it weren’t for the minor detail of the couple’s four daughters, all of whom were born in a five-year span. Still, when it comes to her husband’s attempts to keep order, “he definitely takes it to the extreme,” Amber writes. “But what doesn’t he take to the extreme!??!”
On Survivor, as in life: not much. It’s been 20 years and 40 seasons since the premiere of Survivor—“the game,” Mariano always calls it with reverence—and no one has logged as many minutes playing as he has. He has won a season (and with it, a million bucks), finished second in another (to Amber), and made lasting mischief even when he was the seventh and eighth player to see his torch snuffed. Both he and Amber went to Fiji for this current iteration of Survivor, the aptly titled Winners at War. Both of them were voted off the island already, and will attempt to fight their way back into the game one last time in a three-hour finale this Wednesday night. Along the way he has blindsided a Navy pilot, an NFL wide receiver, and a whole bunch of other suckers who thought they were his friends. Last year, he was tapped by producers to serve as an oracle/mentor figure to contestants on Survivor: Island of the Idols, a gig that included having a team from Game of Thrones construct a 25-foot-tall totem of his likeness that took five barges to transport to the island.
He has been described as one of “the most famous troublemakers in Survivor history” and “one of the game’s ultimate strategists and also a known double-dealer”—and that’s all just the stuff that’s stated in approving voiceovers from Survivor producer and host Jeff Probst himself. Reddit calls him overrated every few days; rivals call him slow to evolve; and yet modern castaways routinely celebrate his deep influence on both them and on the long arc of the game. He is “definitely on the Mount Rushmore,” Entertainment Weekly executive editor-at-large Dalton Ross, who has thoroughly covered Survivor and its extended universe since the program’s inception, says in a phone call.
Despite being the sixth contestant voted out on Winners at War, he’s remained one of the show’s main characters: collecting screen time like it’s a fire token, watching sunsets with his wife, and continuing a Survivor lifetime journey that has taken him from young pest to unstoppable Robfather to wise old head. Before the season began airing, Mariano told Entertainment Tonight that he’d be retiring after: “It’s like the ball player coming to the end of a long career.” If so, it will be the end of an era for an industry legend. If there’s anything we’ve learned during that long, storied, and devious career, however, it’s that it may be safest not to believe what Boston Rob says.
Mariano is standing inside a three-bedroom house that he’s been busy renovating to rent out, panning his phone camera around proudly. “Obviously, the floors are going to be done,” he says. He gestures to where he has laid granite countertops, then points the camera at a doorknob. “It had that old brass look,” he says, “but now it’s brushed nickel.” He has a weakness for expensive touches—“terrible, terrible business decision,” he chirps, not sounding too upset about it as he zooms in on a Kohler faucet still in the box. People are more likely to take good care of nice things, is how he sees it.
He spent “way too long” painting every wall in the house a shade named Universal Grey, with Ultra Pure White trim. “Normally I would just sub out the painting and hire someone,” he says, “but obviously,” what with the global pandemic and all, “we’re not going to do that. So I did it all myself.” A good job to do while social distancing, but a tedious one, too: What would have taken a crew probably a day and a half to finish took Mariano a good week, he says with a wince. But you can tell he enjoys keeping busy, wringing order and progress out of something raw.
Two decades ago, Mariano was a 20-something worker bee on a different construction-related crew, living in his home state of Massachusetts after graduating from Boston University. He had a stint coaching the school’s club in-line hockey team under his belt and a degree in psychology that his dad razzed him about never using. “I was working for a stonemason out of Framingham,” Mariano says, and at work, his colleagues would sometimes chat about Survivor, the cool weird new show.
“It was like, water-cooler talk, lunchtime talk,” Mariano says. “Everybody talked about it. We saw Richard Hatch win. And then Season 2 came on with Australia. And I remember Colby Donaldson. He was the guy who everybody liked. He was a young, athletic guy and everything. And I just remember watching one night at home with my dad, being like, ‘Man, if I ever got the opportunity I would kick his ass.’ My dad was like, ‘Oh yeah? You think you can beat him, why don’t you send in an application tape?’”
Mariano asked his mom to film his Survivor application on VHS. His family had a spare freezer in the garage, and his idea for a bit was to emerge from inside it and remark that he’d been caught chilling out after a long day of work. “I thought I was so slick,” he says, but the execution was “a disaster” when he couldn’t fit inside the appliance. Still, “I must have caught their attention,” he says.
He arrived in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia for the fourth filming of Survivor. The September 11 attacks had taken place a few months earlier, scuttling plans for the show to be filmed in Jordan. Probst explained that one “twist” that season was that the castaways would be given even less to work with at the beginning than usual: no food, no water, no matches. The bugs were so vicious that cameramen draped themselves in full protective netting as they captured footage of contestants picking incessantly at their bumpy sores. Mariano wore a New England Patriots cap, loyally representing an NFL team that had then never won a Super Bowl and whose starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, had gone down with an injury two weeks into the NFL season, leading to the call-up of an unproven backup named Tom Brady.
Ultimately, Mariano was the seventh castmate voted out, not even lasting long enough to reach the final jury that votes on the eventual winner. But his short time on the island proved to have quite the long tail. Survivor was once a slow-moving, novel sociological experiment that was livened up by a lot of hectic swim races and hurt feelings, and devoured by tens of millions. Now, it is both more involved and more niche, a complicated exhibition that lures in quasi-professional raconteurs and endurance athletes who have studied the flame and have few misconceptions about anyone’s motivations. And Boston Rob has been there all the while, edging things along.
Mariano was responsible for the surprise ouster of Hunter Ellis, a strapping naval pilot who looked like a Kennedy and was the kind of leader who had tended to last for quite some time in previous seasons. Not so in Marquesas, where Mariano bristled at Hunter from the start and convinced his tribe to get rid of one of their most capable players for their own good. These days, that move would be ho-hum, but at the time, it was shocking. Also shocking: how willing Mariano was to share his unfiltered mentality—far too unfiltered, at times. “It doesn’t matter if my team is stronger physically, or even stronger mentally,” he explained to viewers that first season. “But just that they obey.”
Survivor: All-Stars was filmed in Panama in late 2003, premiered a few months later in the beginning of 2004, and remains one of the most memorable seasons in series history. Ross still remembers the pregame interview he had with Mariano. “People weren’t really thinking about Boston Rob,” Ross says; after all, there were numerous incoming contestants, like Hatch, Ethan Zohn, and Tina Wesson, who had been winners in previous years. “But he told me: ‘Save this tape recording’—in those days we used tapes—‘because I’m telling you right now, I’m winning the game.’”
While he hadn’t gone that far in Marquesas, his style had resonated enough to get him invited back to the show. “I was a Survivor superfan,” Rob Cesternino, a former Survivor contestant who spent time with Mariano in the Pearl Islands in both of their second attempts at the game, says in a phone call. “I loved the show, I studied the show, it was such a thrill to be on the show, and my favorite player coming into the show was Boston Rob. I just loved the way that I felt like he broke the fourth wall and talked to the people at home in a way unlike anybody else in the history of the show had ever attempted to do.”
Indeed, the people at home were often treated to phrases that truly highlight Mariano’s accent: like “amateur hour” and “definitely off their rockers” and “I had to play like Arafat in the peace process to bring the tribe back together” and, of course, again and again: “Amber.”
When Rob and Amber—who had previously finished sixth on the second season of Survivor—first started canoodling early in All-Stars, it felt like déjà vu. Back in Marquesas, he had similarly snuggled and strategized with a contestant named Sarah. “I don’t think it was crazy that we said, ‘OK, this won’t work out,’” Cesternino says. Instead, one of the great showmances developed into a real romance (albeit one that involved a drive-through movie date to see Lord of the Flies). And Rob’s wish to protect that, for both in-love and in-game reasons, led him to level up his ruthlessness with other All-Stars players.
Things had been going well for Mariano, who preened after rather hilariously catching 11 fish right in self-proclaimed fisherman Rupert’s face. But after a tribal shakeup separated him from Amber, Mariano sat watching the waves crash and brooding, both about his girl and his perceived shot at the win. “It’s like a calf sucking its mama’s titty,” observed Big Tom, a proud Virginian who was part of an alliance with Mariano for the time being. “When you wean that calf it bawls, and it goes crazy. It tries to go through fences and bushes. Rob’s the same way.” Rob’s version of going through a fence was to briefly stop a competitor named Lex, with whom he had a real-life friendship going into the season, to tell him: “You take care of her, I’ll take care of you.”
Later that episode, when Rob glimpsed Amber at a challenge and realized she hadn’t been voted out by her new tribe—thanks in large part to his whispered words to Lex—he beamed like a groom at the altar. Within days, he would betray Lex, the guy responsible for his beloved’s salvation. “I’m still scratching my head and wondering how Rob has these people so snowed and under his spell,” Lex told TV Guide after getting the boot. “They all seem to be totally content to just follow and be his sheep. If somebody there doesn’t get off their ass and get out from under the radar, they are going to be like lambs to the slaughter.” Next, Boston Rob set his sights on Big Tom. “The pony ride is over,” Mariano said as he turned on Tom. “You’re welcome for carrying you this far.” That season was a tough one for livestock.
The final immunity challenge came down to Rob and Amber trying to outlast one another while standing barefoot on a post after the other remaining contestant, Jenna, stepped down. Amber flirtatiously asked Rob to let her win, leading to this genuinely romantic exchange:
Rob: You wouldn’t want me to just let you win. You’d want to beat me.
Amber: I just wanna win.
Rob: You’ll have to beat me then.
Amber lost the challenge, but won the war: In what Ross calls “the most bitter jury we’ve ever seen,” Boston Rob was scolded and blamed and ultimately voted down 4-3. At the finale, Amber wore a yellow homemade “I <3 ROB” T-shirt, accepted his marriage proposal, and won $1 million.
In the spring of 2005, a few months after the Red Sox broke their curse and a few months before the Marianos’ wedding, Amber went to the team’s spring training with her sister, hoping to get a few players to autograph a painting she had commissioned from an artist that she and Rob both liked named Giovanni DeCunto. “They all knew who ‘Boston Rob’ was,” she says, listing some: Kevin Youkilis, Johnny Damon, Big Papi, Manny Ramírez, Bronson Arroyo, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield. “I kept thinking, ‘Rob would die to be here right now. Meeting all the players and them wanting to meet him as well.’”
Mariano would get to experience a similar feeling firsthand. As a hockey-playing kid growing up in Massachusetts in the ’70s and ’80s, he had loved the spiky-haired, silky-skilled Boston Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque so much that when Mariano was 12 or 13 years old, he begged his parents for a lift so that he could go meet his idol. “He did an appearance at MVP Sports on Route 1 in Norwood,” he says. He stood in line, starstruck, and got a stick signed.
“Well, fast-forward,” Mariano says, “like, you know, 20 years later, and I’m on Survivor, and the Bruins reached out to me to drop the first puck.” Some retired NHL players were being feted at the same game, and a wide-eyed Mariano and his sister got to hang out among them at a reception. “I saw Cam Neely, Rick Middleton, all these guys,” Mariano says. “And all of the sudden I tell my sister: ‘Oh my God, there’s Ray Bourque!’”
Egged on by his sister, Mariano approached Bourque for a photo. This was, in hindsight, a meeting of two titans of sport. Like his NHL hero, Mariano possesses a deft, powerful ability to spin defense into offense and a knack for faking people out while staring them right in the eye. “He turned around,” Mariano says, “and he’s like, ‘Oh my God! Boston Rob!’ He’s like, ‘My whole family watches Survivor! We love you!’”
It wasn’t just Boston-area athletes who were paying attention. National interest in Survivor was sky-high following that All-Stars season, and after Amber accepted Boston Rob’s marriage proposal, their exposure also widened. Over the years, he hosted TV shows on UPN and on the History Channel. He and Amber competed on two seasons of The Amazing Race, once as an affianced couple and again as newlyweds. (They controversially lost their first attempt.) Mariano became the first dude to grace the cover of Modern Bride magazine. He had a gig on a CBS morning show called “Rob to the Rescue” that involved the network flying him around the country to do things like help single moms install light fixtures. CBS aired a two-hour special about Rob and Amber’s wedding.
Still, all the rescuing in the world couldn’t change Mariano’s reputation as a Survivor castmate. “I’m a villain?” he half-joked when he stepped off a plane in 2009 for the filming of Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. By the end of Episode 2, he had leaned back into it. “I had a moment of clarity, which was, stop trying to be the good guy,” he said in a confessional. One of the funniest good-bad things Mariano did that season wasn’t shown on TV, but his friend and castmate Tyson told it at a poker tournament: For a short while, the two of them kept stealing kerosene from the crew member’s boats and generators to use for fire until the production finally assigned security guards to stop the pilfering.
It had been six years since Mariano played Survivor, and concepts that are now staples of the game—like hidden immunity idols—were new to him. They were not new to Russell Hantz. All great athletic careers involve foils, and for Mariano that season, his was Russell. With his stocky form, his choice of hat, and his loitering on the beach, Russell had the aesthetic of an Animal Crossing character who tries to swindle you by trading weeds for fine art and does not give a shit about any of Boston Rob’s controlling attempts to guilt-trip the whole tribe en masse into agreeing not to look for the idol.
That season featured a tribal council that forever lives on in infamy: Tyson got spooked during a planned split vote, wound up inadvertently getting himself eliminated thanks to Russell’s use of an immunity idol, and set in action a series of events that would lead to Boston Rob’s doom the following week. “Kind of threw me for a loop,” Mariano says. That he would be surprised by Tyson’s blunder isn’t itself that remarkable—it’s widely considered to be one of the biggest tribal council errors of all time—but what’s wild to contemplate is that, to Mariano, it stands alone. “I think there may have only been one time that I went to tribal council and what I thought was going to happen didn’t happen,” Mariano says. Even when he’s been the one voted out, it hasn’t caught him off guard.
“My brain works different, I think,” Mariano says. He is talking about his prowess for solving puzzles and sounding a bit like if one of the imaginary brothers Matt Damon rattles off in Good Will Hunting came to life. “It just comes natural to me: I can’t sit down and read War and Peace cover to cover, or even, like, any book. But when it comes to puzzle stuff, or working with my hands, or figuring stuff out, it’s just always going to come naturally to me.”
As a Survivor contestant, Mariano has quite a full toolbox: He’s generally a challenge beast, whether it’s solving those puzzles or performing feats of strength. He’s good at the quote-unquote “social game.” While he may be ruthless, he’s not really, day-to-day, a typical reality TV antagonist; people fear him, but they like him. He’s a popular narrator. (More jaded Survivor fans like to point out that Mariano has another key instrument at his disposal that helps in this regard: his friendship with Probst.) He’s mostly strategically sound. The only thing he’s routinely terrible at is eating gross stuff. (According to interviews that Tyson and Parvati gave on Cesternino’s Rob Has a Podcast some years back, Mariano is such a picky eater that, even when starving, he rarely even touched fish.) And on Survivor: Redemption Island, which aired in 2011, every one of his strengths came together.
Here’s a sampling of how dominant Boston Rob was that season: He won individual immunity challenges four times. His sidekick, Natalie, was so subservient to his wishes that when asked to describe what she had done that might qualify her for Sole Survivor, her answer was that she did a good job knowing that Boston Rob likes his rice prepared crunchy. Mariano rarely moved from a rainbow-colored lounge chair, making everyone come to him to unload all their secrets, which they all did. “Rob’s running around bulldozing these little kids,” Parvati said on Cesternino’s podcast at the time. “And they’re like, ‘OK, whatever you say, thank you, sir, may I have another.’”
As if to add insult to injury, when the tribes merged that season he sold everyone on a new name: Murlonio, explaining that it meant “from the sea, united.” In actuality, it was the name of one of his wife’s stuffed animals, safe back home. Having apparently learned his lesson with respect to hidden immunity idol management during Heroes vs. Villains, he absolutely cleaned up on that front in Redemption Island. “He’s doing everything that, once you get off the game, you think: This is what I should have done,” Tyson told Cesternino. “He’s not telling anybody he has the idol ever. Which is awesome.”
First he found the idol. Later, he threw Grant, a former NFL player and seemingly Mariano’s bosom buddy, off the path of looking for it by slipping him an overly vague clue. And as the icing on top, when Mariano found a third clue during a yacht dinner, he threw it over his shoulder into an actual volcano with a shrug because he didn’t have any use for it.
There were still moments of drama, however. With four people remaining in the game and one final immunity challenge, Mariano knew that he’d be vulnerable to an overthrow by his minions if he didn’t win. Eventually, he came from behind to solve the final puzzle first—Only You Are Safe, it spelled out—and held his disgusting Red Sox hat over his face to try to cover his feelings, like he was standing out above the Green Monster at Fenway. It was so meaningful, he explained, to be so close to winning a prize he had sought with singular vision for a decade. He may have been talking about a reality TV show, but he was describing a mentality that you typically hear in professional sports league locker rooms.
“Winning that challenge meant a lot to me,” he says now, before pivoting from tender emotion into light ridicule. “If I don’t win it, I’m going to have to vote for one of these people that are totally undeserving to win the prize—that I’ve been able to drag there.” He means Natalie and Phillip, two castaways that Mariano handled like marionettes throughout the course of the season. For the people who were voted out as part of his scheming, like Grant, being eliminated burned like a tiki torch. The two went from being pals to not speaking, not the first time that’s been the case with Boston Rob. But for him, any sort of interpersonal attachment is a fool’s errand. “I never subscribed to any of that,” he tells me now. “I never saw it as anything other than a business trip.” The man famous in part for finding love on Survivor swears he was never there to make friends.
In 2019, Mariano and another Survivor legend, Sandra—the show’s only two-time champion until Wednesday’s winner is revealed—were tapped to be advising Idols in a new season that involved competitors occasionally traveling to a faraway land to receive sage advice from two of the show’s most iconic figures. What stands out most from that experiment, besides the giant sculptures of Rob’s and Sandra’s heads, was how many modern-day Survivor castaways grew up examining every move from Boston Rob. (“They’ve all read the Boston Rob Rulebook,” he told EW, which means that presumably everyone was now aware of nuggets like: “No one likes to be told they stink at something” and “Luckily, I’ve always been able to keep my mind calm when everything around me is out of control.”) Even Sandra talked about her admiration for him at a panel earlier this year, when the woman known as “The Queen” said that when she applied for Survivor, the name she wrote down as the player she was most like was “Boston Rob.”
The contestants who visited the Island of the Idols were the same way. “In my mind,” said Kellee, “they’re legends. They’re celebrities. I was like, ‘Should I freak out? Should I play it cool?’” Vince said that he wasn’t easily starstruck … but that he was currently starstruck. By the last few episodes, it all started to feel like a surprise birthday party or something: “They gave us the blueprint of how to play the game,” Jamal gushed. “You guys are the reason people play this game,” said Lauren. “This is like seeing Michael Jordan and Serena Williams,” eventual runner-up Dean pointed out.
“That’s ironic,” Mariano says when I bring that last comment up, “because I don’t really like basketball.” He does love Boston enough, though, to add: “Larry Bird, maybe.”
Mariano may not be a basketball fan, but the trajectory of Survivor has some similarities to the sport. Since Boston Rob was drafted into the league, so to speak, the game has evolved around him. In addition to the Edge of Extinction, where losers can earn their way back into the game, Winners at War involves a new twist: a thriving cryptoconomy revolving around “fire tokens” that can be traded for advantages of various appeal. It’s a far cry from back when a young Boston Rob was dropped off on Marquesas with a pot and a machete and pretty much nothing else, but it’s also a reminder of what keeps the series moving forward.
“Everything is like the NBA,” says Cesternino of the way Survivor has evolved since its early iterations. “They’re just, like—scoring is way up from where it was even 10 years ago. So everything in Survivor now is offense, and a player like [this season’s front-runner] Tony, who sort of thrives in that type of chaos, has really thrived in this type of a season.” Mariano probably wouldn’t disagree with this; one of the most fun tiny moments he’s had this season came when he saw Tony pull off a zany tribal council and remarked, deadpan: “Tony’s a boss.”
"at this point, no one else left in the game even stands a chance against tony. he’s a challenge beast, he has a solid number of allies surrounding him, and he’s playing an elite game. boston rob said it best, 'tony’s a boss.'" - /u/lukeycharm #Survivorhttps://t.co/KBAVQQlf91— Survivor Reddit (@Survivor_Reddit) May 1, 2020
In many respects, it’s impressive that Boston Rob stayed on the island for as many weeks as he did before being sent to the Edge of Extinction. His wife, Amber, was the first competitor booted from her tribe. (“We’ve seen Rob work his powers of persuasion in ways that boggle the mind,” Probst told CinemaBlend.) But if Mariano’s alliance with some of his fellow “old school” contestants, like Ethan and Parvati, helped keep him around for a few extra weeks, that same element of been there, done that also proved to be his undoing. (That, and Adam wanting and failing to be a hero.) It’s one thing for him to wield a snitch-driven tactic like “the buddy system” over an island of awed newbies in Nicaragua, but it doesn’t work as well among savvy veterans who have seen it before.
“I think it makes it very difficult to play,” says Lopez, about the repeated appearances. “You know, a lot of the people who now populate the show are superfans, and they approach it from a very strategic research position.”
Now, some of the very tactics Mariano pioneered, like taking out the strongest competitors early on, are the fundamentals, the norm, the ones used against him by those who studied his moves. When he did break out an element of surprise on Winners at War, asking everyone on his tribe to empty their bags and prove they didn’t have an idol, they were caught off guard enough to comply—but not to let it go. “He tried to use those tactics against a group of very proud former winners that did not want to get trolled on social media for bending to Boston Rob’s every whim,” Ross says.
In the house Mariano is renovating, one tidy room is filled with neat rows of about a dozen doors laid out side by side on sawhorses, each one ready to be painted and fitted with a brushed-nickel knob. It all looks a little bit like the setup to an immunity challenge, except rendered not in Survivor Technicolor but in Universal Grey. As he paints and screws and installs, Mariano has lately spent a lot of time luxuriating in the quiet. “With the whole quarantine going on,” he says, “having silence is kinda nice. I’m with my wife and four daughters at home every day when I’m not here.”
Usually, Mariano listens to Howard Stern or sports radio when he’s at work on a house. The name Boston Rob sounds like the kind of guy who could easily be a recurring character in either universe, popping up to offer bold takes and grandiose bets. Like this one: In 2015, when the Patriots were playing the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, Mariano challenged Lopez, or “my agent, who is a big mouth from Seattle,” as he describes him with a smirk, to a wager. (The two men originally met thanks to Probst, who worked at a Seattle news affiliate back in the day.)
Terms changed a few times, but ultimately settled on this: The man whose team lost the Super Bowl would need to purchase and sleep on the winning team’s licensed bedding, and also mount an 8-by-10 portrait of the winning team’s coach on the wall. One thing led to another, Pete Carroll failed to call a play for Marshawn Lynch, and, so, Lopez says with a heavy sigh, “Sadly, my wife and I slept with New England Patriots blankets, under the scornful gaze of Bill Belichick looking down at us.” In accordance with the bet, they slept this way for a full year. With personal bets like that, who needs the adrenaline of finding a hidden immunity idol?
Lately, though, there isn’t much for sports radio to crow about—not much that Mariano wants to hear, anyway. For weeks, episodes of Survivor have been the only sports in town. Is he excited for Brady to be playing down in Florida? “I don’t even want to talk about that,” he says about the Tompa Bay era, sounding like a man possibly worn out from talking about nothing but that. “I hate the situation and I’m irritated about the whole thing. It makes zero sense to me whatsoever.” The two men began their careers at roughly the same time, but now only one of them remains with the original franchise—though who knows for how long. Survivor is like “riding a bike,” Mariano tells me; there’s no real reason to believe he won’t one day be inspired to hop back on. (He has, after all, previously and erroneously claimed to be “done with Survivor.”)
This time last year, Mariano was back home for about 10 days in between filming Island of the Idols and Winners at War in Fiji. He swept in and “tried to soak up the girls,” Amber writes, while her preparation for Winners at War looked a little bit different: With Rob away, she watched their four daughters, tried “to anticipate any situation that could come up during a two-month period away from home,” and attempted to fit in daily two-hour workouts. She was voted off the island on Day 3. “She had to endure the Edge of Extinction that whole time,” Mariano says. “She’s a fighter. She never quit. I think she set an awesome example for our daughters of what it means to be tough.”
There’s a nostalgia to the way the Marianos have been edited during this Survivor season. In one confessional, Amber tried to explain that she might actually miss the cursed Edge of Extinction. In its way, it provided for an oddly calming existence: It’s not at all easy—you can’t describe all the log-hauling and the daily spoonful of rice as that—but straightforwardly serene. Even Boston Rob has become a little bit wistful. When you’re used to decades of his big talk, it’s striking to hear him admit to feeling something as simple as “sad.” In Episode 10, after all the contestants got family visits—even, blessedly, the ones who had been booted to the Edge—Mariano delivered another memorable small moment, thanking Probst for bringing out the families and prompting a group hug.
For Mariano, one of the best parts of his daughters’ Fiji visit was that they got to be in on the plans, though they weren’t allowed to tell friends they’d be traveling. “They’re old enough now to keep a secret,” Mariano says, sounding enormously proud, “and they were so great about it.” Having passed along to his progeny one of Survivor’s most crucial skills, Mariano has lately been working on another.
“People always ask if we make fire at home,” he remarked on a recent Instagram Live video in which he answered the question by huddling with one of his daughters as she wielded a machete and a piece of flint. As Boston Rob, Amber, and her tiny look-alikes sat watching the chaotic sparks fly, everything seemed exactly in order.