Gorman: Important life lessons from high school football
True story. The boy was just 7 years old but couldn't wait to play football. You could see the excitement in his father's eyes, hear the concern in his mother's voice: Wasn't he too young to play tackle football?
Standing in the middle of that family squabble made for an awkward moment — until the boy jumped into a three-point stance and vowed to run over his 28-year-old cousin. As I casually bent over to play along, he sprung up and knocked me onto my backside in the gravel parking lot.
He'll be just fine, I told his mother.
I'm happy to report that I was just the first of many to be run over by Nick Marshall, from pee-wee with the Brookline Knights to preps with the Bethel Park Black Hawks. So, after following his football career for more than a decade, it was bittersweet to see it come to an end in a 21-0 loss to Penn-Trafford on Friday night in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.
For as extensively as we cover Rushel Shell's record-setting career, the Hopewell star and Pitt recruit is the exception. The majority of Western Pennsylvania high school football players relate better to Nick Marshall's story, one where the sport served as a vehicle to learn important life lessons.
"I just wanted him to have the experience of playing high school football — a game I loved — because it was a good experience for me," said Nick's father, Danny Marshall, who played at since-closed South Hills High. "That's all any parent wants. Did I push him and drive him when I saw he had talent• Sure, but I learned to stay positive. I'd rather pick a kid up instead of put them down. I worry about whether he's going to play in college. You've got to accept the talent they have because every kid isn't going to be a superstar. You've got to push them, but it has to be positively."
Nick starred at running back on Brookline and Bethel Park youth teams that won league championships. The Black Hawks won the WPIAL Class AAAA title and lost in the PIAA final when he was a freshman, and Nick and his classmates expected nothing but more of the same for themselves.
On the second carry of his first varsity game, Nick ran 67 yards for a touchdown at Kiski Area. He had played with and against future Division I recruits, just never expected to have to sit behind a couple. But he played the same position as Bre Ford (now at Akron) and Nick Kwiatkowski (West Virginia) and spent two seasons as their backup.
"It sucked knowing I wasn't going to play that much because of how good they were," he said. "It taught me patience, how to take advantage of opportunities."
Football has taught him some other valuable lessons:
> > Perseverance. Midway through his junior season, Nick almost quit football. We had a talk about how you are defined not by how you handle success but rather adversity, whether his love for the game outweighed his frustration over a lack of playing time.
"Confidence is a fragile thing, I don't care what level you're at," Bethel Park coach Jeff Metheny said. "That's the most important thing. If you have confidence and believe you can get it done, most of the time you will, regardless of circumstance. Life's not always fair, you know. You get knocked down and get back up."
> > Accountability. When he got into trouble last summer, Nick learned to take responsibility for his actions. To his surprise, Metheny was supportive.
"Metheny is good at teaching kids life lessons. You have to give him props for that," Danny Marshall said. "He's hard on them, but he expects more out of them than being a football player. He wants you to be a good student, a good member of the community. And his good players, he rides them hard."
> > Achievement. Football provided structure, as Nick built himself into one of the team's strongest players: a 5-foot-9, 183-pounder who bench presses 360 pounds. It paid off in the opener at Kiski, when he rushed for 218 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries, topping his junior season statistics in one game.
> > Life's not fair. The next week, however, Nick sprained an ACL in practice. He was limited against Central Catholic, Shaler, Chartiers Valley and Mt. Lebanon, all losses, and found no running room behind a young, undersized line in a 55-0 defeat to Upper St. Clair on Senior Night.
"He's a tough kid, first of all. He runs hard. He's played hurt," Metheny said. "I've tried to explain to him, 'Listen, we've had some pretty good linemen come down the road here. You've seen some guys play behind them. Lyle Marsh and Bre Ford had a good line.' You can't pick your teammates. A lot of times we've not blocked all that well. He's kept a good attitude, worked hard and had some big nights."
Nick ran for 117 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in the season finale at Baldwin and entered the playoffs with a team-leading 654 yards and six touchdowns. He had nowhere to run against Penn-Trafford, finishing with 21 yards on eight carries. As a victory bell rang in the background and the Warriors did jumping jacks behind them, the Black Hawks took a knee, then lifted their helmets for one last "1-2-3 Hawk Pride" chant.
"It's sad, knowing it's over," Nick said, as some of his teammates shed tears. "You can't play forever. I'm thinking about all the good memories right now."
Football doesn't last forever, but the memories and character built by a star-crossed career will. Not just for Nick but also for his extended family.
We watched him grow up playing football.
Mostly, we watched him grow up.