STARKVILLE — Seated on the couch at his grandparents’ house in Jonesboro, Georgia, around 9 a.m. on August 23, 2015, Tre’von Marshall collapsed into his grandfather’s arms.
Roughly eight hours earlier, Marshall’s father, Kenneth “Mookie” Marshall Jr., died from multiple gunshot wounds following the escalation of an argument that left another man wounded.
As the news pervaded Tre’von’s 12-year-old ears, tears streamed down his face as he buried his head in his grandfather’s shoulder.
“I just lost half of my heart,” he explained solemnly.
Five years on, Tre’von describes the difficulties of the past few months in a booming yet youthful voice. How the lack of spring camps potentially limited his recruiting exposure. How his recent commitment to Mississippi State validated his long-held belief he could play football at the Division I level.
Speaking with conviction, there’s a sense of perspective in his words. Tre’von’s story is deeper than recruiting decisions and scholarship offers. It’s rooted not in football but in his enduring struggles with grief and lack of place that sent him spiraling in the wake of his father’s death.
“I’m not really … I mean, I’m worried about me,” Tre’von said through a slight pause. “But like, it’s really a dream for him. Like, I’m doing this for him.”
Tre’von lay awake night after night, deep in thought.
Seated in the caved-in center portion of his bed — a crease created during a wrestling match between father and son years earlier — days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Here in the crease of his bed, the glimmer’s of Ken’s memory persisted.
Fall weekends in the Marshall household were normally reserved for banter between father and son over their shared love of Georgia football. Just three years prior to his death, Ken took Tre’von to Sanford Stadium to celebrate Tre’von’s 10th birthday. Seated in the stands in Athens, the pair smiled through the blinding mid-afternoon sunlight for a photo of father and son sporting matching ear-to-ear grins.
An athlete in his own right, Ken had yearned for a chance at the gridiron. But blessed with a lanky frame, he was never afforded the opportunity as his mother thought him too skinny for the carnage. Instead, Ken prowled the hardwood as a member of Lovejoy High School’s varsity basketball team in the mid-1990s.
It was also at Lovejoy that he met Crystal Bowman during a math class in 1996. Dating through the ends of their high school days, the couple wed six years later.
“We started talking, and next thing that I knew we were, I guess, calling ourselves dating,” Crystal told The Dispatch. “That’s what you did back then.”
Never granted a chance at football in his own youth, Ken lived his aspirations through his son. Throughout Tre’von’s childhood, he ran patterns and caught passes from his father in the family’s backyard while boasting the competitiveness his dad once held coupled with the size Ken never possessed.
Sheltered by his father’s memory in the crease of his bed, Tre’von was thrust from the safe haven he’d constructed each morning for the agonizing monotony of school days he hardly cared for.
Prior to Ken’s death, there were rarely concerns regarding his attentiveness in school. But in the weeks and months that followed the shooting, Tre’von spiraled in silence. His grades fell. He became increasingly apathetic toward the classroom. He grew wary of people, developing a mistrust of others.
“…I don’t know if something kind of set him off, or if the reality actually hit for him, but it was hell for a while,” Crystal said.
Tre’von’s problems in school manifested themselves in his seventh-grade math class. Crystal, who worked as a human resources assistant for a medical software company in Buckhead, Georgia — a little over an hour away from Tre’von’s middle school in Locust Grove — had to ask her boss to leave around noon nearly every day in hopes of arriving before any transgressions could take place. Once there, she’d often meet Tre’von in the assistant principal’s office to assess the day’s issues.
The zenith of Tre’von’s struggles played out in a middle school conference room.
Aghast when a receipt for roughly 12 pairs of Air Jordan sneakers came across her bank statement, Crystal investigated the matter. Concerned her account had been hacked or someone had attempted to siphon money away from her, she came to discover that Tre’von had stolen her card and charged the purchase to her.
Unrelenting, Crystal saw an opening to drive home her point. She pressed charges against Tre’von, much to the chagrin of neighboring parents.
“A lot of people were mad at me,” she said. “But I did what I thought was right to do, because if you steal from people in the real world, people don’t care who you are. People are killing now and just don’t care.”
Arriving at Luella Middle School to arrest Tre’von, an officer greeted him in the conference room.
“Are you Tre’von?” he asked.
“Yes,” Tre’von retorted reluctantly.
“Alright, turn around and put your hands behind your back,” the officer bellowed.
Placed into a chair with the glimmering handcuffs digging into his skin, Tre’von still recalls the pain the silver bracelets incurred. With cold and rugged metal clasped around Tre’von’s wrists, the officer offered him a sermon of sorts.
A one-time Division I baseball prospect, the officer revealed how his own legal troubles left him scholarship-less and forced into working rather than chasing a dream into the minor leagues and, as he hoped, toward the majors.
Years later, Tre’von confesses the officer’s words were lost on him at the time. Putting on a self-described “tough guy” facade, he says his internal emotions in the moment stirred between anger and fear.
Crystal long believed Tre’von could overcome his recent transgressions, but drastic measures had to be taken.
“It was a very dark time,” she conceded. “Regardless of how bad it got, I still had faith that he was gonna get better, and I never wanted to give up on him.”
Buttoning his shirt from its base to the top, Tre’von walked out of Jana and Jim Fletcher’s home to see his school bus disappearing into the distance.
Running down the pavement, up a hill, around the bend, through the wet grass and up another hill so as to not be late for his 8:30 a.m. class, Tre’von arrived at the school building at Eagle Ranch huffing and puffing from the mile-to-mile-and-a-half run he endured that morning.
“Ooooohhh, I smelled so bad when I got to school,” he said through a hearty laugh. “… That was awful. I (thought) ‘I’m not doing this again.'”
Nestled in the small town of Flowery Branch, Georgia, in the northern part of the state, Eagle Ranch’s campus of over 315 acres sprawls across the countryside. Originally conceived as a boys home upon its founding in 1985, the ranch operates as a Christian-based rehabilitation program for children who’ve endured trauma in their young lives.
Living away from his mother and beloved sister Christina, Tre’von’s adjustment to the prim, proper and structured setting at Eagle Ranch took time. He estimates he missed the bus between five and eight times before determining he hated arriving at school sweaty and embarrassed at having to run from the Fletchers’ home — where he lived during his first year attending Eagle Ranch — to the classroom building.
Sessions with counselor Codi Schutz, proved similar. From group circle sessions facilitated by the Eagle Ranch staff to private meetings with Schutz, Tre’von slowly peeled back the guarded layers to his past. Weekly visits from Crystal and Christina aided in the process. So too did the relationship Tre’von and Schutz developed throughout their hours of conversation.
Schutz notes there wasn’t an exact moment in which Tre’von’s reserved nature shifted to openness, but a switch flipped. Tre’von began speaking up in class more. Schutz said he thrived as a leader in group activities. Months after enrolling at Eagle Ranch because Crystal saw no other alternative to combatting his increasingly destructive behavior, Tre’von’s self-constructed barriers had fallen.
“It made me feel like I could trust again,” Tre’von said. “Because (Codi) actually cared for not just me but for everyone. He showed the love and affection that people needed.”
“Learning to trust is a hard thing for all the kids, and I think it’s something that he developed over time when he got to the point of, ‘I need help. I can’t do this alone,'” Schutz added. “He started being a teammate. He kind of just adopted this sense of, ‘These are my people,’ and he just went head first into that.”
As Tre’von thrived in the classroom and his interactions with fellow students blossomed, so too did his on-field exploits.
Prior to his arrival at Eagle Ranch, no one had ever attempted to play football during their time at Eagle Ranch. Made more complicated by the fact Georgia public schools rarely allow homeschooled students to participate in athletic competition, meeting after meeting ensued amongst administrators at the ranch and schools in the area.
Working through the complex and dizzying logistics of ensuring Tre’von was eligible, faculty members developed a plan with nearby Lanier Christian Academy where he could suit up during his freshman campaign. The head coach at Lanier? Former Atlanta Falcon and Mississippi State standout Jerious Norwood.
Norwood noted Tre’von was quiet upon his arrival. But as the season progressed and his body continued to develop, athletic feats followed. So too did a promotion to team captain.
“If you meet him, he might be a little shy,” Norwood told The Dispatch. “But once that whistle is blown, it’s lights out.”
Now entering his senior season, Tre’von will have played football at four different schools in four years by graduation after his recent transfer to Locust Grove High School. It’s part of the reason he’s remained unranked by most major recruiting sites. But that’s begun to change.
Tre’von received his first Division I offer from Southern Miss in July. Scholarship offers from MSU, Georgia State and Tulane have since followed. So too has interest from Indiana and San Diego State. Most recently, 247 Sports named him a three-star recruit and the No. 77 weakside defensive end in the class of 2021.
The estimated 40 pounds Tre’von put on, coupled with his athleticism, have college recruiters — including those in Starkville — intrigued with his high upside. After developing a standing relationship with MSU special teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach Matt Brock, Tre’von announced his commitment to the Bulldogs on July 31 via Twitter.
Ken had always dreamed of Tre’von playing at Georgia. But now pledged to the maroon-and-white-clad Bulldogs, Tre’von thinks his father would smile at the decision.
“When it’s football, he always called me ‘boy,’ but after football it was ‘Tre’ or ‘son,'” he explained. “… I know he would say, ‘I’m proud of you, boy’ or something like that.”
As the limbs of the trees standing watch over the cemetery at Haven Chapel in Griffin, Georgia, swayed ever so slightly, Tre’von stands before his father’s placard with his hands clasped in an almost prayer-like manner.
Peering off into the early afternoon sunlight, he’s surrounded by family past and present. Below his feet reside his father, an aunt and his great-grandparents, among others. Above the surface, Crystal and Christina look on from a distance. Silently, Christina snaps a photo of her brother speaking to their father’s headstone.
Tre’von estimates he visits his father’s grave anywhere from three to five times per year. Birthdays and anniversaries are common dates. Spontaneous trips, like the day he received his first major football offer from Southern Miss, have also become commonplace.
Sunday marked five years to the day Ken was killed. A far cry from the gangly 12-year-old that cowered in his grandfather’s arms at the devastating revelation his father had passed, Tre’von now stands a towering 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds. He readily admits trusting others can still prove difficult, though his graduation from Eagle Ranch after his sophomore year and the sharing of his tale to a stranger suggest growth.
Today, Tre’von says his daily battles are no longer with behavior or coping with unbearable grief. Rather, they’re maintaining his undying motivation as he continues to chase the life aspirations long ago instilled in him by the man beneath the soil.