Camden native's journey from rough neighborhood to NFL workouts

Eagles hopeful and University of Arkansas alumni Matt Marshall sits on the sidelines at his alma mater Camden High School in Camden, NJ on April 3, 2013. (Hillary Petrozziello / Staff Photographer)

Matt Marshall stepped on the field at the NovaCare Center to workout for the Philadelphia Eagles.

  • The University of Arkansas graduate grew up in the waning days of Camden’s crack epidemic near The Alley.
  • The team’s local pro day is a chance for coaches to evaluate players who attended high school or college in the region.

Matt Marshall faced tough odds when he stepped on the field at the NovaCare Center in South Philadelphia to workout for the Philadelphia Eagles. 

But regardless of what the coaches thought of him, the Camden native has already achieved his goal to “not to be a statistic.”

The University of Arkansas graduate grew up in the waning days of Camden’s crack epidemic near The Alley, an infamous, open-air drug bazaar that was razed in 2004. A drug dealer was shot dead on his home’s doorstep. Close friends have faced the ends of gun barrels.

So when Marshall left the field, he felt he was already on his way. 

He stayed in school, out of jail and away from violence -- not always an easy task growing up in Camden, one of the poorest and most-crime-ridden cities in the country. Now, he’s arranging workouts with other NFL teams, after doing drills for the Eagles last week.

The journey to workouts with NFL teams began in a one-bedroom apartment in a rough Camden neighborhood, where Marshall practiced on patches of grass in the middle of the street. Along the way, he won accolades as a top high school football player and hurdler, earned a college scholarship and became a mentor for student-athletes in his hometown.

“He is a role model for every kid in Camden,” said Tom Hanson, Marshall’s high school football coach. “He is where you want to be in life.”

That wasn’t always the case.

“On Morse, it was very bad,” said Marshall’s father, Godfrey Marshall, referring to the street where the family lived. He recalled a man who showed up to a nearby drug deal carrying “too much money” and was shot.

“He died right on my step,” Godfrey Marshall said.

From watching Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, Marshall says, he “knew there was a better life out there.” He saw children his own age who were happy, who had toys he didn’t.

He largely stayed away from trouble by spending time on the athletic field. During a three-week soccer stint at age 8, Marshall saw the “red helmets across the field” and wanted to join the football players.

So he did, playing for youth and Catholic league teams through elementary and middle school and became a star at Camden High School after transferring from Woodrow Wilson High School, where he played varsity football his freshman year. At the beginning of his high school career, Marshall said, he took advantage of older players’ low expectations.

“I’m going to out-physical him,” he said. “I’m going to out-run him. I’m going to out-do him, period.”

Marshall, also a state track champion in the hurdles, kept a grueling schedule.

His alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. for an early-morning run, and he often didn’t return home until 9 p.m., after practice and a study session at the Boys and Girls Club.

“We always kept him too busy to worry about him being out there,” his mother, Gwynolyn Marshall, said.

But Marshall, the youngest of eight siblings, was still exposed to violence. He remembers neighborhood fights and the slaying of a close friend.

“I have friends who were in front of the gun, behind the gun or behind bars,” he said. “If you want to raise mentally tough children who mature really fast, just move to Camden.” 

One year at his high school football team’s camp in the Poconos, a freshman player learned his father had been killed.

Marshall was the one who helped the player through the day, Hanson said.

“Matt just took him under his wing,” he said. “He told him, ‘you have another family, too.’”

As a wide receiver at Camden, he recorded 20 receptions in both his junior and senior years, for 357 and 340 yards. He scored seven touchdowns his senior year and five his junior year. On defense, he recorded 44 tackles and four interceptions. 

He watched online videos to improve his technique. “Equilibrium,” he said, “was one of the first big words I learned,” from strengthening his core muscles, trying to emulate former Eagle Terrell Owens.

His mother, a housekeeper at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, remembers when Marshall began to hear from colleges. 

“It was so exciting,” she said. “Things were coming from every school.”

He spent much of his senior spring visiting universities, eventually landing at Arkansas.

“He thought it would be a challenge to go far away, to not go where a lot of his fellow students go,” his mother said.

Marshall said he felt at home amid the Southern hospitality -- and being away from Camden was beneficial.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to just get in my car and drive home,” he said. “If I thought about quitting and coming back to the ‘hood, it wasn’t possible.”

Hanson and Marshall credit his parents’ involvement for much of his success. His mother remembered cheering in the cold at youth games, bringing oranges and hot cocoa for her son and his teammates. Marshall still has a photo of his mom clutching a “parent of the year” award, and took her as his prom date.

His father, a steel erector, often worked out of town. Godfrey Marshall said he was in Chicago the week of his son’s first football game. So he drove the 700-plus miles to Camden to watch the game -- and then immediately drove back to Chicago.

The couple also made trips to Arkansas for some college games, but watched others on television.

Gwynolyn Marshall remembers squinting close to the screen, seeing her son on national TV.

“Is this Matthew?” she thought. “This is real?”

Marshall wants his parents to see him play on an even bigger stage. He worked out in front of scouts from all 32 NFL teams at Arkansas’ pro day last month. His workout in Philadelphia was part of the team’s local pro day, a chance for coaches to evaluate players who attended high school or college in the region, according to an Eagles spokesman. About 20 players were invited.

Now, he must await the NFL draft, which begins April 25. Undrafted players can be signed as free agents, or be invited to a training camp to continue the tryout process. The odds are low: Just 1.7 percent of college football players end up in the NFL, according to NCAA data. 

Marshall wasn’t one of Arkansas’ most-well-known players. In his career there, he played in 25 games and recorded 16 tackles, including a career-high seven in one game against the University of Alabama.

But athletics officials in both Camden and Arkansas say they’re not surprised Marshall is taking a shot. 

“He’s played at a high level,” said Eric Wood, the associate athletic director at Arkansas. On high-caliber squads, he said, “you don’t necessarily have to be an All-American” to get attention from pro teams.

Hanson, Marshall’s high school coach, says the player “could handle it if he gets a chance.”

Marshall has interests beyond football. He has a degree in human environmental science, focusing on childhood development and psychology. He hopes to work in education or educational administration because he wants to provide support to children.

In some ways, he’s done that already. Marshall was greeted warmly by current runners and football players when he visited the Panthers’ track on a recent afternoon.

Camden senior Peter Brown remembered working as a ball boy and carrying equipment when Marshall, his cousin, played. He calls Marshall a “role model.”

Marshall’s awareness of that role stood out to Wood, who said the two spoke frequently about the football player’s desire to help those who followed him.

“He knows little kids are watching him,” Wood said.

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; Follow @phillynews on Twitter.