Family loss didn’t wreck David Marshall, it motivated him

David Marshall had lived in his entire life in Thomaston.

THOMASTON – It’s a simple gesture, and not something David Marshall makes a big deal about. He didn’t go around telling many people. He doesn’t talk to many people anyway.

At least not the way he used to talk to her. And then, to him.

So here is what Marshall is doing every football game when he goes to the end of the field and prays. Here are the names of the people whose pictures he put in his socks.

Here are the people whose imprint on Marshall’s life has guided him, and whose departures from the world helped mold him into who he is now: a very good football player now enrolled at Georgia.

“My grandma will say, ‘If they see you now, they’d be the proudest person ever,’” Marshall said.

‘She was nice. Sweet girl.’

Ada King doesn’t remember exactly how old her grandson was at the time, but recalls the youth football game very well. One of the officials came to the sideline and asked: Who is that little boy wearing 48?

“That’s my child,” King said, only sort of kidding.

“One day you’re gonna see him on TV,” the official said.

“That ain’t her child,” interjected another woman. “That’s my child.”

The woman was Terria King, who was healthy back then, and a doting mother. Marshall took the last name of his father, but was raised primarily by his mother and her parents, Ada and Robert King. They called him “D”, and all lived in the same house in tiny Thomaston, about a two hour drive southwest of Athens.

“We were best friends,” Marshall said of his mother.

“She was nice. Sweet girl,” Ada King said of her daughter. “But she had been sick awhile and it took a toll on her.”

She first got sick when “D” was around 10 years old. They didn’t know what was wrong at first, then diagnosed it as polyps, an abnormal growth of tissue that can be non-cancerous. But eventually Terria King was diagnosed with cancer, already in the fourth stage.

Her son missed a lot of school in order to be by her side at the hospital in Macon, about a half-hour away. But she wasn’t there long, soon moving back into the house, to be cared for there. She wasn’t eating well.

Marshall vividly remembers the night of her passing. He had ironed his clothes. His mother was in the backroom, and he had gone back to see her one more time before he went to bed.

“She started making a little noise,” he recalled last month. “I didn’t know what it was at first. I went and I told my gramdma that my mama made a little noise. After that she called my auntie to ask what it was.”

A sign of death, they were told.

“After that, I went and lay down, trying to go to sleep,” Marshall said. “And my other auntie came to the door. I opened my eyes and she just shut the door.”

His mother was gone at just 30 years old, on Jan. 11, 2008.

Experiencing that loss was the major part of Marshall’s early childhood. It just wouldn’t be the last.

Sorrow following sorrow

It was just the three of them in the house: Marshall and his grandparents. You never truly move on from such a loss, but they did their best, and as David went through middle school and began high school, his athletic ability continued to make people notice. His life revolved around sports and his house. He was no social butterfly, and still isn’t.

Robert King was one of his grandson’s biggest fans. It was a Monday night when he started feeling the pain in his chest.

The next morning he went to the doctor, and was told it appeared he was having a heart attack. But for some reason, Ada King recalls now, they sent him home, thinking he might get better. He didn’t sleep at all that night, and on Wednesday morning Ada took Robert to the hospital – waiting until after David got on the bus to school.

The doctors found a blockage in Robert’s chest, which they said they couldn’t get to. They kept trying. That Friday the doctor came to Ada and told her he wasn’t going to make it.

“He was going to leave us,” Ada said, crying. “And he did, he left us.”

The death of his grandfather, following the death of his mother, spurred David Marshall to work out more. (SETH EMERSON/AJC)

In all the sorrow and confusion, “D” didn’t get word. He got home, and started getting messages, one of which said: “Sorry for your loss.”

“But nobody had died in my family,” Marshall recalled thinking.

Finally somebody from his school, Upson-Lee High School, arrived at the home.

“I knew something was wrong, then,” he said. “I knew what it was. I broke down.”

Over the next few days and months, he would see his grandmother breaking down too. Extended family members, friends and residents of Thomaston did what people do when there’s tragedy, pitching in around the house and bringing food by. But soon it was just Ada and David in the house, alone.

Football, and everything associated with it, became Marshall’s outlet: running, training, lifting weights and playing. A natural introvert, he also became closer to his teammates.

“It made me more motivated. And humbled,” Marshall said. “It made me stronger. People say, ‘How do you do that? How do you work out every day? To keep stuff from getting in my head.’”

His life, it turned out, was about to take a different turn. And for the better.

‘Like I was famous’

Ole Miss was the first big school to offer Marshall, who would grow eventually to be 6-foot-5 and around 265 pounds, a sculpted athlete with the ability to play outside linebacker or defensive end.

Tommy Parks, who became Upson Lee’s coach before Marshall’s junior year, compared him favorably with Jordan Jenkins, whom Parks coached in high school. They weren’t carbon copies as players, but the talent is similar.

The recruiting process was a bit over the top for the shy, reserved Marshall, who’s happier in a weightroom and his own house. Instead, he was called out of class to come see coaches like Gus Malzahn.

David Marshall’s first scholarship offer came as a sophomore. (MICHAEL CARVELL/AJC).

“It was like I was famous or something,” Marshall said. “All the coaches are coming at you, coming to your house, calling you every day.”

He grew up an Alabama fan, and as a ninth-grader hit it off with one of the Crimson Tide’s assistant coaches, Kirby Smart. But Marshall committed to Auburn, a decision that would not last, especially once Smart got the Georgia coaching job in December.

Marshall officially announced his flip from Auburn to Georgia on signing day. But he had really made the switch almost two weeks before, during his official visit to Athens.

“I just appreciate the way that he turned out,” Ada King said one day last month. “He’s getting ready to leave out here on me. But I just want to keep the same attitude, and keep up what he’s going on. Because I know he’s gonna be in good shape up there with Kirby. He’s not gonna take any stuff.”

As she said that, she wasn’t laughing.

‘D’ moves out, and life moves on

The humble thing isn’t an act, according to Parks. He called Marshall “a grounded kid,” shaped by the twin tragedies of his childhood.

“He’s a bit of a homebody,” Parks said. “Everything that he’s persevered through in his home life, to turn out the way he did, is really unique.”

Marshall, speaking last month at Upson Lee before he enrolled at Athens, finished a lot of his sentences with the words “and stuff.” You come away thinking it’s a nervous verbal tic until you interview Ada King, and she also finishes a few sentences with “and stuff.” It’s easy to see these two have spent plenty of time around each other the past 18 years. Especially the last four, when it was just the two of them.

“I have to put him in his place sometimes,” King said. “He knows who the boss is.”

Again, she isn’t laughing.

“It’s been real lonely-like,” she said. He doesn’t do much talking. I stay in my room and he stays in his, unless he wants something to eat or something. But we get along good.”

One of Marshall’s teachers created a portrait of him that hangs in the hallways at Upson-Lee High School. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)

But make no mistake, she is very proud of him. And very sure that Terria King and Robert King are too.

Unfortunately, the family isn’t done with health problems. Ada King is diabetic, and she is undergoing what she said are chemotherapy treatments three times a week.

“It’s going to be a rough ride on me for awhile,” she said. “But anything to better him I’m for.”

So will D come home regularly?

“No, he probably won’t,” she said.

Why not?

“Because he’s gonna probably be busy most of the time,” she said.

And that’s fine, her tone says, and expected. The way it should be now. But when he takes the field at Sanford Stadium, when he kneels and says a prayer, Ada King will know what her grandson is saying.

And she’ll know whose pictures are in those socks.

Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.

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