Jackson State has its own Rocky Balboa in Santee Marshall.
Marshall, a junior running back from New Orleans, broke out in his Jackson State debut against Alabama A&M. Playing in a college game for the first time since 2018, Marshall ran 19 times for 126 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for 120 of those yards in the first half after Greg Williams, who was already the third-string running back, went down on Jackson State's first play from scrimmage.
Marshall didn't just make the best of his opportunity. Marshall made his opportunity.
His is a story of confidence and refusal to accept anything other than the dream outcome. His is a journey from Division II backup to cast-off walk-on to practice cameraman to coach Deion Sanders’ “38 Magnum” with the scout team. Today, as Sanders puts it, he's now the "team favorite."
"The lesson I've learned is believe in yourself and always keep faith," Marshall said.
The long road to Jackson State
Marshall played high school football at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans. Slightly undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Marshall only had two offers: Langston University, an NAIA school in Oklahoma, and Miles College, a Division II school in Alabama.
Marshall chose Miles because it was closer to home, but it wasn't a great fit.
In two seasons, Marshall only carried 61 times for 223 yards and two touchdowns, roughly 12 yards per game. He felt he could achieve more, but the opportunities weren’t there.
Marshall’s high school friends encouraged him to transfer. Among those was Jackson State receiver Warren Newman.
"I kept calling him every day," Newman said. "I was like 'Bro, did you sign up for school? Did you apply to school?' Some days he'd procrastinate, but he finally did it. He got accepted and stuff. Once he did that, I felt like he was getting more and more serious."
Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Marshall transferred to Jackson State with the intent to walk on. Newman had shared Marshall's film with Jackson State's offensive coaching staff and they liked it, especially former offensive coordinator Ron Dickerson Jr.
Marshall was poised to walk on but had to sit out the 2019 season due to NCAA transfer rules. So he had to wait until 2020, but that fall season never happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And before long, former coach John Hendrick and his staff, including Dickerson, were dismissed. In came Sanders and his coaching staff, and there went Marshall’s Jackson State connections.
Lights, camera, action
Sanders and his staff held open tryouts upon their arrival at Jackson State.
Marshall missed the cut. He says he doesn't know what went wrong in the tryout. He felt he performed well. But apparently his performance wasn't enough to impress the coaches.
Undeterred, Marshall looked for another way onto the team. He met with director of player personnel Otis Riddley, who was one of two holdovers from the previous staff. Riddley told him he could get a job on staff and try to get closer to the coaches that way.
Deion Sanders speaks after Jackson State's 34-14 loss to Southern
Rashad Milligan, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
That led Marshall, and Newman, to Ahmon Lott, Jackson State’s director of video services. Newman texted Lott first. Then Marshall reached out through Instagram.
Marshall told Lott he was a football player first but wanted a job on staff to try to get closer to the coaches. Lott brought him on as a camera operator tasked with filming practices.
Marshall had his foot in the door. Whether he'd ever operated a camera was immaterial.
"I took pride in it," Marshall said. "I take pride in everything. I took pride in filming. They had a few people in there trying to clue me in. 'You've got to hold it this way. Hold it this way.' But it was a good experience."
Marshall said he took a weird enjoyment in his job as a cameraman. For the first time since 2018, Marshall was around football. He'd been working out and trying to stay in shape the whole time. But now he was back where he felt he belonged.
Or, at least, next to it.
The ascent to the top
Marshall always had Newman on his side. And he had a relationship with Riddley. Now he had Lott, too.
Lott did what he could to get Marshall's film in front of running backs coach Gary Harrell. Marshall, too, was relentless in his own right.
"So I got on the running backs coach and coach Otis to start talking," Marshall said. "Then I kept going back and asking, 'Can I practice? Can I practice?'"
Eventually, Riddley relented. Marshall found his way onto the practice squad by mid-March. He traded in his camera for a job as a scout team running back, and on his first day, Marshall broke free for a touchdown.
"This kid, from day one, when he got on the field was going 100 miles an hour, and hit with such tenacity, he got my attention," Sanders said. "Then, I started requesting, ‘Hey, man. Get him some reps with the offense.' OK, now we’re taking him off scout team. As soon as he gets his reps with the first team, now he goes back and assumes scout team responsibilities. He never wavered."
Marshall says Sanders gave him a nickname — "38 Magnum." Both for the number Marshall wears and for the speed at which he hits the hole with the ball in his hands.
Marshall, who has two years of eligibility remaining, can't remember if he spent two or three weeks with the scout team, but he remembers the day he felt things start to build toward a change.
"(Sanders) stopped me after practice one day and said, 'I'm trying to get you out there. You've got to block,'" Marshall said. "I figured my time was coming."
Marshall's moment came on April 3 against Southern. He didn't play, but he did dress out. Just running out of the tunnel and hearing the roar of a crowd was enough for Marshall.
But that was just a preview.
Breaking out and breaking free
One minute into the second quarter of the Alabama A&M game, Marshall found his rhythm. He'd carried five times for 27 yards and two first downs. He'd also caught a pass for 2 yards.
Jackson State lined up for a first-and-10 on its own 46. The call was an outside zone read. Marshall glanced outside and saw a cornerback on the edge had contain all by himself. Marshall said he knew if he put one move on the cornerback, he'd fall for it, and Marshall would have nothing but grass in front of him.
"After that, I saw nobody else," Marshall said. "My eyes got big."
Marshall broke free for a 54-yard touchdown to give Jackson State a 14-7 lead. He lunged over the pylon for the score. Hitting the ground, his hands flung into the air to signal touchdown. Twice.
Teammates and coaches mobbed him on the sideline. Sanders was among them. But no one was more amped than Newman.
"I had ran a bubble on the backside of the play," Newman said. "When I heard the crowd screaming, I saw him flying down the sideline. It looked just like high school days. It was a good moment knowing all he had to go through and the work to get here.
"I was just happy. I was excited. I was slapping his helmet so hard I told him he probably thought it was other people. I slapped him about three times. He realized. He was like, 'I wondered why my head was hurting.' That was all me."
Marshall says he didn't feel his performance was a surprise. Rather, he feels like he should've broken one or two more big runs. Even though it turned out to be Jackson State's last game of the spring after the season finale was canceled because of COVID-19 within the Tigers' program, he has plenty of time for that.
In so many ways, Marshall’s story runs parallel to Rudy Ruettiger, the famed Notre Dame walk-on and inspiration for the movie "Rudy." But the difference is Ruettiger’s story ended with his breakout moment, while Marshall's was only the beginning.
"He’s the team favorite right now. You know why? Because it’s like a Rocky-type thing," Sanders said. "A kid that got an opportunity, but they know why he got an opportunity. They can not argue that he worked his butt off every darn day on that scout team. Not manipulating, but he worked his way to walking on, from holding a darn camera like (the media). I mean he did it. He did it, and he’s very successful. Now, how do you maintain that?"
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.