When I first met Brandon Marshall, he was a freshman at UCF and hadn’t even played a game yet for the Golden Knights football team. A friend told me that the high school track star was going to be a really special player at UCF, and so I was excited to talk to him and pick his brain about what he brought to the program, which was, at the time, going through some growing pains. Of course, ignoring my own inexperience, I failed to recognize that maybe this 18-year-old kid might struggle with a tape recorder in his face. Sure enough, the interview was hilariously bad.
Incredibly nervous and shy, Marshall laughed when I asked him the first question, and then he asked me to simply write his answers for him. After the sports info person told him we couldn’t do that, Marshall and I spent maybe five minutes talking, and I was left wondering what the hell I was going to write about. I’ve kept that story with me after so many years, because it’s something that helps me improve, and so I was eager to share it with Marshall again this week when we spoke about his role as a social media correspondent for AT&T Audience Network at Super Bowl LI.
The Jets receiver vaguely remembered our chat, but he acknowledged that he’s come a long way since those days as a shy kid. “It took a couple years to get there,” he laughs. It’s amazing to look back at his evolution, not just as a brash, confident, and sometimes-controversial receiver, but also as a spokesman for borderline personality disorder. He’s spoken at Harvard, testified before a U.S. Senate committee, and he’s appeared on countless national television shows to promote mental health awareness and Project 375. This week, his gig is a little easier, as he’ll be interviewing celebrities and athletes, but he’s still not ready to take over The Tonight Show.
“I’ve come a long way, but I still get nervous,” he admits. “I’m comfortable because I’m talking about things I know, but I reflect back on that and I used to just be about ball. That’s what we know. It’s a business now, and there’s so much thrown at you and so many different newspapers and bloggers, so many independent and freelance writers… you’re always on. You have no choice but to get better. I’ve done a great job of making it a point to figure out what I need to do to be better.”
On the field, it starts with being a better teammate and a leader. Like most star receivers, Marshall is no stranger to the “Diva” tag. He’s been called selfish and made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Today, people wonder if the 32-year-old is done with the fourth team of his professional career, but if his attitude and self-awareness are any indication, he’ll have no problem finding another home.
“Diva is a selfish tag,” Marshall explains. “Sometimes there is selfishness. You have to be able to see what’s selfish, and when I just want my team to win. Odell Beckham, Jr. isn’t selfish. He just wants the ball every single play. You want that, that’s what makes him great. Although coaches and situations dictate a lot of our success at all positions, the receiver position is tough, because for my team to win, I need the ball. When you ask for the ball, you’re considered selfish. But you’re not saying you want the ball just because you want the ball. What you’re saying is, ‘I just want to win.’
“What I’ve learned over the years is that instead of going to my offensive coordinator and quarterback and saying, ‘Hey man, I need the ball, why do I only have three catches?’ I go to them and say, ‘How can I help the team? I want to make sure that we’re winning. What can I do?’ That takes the conversation a different way. Sometimes it’s still hard, and sometimes I fail at it. But I’m aware and I usually make the right decision.”
Last July, Marshall had some fun with Antonio Brown on social media, betting the Steelers star that he’d rack up more yards this season. The wager? Marshall put his brand new white Porsche up against Brown’s custom Rolls Royce. To the average fan or analyst, the bet was ridiculous. Brown had more than 300 yards on Marshall in the 2015 season, while Marshall has four years on Brown. And as we saw as the regular season came to an end, Marshall lost the bet by a country mile. Really, though, it was a matter of two friends and peers having some fun on social media, and fans certainly gave Marshall a hard time for his boldness.
Last month, Brown experienced another kind of social media backlash. The kind where people aren’t laughing with you. His Facebook Live video from the Steelers locker room was the kind of unnecessary bulletin board material that no one should ever give the Patriots. The backlash went way beyond fans. Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger made it clear, openly, that social media had no place in the locker room. Steelers legend Hines Ward agreed with them and thought Brown got what he deserved.
Marshall, however, thinks it’s more indicative of how intrusive social media has become at a time when athletes are under the microscope 24/7. Basically, it’s bound to happen.
“Social media is everything,” he says. “The only platform used to be our website. Now, for every one person that goes to a website, 1,000 go to your social media accounts. Everything is done on social media and when we talk about building a brand, whether it’s the plan of the NFL or the plan of a specific team, we’re embracing that. And there’s almost 24-hour access, but in the locker room you probably only get three minutes after a game to enjoy that moment with your team or gather yourself after a loss. It’s almost like sacred time. But that’s what happens when you continue to push and push and push, and give and give and give. Things like this happen and I’m sure Antonio and others will fix it moving forward and be all good.”
Bringing up Brown’s dilemma made Marshall chuckle a little. It’s one of those topics that tends to get a guy into trouble, after all, so he’s extra careful when talking about someone else’s controversy or another team’s problems. But it’s also a part of the reason why he was willing to hit the Super Bowl parties this week and play the role of reporter. He can relate to his fellow athletes and the celebrities, because he knows what they go through, and that helps people open up.
“I don’t try to be a reporter, I just try to be me,” he says. “Content is king right now, and we all know that, even as athletes. I just try to stick to, ‘I’m just a football player trying to interview you,’ and it helps because I know what to ask and how to ask it. What’s challenging is when some of the tough topics come up during the year, because we have a culture where we’re told, ‘Just talk about your team,’ and even then, ‘Don’t talk about your team, just talk about you and your position, and stick to that.’ It’s something we need to look at and possibly change, but it definitely makes it harder in season when you’re asked about other players and other teams.”
Still, I asked Marshall to talk about other teams. Specifically, to name the best receiver in the NFL right now, and he can’t pick himself, obviously. He admits that’s a hard task with today’s superstar wideouts, but he makes a surprising pick outside of the generally-accepted “Big 3.”
“Before AJ Green got hurt this year, he was playing the best ball,” Marshall offers. “Then you have the other three: Odell, Antonio, and Julio. I think they’re all interchangeable. It depends on your flavor. What do you want? They’re all tremendous. You could be the best receiver in the league, but if other things around you aren’t clicking, you’ll be lucky if you have a couple touchdowns. Those guys are in great situations. One guy has Eli, one has Big Ben, the other has the MVP of the league in Matty Ice. It’s tough to say, ‘This is the No. 1 guy.’ A couple years ago, it was clear: Calvin Johnson. Now, there are a lot of great guys.”
Again, Marshall is 32, so it’s fair to wonder if his best days are behind him. But Steve Smith looked like he could have played at least one more season, before he ultimately called it quits. So, what’s Marshall’s secret to putting up elite receiver numbers after crossing to the other side of 30?
“The key to longevity in this league is having a little luck with injury prevention,” he explains. “Dedication to the process. Dedication to your routine. How are you going to eat? How are you going to sleep? That’s the secret weapon right there, just sleep in itself. How are you going to train? What are you going to do to recover? How are you going to balance it out and stay healthy mentally? Once you put that in place, you have to be relentless at it. Tom Brady is 50-years-old and still one of the best quarterbacks in this league, to this day, Top 3.”
Okay, maybe Brady isn’t 50, but Marshall has a point: Brady is a freak of nature. That’s why Marshall’s pick to win Super Bowl LI is the Pats, especially because he calls defensive coordinator Matt Patricia his MVP.
As for the rest of the week and his job with AT&T Audience Network, Marshall has one goal when it comes to meeting a celebrity: Taylor Swift. She’ll be performing her own Super Bowl LI concert on Saturday night, thanks to DirecTV and AT&T, so Marshall is down to join the squad. “Let’s get her on one of our channels,” he laughs. That would certainly be an interview to remember.