By Vaughn McClure, Tribune reporter
March 18, 2012
Brandon Marshall extended his hand with a firm handshake then displayed a glistening smile as if he had encountered a familiar face.
In reality, it was just another stranger trying to unravel the mystery behind the player known for his dynamic ability and volatile personality; someone trying to understand how experiences have aided Marshall in his quest to silence doubters and discover himself.
So the question was posed, face to face in an interview Friday with the Tribune, about how challenging childhood was for Marshall growing up in a Pittsburgh neighborhood he briefly referred to as the "slums.'' The newly acquired Bears wide receiver paused for a second, collected his thoughts and then responded in a polite manner.
"You have everything already,'' he said. "I'm not going to go into too much detail about that. I think I've covered everything.''
Yet there is still so much more to uncover.
Outsiders are familiar with the reckless, 27-year-old three-time Pro Bowler who has had his share of brushes with the law, including a recent incident in New York where a woman alleged Marshall punched her during a melee. Naysayers see a player who both the Broncos and Dolphins have discarded and can ill-afford another misstep with the Bears. Marshall expects to be cleared of wrongdoing in his most recent incident and that he won't face NFL discipline.
Although Marshall has educated the world about his struggle with the psychological condition borderline personality disorder -- he says the condition is at the root of his hostility -- skepticism remains. But not everyone views Marshall in the same light.
"He's not a bad person,'' said retired cornerback Dre Bly, a former teammate of Marshall with the Broncos.. "He knows right from wrong. If you know him and had a chance to play with him and had a chance to sit down with him, he's a good dude. I've played with some knuckleheads that looked like knuckleheads. Brandon ain't no knucklehead.''
At the same time, Bly wasn't oblivious to the anger pent up inside Marshall.
"He was labeled early, dealing with the things he was dealing with,'' Bly said. "But everyone doesn't come from the same background. When people don't understand, they label you.''
Another change of atmosphere could provide Marshall ample opportunity to shed that label.
A different side
Steve Kohn was amazed when he walked into an open-gym session inside Lake Howell High School and spotted a lanky kid who had transferred in from Georgia.
Kohn, now in his 25th season as the basketball coach of the suburban Orlando school, knew right then Marshall was a special talent.
"The first thing I noticed was that his hands were just better than anybody else's,'' Kohn recalled. "I didn't know if he was a football player or basketball player. He had such great balance and was never out of position or knocked sideways. That probably was why he was so great at catching stuff.''
There was something else Kohn noticed about Marshall, a three-sport standout in football (quarterback), basketball (wing) and track and field (state champion triple-jumper).
"To me, he was one of the most polite gentleman I had ever been around,'' Kohn said. "I knew he was a social guy. I knew he wasn't afraid to speak. But with me, he was always like, 'Yes sir. No sir.' He showed so much respect.''
Maybe Marshall simply had a better appreciation for his new surroundings. The predominantly black East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh he declined to reflect upon suffered a tremendous economic decline while he lived there. When he moved to Orlando, Marshall once told Sports Illustrated he was one of five blacks kids in his school "so I saw both sides.''
Marshall's parents declined to provide more details on his upbringing. When contacted by the Tribune last week, his mother, Diane, said she was reluctant to speak on anything as a result of the ongoing investigation into the New York incident.
Kohn got a text message from someone Wednesday informing him of Marshall's latest off-the-field predicament.
"I don't know what happens when all these stories come up all the time because I don't know that Brandon,'' Kohn said. "I saw him get angry, like I saw a lot of athletes get angry while they're competing. But I never saw it to the point that it would bubble over into something that would make the newspaper.''
Like Kohn, former Central Florida offensive coordinator Tim Salem viewed Marshall as a polite young man and an ultra-competitive athlete. Marshall started his college career at Central Florida as a wide receiver, moved to safety and then went back to receiver.
"Jokingly, I kind of treated him like a grade-schooler because he responded to that,'' Salem said. "Then he was all eyes and ears. It's kind of like taking that wild stallion and breaking him into the crowd. Every person is different, as far as hot button and cold buttons. You just have to know when to push them. No question, he'll respond to that. He has in the past.''
Marshall's still in the process of learning how not to respond when the wrong buttons are pushed.
Based on the suddenly lowered tone of Marshall's voice Friday, it was easy to tell the tragedy of Darrent Williams' death weighed heavily on his heart.
On New Year's Eve of 2006, Marshall, then with the Broncos, was at a Denver nightclub with a group that included teammate Williams. A disagreement between Marshall, gang-member Willie Clark and others -- an argument reportedly heightened when Clark's group was sprayed with champagne -- led to the drive-by shooting death of Williams later that evening.
Some speculated the bullets were intended for Marshall, who was not in the limousine with Williams.
Marshall tearfully testified at Clark's murder trial and Clark eventually was sentenced to life in prison.
"We did nothing wrong that night,'' Marshall said as he recalled the incident. "You can't control others, but you can control yourself. That was a situation that wasn't in any way physical. This was a group of guys who decided to make a foolish, foolish, foolish decision, and it turned out to be a tragedy.''
Marshall once considered wearing wristbands bearing the names of Damien Nash -- an ex-Bronco who died of a heart ailment after playing in a charity basketball game with Marshall -- and Williams, who left behind two young children.
"Darrent ... I miss him,'' Marshall said with an emotional pause.
"He was a great guy.''
Bly was traded from the Lions to the Broncos to replace Williams as the starting cornerback.
What Bly immediately discovered about Marshall was a passionate young player in need of a little guidance. He pointed to how Marshall often listened to advice from him and fellow veteran defensive back Champ Bailey. Marshall typically was the lone offensive player to attend the defense's Thursday night dinners.
"Wisdom,'' Marshall said. "The key to life is wisdom. Whenever you have a chance to sit down with someone who has more knowledge than you, you try to soak that up. You have be a sponge.''
Marshall also has been mentored by NFL greats such as Herschel Walker and Cris Carter. The Bears hope Marshall absorbs advice from coach Lovie Smith and his new veteran teammates. He now has the luxury of leaning on old friend and former Broncos teammate Jay Cutler in times of trouble, although Cutler said Marshall fully understands how to police himself by now.
Locker room leader Brian Urlacher offered this assessment of Marshall.
"From people I've talked with, I've heard Brandon's a great teammate,'' Urlacher said. "As long as he shows up to work and works hard, that's all we ask of anybody. We really don't have a lot of trouble in our locker room. ... And the organization makes sure that we get good guys to come in and fit in.''
Marshall scoffed at the notion he might need to set a curfew or keep from indulging in nightlife to stay on course. He pointed to how marriage, his newly found Christianity and the treatment of his borderline personality disorder all have contributed to his newfound maturity.
Now, it's just a matter of him remaining the same Brandon Marshall he recently discovered.
"Life is different when you're a high-profile person and you have that big of a light on you,'' he said. "You definitely have to conduct yourself differently, and that transition from not knowing to knowing can take longer for some than for others.''
Tribune reporter Jared Hopkins contributed.