Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall forging his own NFL identity
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- At the end of his 2012 rookie season, after bouncing back and forth between the practice squad and active roster, Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Brandon Marshall had a conversation with position coach Mark Duffner that would stick with him.
"He said, 'You have to get your stuff together because I don't know if you're going to make it, if this is for you,'" Marshall recalled in a conversation with FOX Sports the other day. "I got upset. I got mad. I didn't want to yell or say something I shouldn't say, so I just kept it in internally and used that for motivation. That was fuel to the fire.
"I'll never forget he said that. To this day I still think about it."
That was a 2-14 Jaguars team -- tied for worst in the NFL -- and here was one of the coaches of the team telling a fifth-round draft pick he might not be cut out to play in the league. Aside from being out of the NFL completely, it doesn't get any lower than that.
Yet within about 20 months, Marshall has proven this league is for him.
Due to a recurring knee injury to Denver Broncos weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan, Marshall has gone from a near-castoff on one of the NFL's worst teams to a starter on one of its best. He's leading a much-improved Broncos defense in tackles and is calling the signals in the huddle on game days and heading up meetings during the week. During Thursday night's AFC West showdown with the San Diego Chargers, he will stare into the eyes of proven veterans such as DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward and command them to follow him.
Marshall's tale is one of the under-told stories of this NFL season. It's a testament to professional dedication, a story of personal perseverance in overcoming a rough upbringing in a home where domestic violence was a constant threat. And a story of mistaken identity ("I do not play for the Bears," reads his Twitter profile, in reference to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who played for the Broncos and Miami Dolphins before heading to Chicago.)
And it's still being written.
"When he got cut by Jacksonville, he was at a crossroads in his life when he was kind of doubting himself," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a teammate of Marshall's with the Jaguars as well. "He had an opportunity to come here, and I told him to just keep working, keep get better. He's taking advantage of everything and he's not looking back.
"He prepares well, he practices well, his body is changing physically. He's treating it like a true professional."
Marshall didn't step right into a prominent role with the Broncos when he arrived last September. In fact, he spent nearly the entire season on the practice squad. But like Knighton said, Marshall handled his job like a true pro.
By all accounts from teammates and staff members, Marshall gave the starting offense fits in practice. He covered tight end Julius Thomas better than most opposing linebackers did on Sundays, he stopped the run and he even flustered Peyton Manning. During a late-season practice, Marshall recognized what play the offense was about to run based on the formation, so he yelled out, "Sprintout left!"
"You should've seen how he looked at me. He was in shock," a laughing Marshall said of Manning. "He snapped the ball, and it was a sprintout. I was like, 'I knew it!' That was one of my favorite moments."
The Broncos hand out a scout-team player of the week award. Marshall estimated he won it 10 or 11 times last year.
This year, when Trevathan suffered a cracked bone in his leg in training camp, the Broncos were confident Marshall could step in at the weakside spot for a few weeks. In his first three games, Marshall had a combined 30 tackles, two passes defensed, one sack and a forced fumble. Trevathan returned in Week 5, but one game later, he suffered another crack in the same bone and the team placed him on injured reserve with a designation to return, which means Marshall knew he had another eight-week stint as a starter coming his way.
This time around, he had built up credibility with the veterans because of his play early in the season. In Sunday's blowout victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Marshall led the team with eight tackles and added a pass defensed.
The stat that couldn't be measured was the confidence with which he led the defense during the week of preparation for that game.
"We want our linebackers to run their portion of it, make the calls and be strong with it so that the communication is taking place in the meeting that we want on the field," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "So he gets plenty of reps doing it and he's getting better at it. I think he's getting more comfortable."
It takes a strong will for a player with little experience to step up in front of the kind of veterans the Broncos have on their defense and speak in a confident voice the way Marshall has. Ask him where and how he developed that side of his personality and he will point you to his childhood.
Marshall was 9 years old when his father burst into the house where Brandon, his mother Barbara, his older brother Marcus and two younger cousins were staying. Brandon's father had been in and out of his life for some time and was struggling with a separation from Barbara, so the family immediately recognized the threat of the unannounced visit.
Brandon recalls picking up his little cousin and running. He says his father chased another cousin into a bedroom, where he then knocked a phone out of the cousin's hands as the cousin was trying to call the police.
"He and my mom were in the bathroom scuffling for a minute," Brandon recalls now in a hushed tone. "When he walked out, he gave me this look. I'll never forget it. He just wasn't himself. He's a different man now, but ..."
After the incident, the family moved into a shelter, where they knew they'd be safe until Brandon's father turned himself in to the police. They remained there for 26 days, according to Barbara. Brandon's father served about three years in prison following the incident.
"During that time (in the shelter), it helped us grow closer and we saw there were other people who had worse stories than ours," said Barbara, who now lives in Virginia but travels to Denver about once per month to see her son. "That just helped my children see that, even through adversity, you can grow. I tried to keep them going and motivated."
Brandon and his father now speak occasionally. Though their relationship hasn't completely healed, Brandon remains in touch with his father and visited him last year when he was sick.
It's Barbara whom Brandon credits with serving as his inspiration. She cared for the family for years and remained hopeful even when they were living in a mobile home during Brandon's early years. One year on her birthday, Barbara was asked by her father what she wanted for a gift.
"She said, 'I just want a tank of gas to get to work,'" Brandon said, recalling the story his grandfather told him. "It was just things like that and my mom's resiliency, with us not having the best situation and my dad being in and out. When that big incident finally happened, when we had to run from him because he was being abusive, me, my mom and brother jelled, we became tight-knit. It was just us. We knew we had to hold each other down."
The recent run of domestic-violence incidents involving NFL players brought back some harsh memories for Marshall.
"That's tough. No man should put his hands on a woman," he said. "I saw what my mom had to go through. I would never do it. Just having that experience and seeing what it does to a woman, it's not right at all."
All of the adversity Marshall experienced in his early years and even at the start of his NFL career has only made the recent good times that much sweeter. He knows life is good when one of his biggest problems is being confused for his name doppelgänger.
Marshall laughs when he thinks about all of the mean-spirited tweets sent his way that are actually intended for the other Brandon Marshall, the one who hasn't put on a Broncos uniform since 2009. A recurring theme this year is for fans to follow up bad games by the Bears' quarterback by tweeting, "Do you still think Jay Cutler will be the MVP this year?" Marshall, the linebacker, made no such prediction, of course.
This past weekend, after Marshall the receiver went off on his teammates in the locker room, Marshall the linebacker got a run of tweets telling him his behavior was "unacceptable," which was a word the Bears' Marshall used to describe the team's play.
When the Broncos' Marshall tweeted a Bible verse, a fan retweeted him and added, "And the Lord urges thee to get some freaking fantasy points bro." A Bears fan quickly informed the young man the divine intervention was misdirected.
But Marshall's favorite story about mistaken identity came when he went to his hometown of Las Vegas on Memorial Day weekend and was told by a friend that a club wanted him to host an event. Knowing he'd get VIP treatment and a nice payday, Marshall said sure. When he arrived and was escorted inside the club, he could tell the people running the party were expecting a different Brandon Marshall.
"I heard somebody say, 'That ain't him. Get him out of here,'" Marshall recalled. "They tell me they want to see my NFL card, so I give them that, they Google me and they're like, 'Is this you?' 'No, I play linebacker for the Broncos.' 'Ohhhhhhh!'
"They're mad at me, like I'm the impostor, but I'm mad because I'm the right one, they just think I'm the other one."
Marshall just realizes he has to make a name for himself. It was that way for him even when he was in Jacksonville and was struggling to gain the trust of the coaches. On the way to practice one day, a young linebacker named Greg Jones, who was also a late-round pick struggling to hang on to his NFL career, sensed he needed a pep talk.
"I've seen you play and I don't know why they treat you like this," said Jones, who had a brief stint as a starter with the New York Giants but is now out of the league.
"Those simple words were so profound. He didn't have to say anything else," Marshall said. "Just him saying that let me know I am good enough, I can play in this league, I am a good talent. He probably doesn't know until this day, but that little speech propelled me. When I was on practice squad, I was like, 'I can do it.' It lifted my spirits and I just kept working.
"And now, look where I am."