Decades later, Dante Marsh finds himself following in his parents’ footsteps.
The former CFL star remembers the advice his parents gave him regarding the challenges an African American man faces growing up in the U.S. Many years later, Marsh, a native of Oakland, Calif., finds himself echoing many of the same sentiments to his teenage son, Christopher.
“I tell him he has to educate himself,” said Marsh. “What was told to me by my mother and father is that as a black man living in this country, you’re always going to have to be two times better than your white counterpart . . . you’re always going to have two strikes against you.
“This is an unfortunate truth and unfortunate reality for most of us but it is what it is. So my work ethic was tremendous from a young age. I wanted to be the best, I wanted to take football as far as I could. Along the way, it got me a free education and helped me build relationships that are very fruitful for me in my life.”
That work ethic helped Marsh, 41, secure a football scholarship at Fresno State University. From there, he spent a year with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans before playing 11 seasons with the B.C. Lions (2004-14).
The five-foot-10, 190-pound cornerback amassed 609 tackles, 31 interceptions (three returned for TDs), eight fumble recoveries and 41 pass knockdowns in 181 regular-season CFL contests. A four-time West Division all-star, Marsh was named an all-star by his peers (in CFL Players’ Association voting) on four occasions and helped B.C. win the Grey Cup twice (2006, 2011).
But while Marsh stresses the importance of education, he also says many life lessons are learned outside the classroom.
“You must have faith, drive and determination to push through and make something of yourself,” he said. “Nobody is going to give you anything, especially as a black man in America.
“We know that, it’s like the unwritten rule growing up as an African-American man . . .you’ve got to figure out how to navigate through this world and make something of yourself or you’ll become a statistic.”
And Marsh said he was determined not be just another number.
“I knew I wanted more,” he said. “It wasn’t easy for me at all, there was a lot of adversity I had to overcome and a lot of things I had to deny myself.
“Many minorities in this country who’re in the inner city don’t have any self love, they don’t know who they are, they don’t know where they come from. That’s why they align themselves with gangs and end up doing things on the streets because they want to feel a part of something.
“For me as a black man, I’m a king, I’m a warrior, I’m built differently, I’m built for this, I’ve been dealing with adversity all of my life. You’ve got to preach that to the youth and make sure they know they’re loved, they come from greatness and can be great regardless of what it may look like.”
But Marsh said acceptance is just the beginning.
“I tell the young people today they have to lead, they’ve got to develop that work ethic and hard line, be able to set a goal and figure out ways to go get it,” he said. “Nobody is going to give you handouts, nobody is coming to save you, you’ve got to save yourself.
“This is the mentality you must have.”
Marsh is entering his second season as the defensive co-ordinator at San Joaquin Delta Junior College in Stockton, Calif. He also remains heavily involved in training young players.
Much like parenthood, Marsh said communication is a key in both coaching and training athletes.
“Every player I come into contact with and train and coach, I’m always talking to them,” he said. “I want to know who they are as a person so then I know what buttons I can and can’t push.
“The actual physical work and energy you exert through training, that’s only 10 per cent of the deal, the other 90 per cent is mental. To me, it’s getting them physically fit mentally because the brain is a great muscle.
“The body doesn’t tell the brain what to do, the brain tells the body what to do. It’s getting them to change the way they process information and think. If I can change their mindset, then everything else becomes a lot easier.”
And Marsh’s interest in his players/clients continues long after they’ve moved on.
“These are life-long relationships,” he said. “I’m trying to see it through that they get to experience all the great things that the game of football has done for me.
“That’s why I’m still in the game and involved and coaching now.”