The first time Brandon Marshall remembers being treated differently for the color of his skin was when he was a child walking home from grade school with his older brother on a balmy Las Vegas day.
A pickup truck stalked slowly behind the Marshall brothers before coming to a complete stop. That’s when the racial slurs and beer bottles started to fly.
“They missed us so we were alright but I just knew they were cowards,” Marshall recalled. “You’re going to yell at us, call us the n-word but you’re not going to get out of your truck? It was crazy.”
The 30-year-old NFL veteran remembers the hardships as much as the good times when he reflects on his upbringing. Marshall has plenty of positive memories from growing up locally — especially regarding his tight-knit family and the way they rallied together when his mother was the victim of domestic violence — but it was the negative ones that drove him to the top of his profession and made him dedicate a large part of his life to change.
In his first game since winning Super Bowl 50 as the leading tackler on the 2015 Denver Broncos, Marshall joined former UNR teammate Colin Kaepernick’s protest and became the third NFL player to kneel during the national anthem. The linebacker dealt with loss of sponsorships and excessive criticism as an early advocate of Black Lives Matter, but his efforts in the Denver and Las Vegas communities demonstrated his gesture was in no way hollow.
Marshall worked with the Denver Police Department to revise their use-of-force protocols and started his own charity, the Williams-Marshall Cares Leadership Program, to mentor at-risk teenagers.
At the end of last year, he moved back to Las Vegas for the first time in more than six years in part to do more grassroots work locally — including expanding his program, feeding low-income families and offering a free youth football camp.
“I’ve experienced so many different things and I know what it’s like to be Black in America and I know what it’s like for people in my community and how they feel,” Marshall said. “I understand the whole spectrum of how people feel, and honestly, with the kneeling, I just felt like I had a platform. And if I have platform, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to speak to this.’”
It caught many off-guard, even those close to him. Phase 1 Sports founder Mike Waters has become somewhat of a father figure to Marshall by virtue of training him for 15 years.
Waters helped Marshall transform from a lightly recruited high-school player to an NFL Draft prospect and was just as important as a personal resource. Marshall says he seeks advice from Waters on everything in life, and yet the latter had no idea what he was about to witness what he tuned in for the Broncos’ 2016 season opener against the Carolina Panthers and saw pregame cameras fixated on Marshall.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you probably should have called me the day before, before you went out of the locker room, something,’” Waters said. “But I was behind it because he’s really that guy. He’s always been paying attention to social injustice and he’s always been connected to that, so when he did it, I knew it was genuine and I knew it was because he thought it was in the best interest of everyone. People painted it as something different, but it was something coming from the heart.”
“I just told him, ‘This is going to be a time you’re going to have to grow the thickest skin ever because you’re going to get death threats and everything you can imagine. You’ve got to stay focused because the spotlight is on you and they’re going to be all over you if you as much as blink wrong.’”
Marshall never did blink incorrectly. He spent three more years with the Broncos and doesn’t attribute his activism as a reason for why he was out of the NFL last season.
The cause of his absence was a knee injury that wrecked two shots with the Raiders, one in training camp and then another midseason. Marshall was determined to one day play at Allegiant Stadium for his now-hometown team, but he wasn’t at his best physically and couldn’t stick on the roster to make it that far.
“I thought I would have more time and thought things would be different,” Marshall said. “I’ve always been a guy who worked hard, worked through things, but I couldn’t work through this. Everything that happens happens for a reason. I wish I was still playing for a team, but that’s how life works out.”
Marshall is currently a free agent but fully confident he’ll wind up on an NFL roster in the coming months. He stopped pushing back a knee surgery he needed, and had it completed in January.
Ever since he’s been cleared, he’s been re-strengthening his knee and the rest of his body with Waters’ direction. The Phase 1 facility has been the unofficial offseason workout headquarters for local NFL players, and Waters said Marshall hasn’t looked the least bit out of place.
“He’d laugh if he was sitting with me right now but I really think moving back to Vegas and then quarantine has helped him more than any other player in the NFL,” Waters said. “He couldn’t travel, had all the restrictions so we were just able to dial in and focus with no distraction. We just looked at each other the other day and were like, ‘We’ve really been training five days a week for three months straight with no breaks.’”
Many around the NFL feel that rookies will be the most adversely affected by the pandemic interrupting the usual offseason. With first-year players having not been permitted to spend any time with their franchises, teams may opt to fill roster spots with more reliable, experienced players over unprepared, undrafted free agents with uncertain potential.
That’s what Marshall is banking on, and he said he has heard from several interested teams. He hasn't decided if he’ll continue kneeling but he's invigorated by what he sees as signs of progress since the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Making the world a more welcoming place has always meant just as much to him as playing football.
“I was really inspired by (Kaepernick) and I had a real conviction,” Marshall said. “It was something on my heart so I decided to act on it. I’m comfortable that in 20 years people will know me for more than football because I see myself as more than a football player anyway.”