Proud town celebrates for Auburn's Nick Marshall

 

 
From left to right: Nick Marshall's aunt, Kristal; grandmother Earlene; mother, Shalena.
 
By Phillip Marshall

AuburnTigers.com
 
ROCHELLE, Ga. - Some 500 people and fewer than 200 families live in Pineview, Ga. Many of those families are blood relatives. Everybody knows everybody else. There's a closeness that comes from meeting life's challenges with limited resources in the rural South.
 
When the announcement came last Saturday that Nick Marshall would be Auburn's starting quarterback, a community celebrated. One of their own had made good. And nobody celebrated more than Shalena Mahoganey Cliett, Marshall's mother, and Earlene Mahoganey, his grandmother.
 
His mother, wearing an Auburn shirt, says it was a day she won't soon forget, even though it's what she expected all along.
 
"I was so happy I wanted to cry," she says. "I couldn't cry. I was just happy."
 

 
 
"He could pick up any sport and play. I think if you put a golf club in his hand he'd be a great golfer in a month."
 
Mark Ledford
Wilcox County football coach
 
   

Marshall, who signed with Auburn in February after a spectacular season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, says he'll represent his hometown proudly when he takes the field against Washington State on Aug. 31 before a crowd of 80-plus thousand at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
 
After all, they're his people. They nurtured him. They stood by him when times were bad.
 
"The people in Pineview, I respect everyone there," Marshall says. "A lot of people in that town look up to me. I'm not going to forget where I came from. I'm playing for them. I feel like I owe them something for the support they've shown me."
 
Before anyone outside of the little Georgia town had heard of Marshall, before he'd made his first jaw-dropping pass or run through his first tackle, he had to deal with his aunt.
 
Kristal Mahoganey, just three years older than Marshall, played football with him in the front yard. His brother Quez Mahoganey, just one year younger, played, too, at their house just off Highway 112 between Rochelle and Hawkinsville.
 
"I used to toughen them up, play ball with them," Kristal says. "I used to hit them hard. I'd try to make them hurt."
 
Marshall doesn't dispute the account of his aunt, who was like a sister as they were growing up. He flashes a big smile at the thought.
 
"Growing up, she always played football with us," he says. "I always wanted to be on her team because she was kind of tough."
 
But as Marshall and his brother grew older, things changed.
 

 
 
"I started coaching in 1972. Nick Marshall is the best athlete I've ever seen. I saw Charlie Ward play in high school and saw Charlie Ward play at FSU. Nick Marshall is as good as he was."
 
George Kennedy
former Wilcox County basketball coach
 
   

"I knew they were going to be good athletes," Kristal says. "They were better than me, and I was the baddest in the neighborhood. I always knew Nick was going to be a good quarterback from the first time I saw him throw a football in middle school."
 
And so began a journey that would lead Marshall to become a Georgia high school legend 10 miles down the road at Wilcox County High School. He was a quarterback who seemingly could do anything, who could escape impossible situations and was at his best when it mattered most. He was a dynamic defensive back, too. He rarely left the field.
 
Before Marshall, facing a crisis in his career, left to play for the Garden City (Kan.) Community College Eagles in February 2012, his grandmother told him good things would happen if he did what he was supposed to do. Last Saturday, she knew she had been right.
 
"I said `Baby you're an eagle. All the people trying to put you down are crows. A crow can't fly as high as an eagle,'" she says. "The other night, when we got the call, I told my baby he was an eagle. Now he's an eagle, plus he's a War Eagle. I said glory be to God."
 
Shalena, who works for the City of Hawkinsville, was so excited at the news that her son had won the starting job that she wanted to tell everyone.
 
"She hit one button on the phone and everybody she is associated with was dialed," Earlene says. "She was jumping up hollering `War Eagle! War Eagle!' Lord have mercy, it's a blessing."
 
******
 
Some 9,000 people live in Wilcox County. There's not even a traffic light. The median income is less than $20,000 per year. Just more than 1,000 people live in the farming community of Rochelle. Loyalty to the Wilcox County football team runs deep.
 
In Rochelle, at D.R.'S Chili Dogs, Barbie Elem is behind the counter. Asked by a visitor what she recommends, she suggests the scrambled chili dog. It's a hot dog with chili, mustard, ketchup, cheese, onions and crackers.
 
Elem moved to Rochelle from Florida to help her elderly parents. That was three years ago, and she hasn't left. Sitting at the counter or playing pool in the back, people still talk about Marshall and his exploits at Wilcox County.
 
"I'm a Georgia fan, dyed in the wool," Elem says. "But I pull for Nick. Everybody here does. They love their Patriots and they love Nick. You ask him. He'll tell you he's been here to eat."
 

 
 
"All the obstacles Nick has been through, it has helped him. The Lord helped him jump those hurdles, climb that mountain."
 
Earlene Mahoganey
Marshall's grandmother
 
   

On a hot and humid afternoon, Wilcox County coach Mark Ledford has finished cutting grass on the football field. His 2013 team is set to practice later in the day. Marshall left an indelible mark at Wilcox County, leading the way to the 2009 1A state championship, the first in school history. The helmet Marshall wore in the Georgia Dome occupies a place of honor in the Wilcox County fieldhouse.
 
For a school so small, Ledford's program has sent an uncommon number of players to big-time universities. Defensive back Alfonzo Dennard was a star at Nebraska and now plays for the New England Patriots.
 
"I thought Alfonzo was the best I would ever see," says Ledford, a former Wilcox County quarterback heading into his 13th season as head coach. "Then Nick came along. Alfonzo is a tremendous player, but Nick is different. He could pick up any sport and play. I think if you put a golf club in his hand he'd be a great golfer in a month."
 
Ledford clicks the computer in front of him, and the 2009 state championship game against Savannah Christian comes to life. Wilcox County trails 21-14. Down in the fourth quarter, Marshall scores a touchdown on a 5-yard scramble to make it 21-20. Ledford calls for a two-point conversion, which is not unusual because he doesn't have a reliable kicker.
 
"Watch this," he says.
 
Marshall takes the snap and goes to his left, dodging tacklers. He tucks the ball under his arm and goes straight ahead, only to dart back to his right, find a receiver and make a perfect throw to give Wilcox County a 22-21 lead. He would throw another touchdown pass and another two-point conversion pass in the final minute. Wilcox County would win 30-21.
 

 
 
"When he came home from Auburn for the first time, he was different. You could tell he had matured. He's a man now."
 
Kristal Mahoganey
Marshall's aunt
 
   

After Savannah Christian had taken the lead, Marshall had told Ledford almost matter-of-factly, "We're not going to lose this game."
 
"I knew right then," Ledford says, "that we weren't going to lose."
 
The game was on Marshall's shoulders from the start.
 
"I went into that game with one running play out of the I and one out of the shotgun," Ledford says. "I knew he'd create the rest. Running or throwing, Nick had all but about eight yards of our offense."
 
Winning championships, even in 1A, is a major challenge for schools like Wilcox County. It was even more of a challenge in 2009, before private schools and public schools separated their state playoffs. Savannah Christian had far more resources and the ability to draw players from a much larger area.
 
Wilcox County had Nick Marshall. He and Quez, a 6-foot-3 wide receiver, led a high-flying, high-scoring offense. Quez caught the pass that broke the Georgia state record for completions. He is a redshirt freshman wide receiver now at Middle Georgia College, a junior college. He could be a prospect in the coming year.
 
"Every time you are on the field with Nick, something good is bound to happen," Quez says. "He's a playmaker. He can make all the throws. He's quick on his feet. Nick has been that guy ever since we played recreation. He won a championship in middle school. He went 12-0 and lost in the third round and won the state championship. He's just always been like that."
 
Winning the state championship with his brother was a feeling that Quez says he'll not forget. The only thing that could top it would be the opportunity to play with his brother again.
 
"It was the best feeling both of us had ever had," Quez says.
 
They did it together, just like they'd been doing since those front-yard football games with Kristal, like they did in youth league baseball, basketball and football.
 
"When they were old enough, I put a football, basketball, baseball in their hands and it went from there," their mother says. "They've been playing together ever since. I've been a traveling mom. I've torn up about three or four cars, borrowed gas money from my mom. It's been a journey. They've taken me places I never thought I'd go."
 

 
 
"I'm a Georgia fan, dyed in the wool. But I pull for Nick. Everybody here does. You ask him. He'll tell you he's been in here to eat."
 
Barbie Elem
D.R.'S Chili Dogs
 
   

On football Friday nights, Shalena couldn't sit down. She would run up and down the fence that surrounds the field, yelling her support to her sons on the field.
 
"With that voice, I could hear her over everyone," Marshall says, laughing. "A few times, I had to tell her to chill out."
 
After the state championship game, shown on Georgia Public Television, Marshall became a hot prospect. Offers poured in. For a kid from rural Georgia, it was a load that was not easy to carry.
 
******
 
Marshall's athletic feats weren't limited to the football field. He was a big-time basketball prospect, too, averaging more than 27 points per game as a junior and more than 28 as a senior. For a time, he thought that might be the path he chose.
 
George Kennedy is the head basketball coach at Crisp Academy in Cordele, but until last year, he was the head coach at Wilcox County. In a coaching career that started in 1972, he says he's never seen anyone like Marshall.
 
"Nick Marshall is the best athlete I've ever seen," Kennedy says. "I saw Charlie Ward play in high school and saw Charlie Ward play at FSU. Nick Marshall is as good as he is."
 
Marshall and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were friends, sometimes teammates and sometimes opponents on the basketball court. Caldwell-Pope went on to Georgia, left after last season and was drafted No. 8 in the first round by the Detroit Pistons.
 
The two played against each other in high school, splitting four games. They played together for the Blazers, an AAU team out of Columbus. In one AAU game, Marshall scored 44 points and Caldwell-Pope 31. As a junior at Wilcox County, Marshall scored 52 points in one game.
 
"Night after night, we'd have a halftime lead of 20-something points," Kennedy says. "He could have scored 40-50 a lot of times. When we got way ahead, he became very unselfish. When he had to play, he'd step it up."
 

 
 
"I've been a traveling mom. I've torn up three or four cars. It's been a journey. He and his brother have taken me places I never thought I'd go."
 
Shalena Cliett
Marshall's mother
 
   

Almost everyone in Pineview and Rochelle has a story about Marshall. It might be a great escape followed by a touchdown run or a touchdown pass. It might be the 70-yard pass, in the air, he threw against Dooly County as a sophomore. But it wasn't even football that first convinced Ledford that Marshall might be different than any athlete he'd coached. Ledford was the track coach when Marshall was a freshman. Late in the season, he approached Marshall about trying to compete in the high jump.
 
"We had one meet left," Ledford says. "I had another guy that was a senior. He jumped like 5-10. The first track meet Nick ever went to he jumped about 5-4. That was the first time he'd ever jumped. The next week we went to region and my No. 1 guy jumped 6 feet. Nick jumped 5-10, I believe. He was second in the region.
 
"We go to the state meet and Nick starts out pretty good. My No. 1 guy goes out at 5-8. Nick continues to watch these other guys jump. As he's watching it, he becomes a better high jumper. He clears 6-4 and finishes No. 3 or No. 4 in the state. He never came back to track again. No telling where he could have gone with that."
 
******
 
As the football recruiting attention heated up, Georgia coaches asked if Marshall would be willing to play defensive back. To the surprise of some, he readily agreed. Alabama, Clemson and others also offered him as a defensive back. Georgia Tech coaches told him he could play any position he chose. In February of 2011 he signed with the Bulldogs. He played in 13 games as a true freshman cornerback and seemed to have a bright future.
 
But in February of 2012, Marshall's Georgia career ended in despair. His father, Phillip Marshall, picked him up and took him home to Pineview.
 
Faced with the biggest test of his athletic life, those who know him best say Marshall stood his tallest. He told Ledford that he wanted to go to junior college, get back to playing quarterback and return to a big-time school.
 
"Our kids are kind of secluded down here," Ledford says. "Sometimes when they get out they don't adjust real well and don't make the best decisions. What I'm proud of is that he admitted what he did and hasn't made any excuses."
 

 
 
"The people in Pineview, I respect everyone there. A lot of people in that town look up to me. I'm not going to forget where I came from."
 
Nick Marshall
Auburn quarterback
 
   

Marshall's grandmother says she had unusual peace when he came home. She was convinced his life was about to turn in a positive direction.
 
"It came to me that this was only the beginning," she says. "God allows things to happen because you're not where you are supposed to be in your life in the first place. That taught not only Nick a lesson, but the whole family a lesson. It gave Nick a chance to see who was for Nick Marshall and who wasn't."
 
Ledford contacted Garden City coach Jeff Tatum, who quickly drove to Alabama.
 
"We drove about an hour west of Birmingham and Coach Tatum picked him up and took him to Kansas," Ledford says. "He enrolled in school on the way."
 
Last season, Marshall passed for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns.
 
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee were well-aware of Marshall before they arrived from Arkansas State last December. They'd been the first to offer him a scholarship out of Garden City. They had accepted that Marshall was not going to Arkansas State, but Auburn was a different matter. They made contact again.
 
Last February, Marshall signed with Auburn. And last Saturday, he was named Auburn's starting quarterback.
 
"It's been fun," Marshall says. "All the guys are behind me, and I'm getting better every day."
 
Kristal, the youthful aunt who played football with him in the front yard, saw a different person after Marshall enrolled at Auburn in June.
 
"He has matured," she says. "When he came home for the first time from Auburn, his attitude was different. He was different. He's a man now."
 
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: