“Marell Evans is what college football should be all about.”
It’s a proclamation about as powerful as the 6-foot-3, 237-pound linebacker.
Yet, in a college football world where headlines are littered with scandal and crime, his story sounds nothing like college football at all.
It’s a story of a young man who has been given nothing in life, yet he’s taken away from it more than those who have it all; a story of a Virginia boy who’s back in Ann Arbor to leave as a Michigan Man.
So when Zac Hayden, Marell’s high school defensive coordinator, says Marell is what college football is all about, he’s not just talking about what Marell does on the field. He’s talking about the journey of a 22-year-old man who was willing to do whatever it took to do what was right.
At Varina High School in Richmond, Va., it didn’t take long for Hayden to notice that Marell Evans was a special football player.
“He was one of the best high school football players I’ve ever coached,” Hayden said.
Considering who he’s coached, that’s no small statement. In Marell’s senior year, Varina sent nine players to Division-I schools. Former Michigan running back Brandon Minor graduated from Varina in 2006 — a year before Marell.
Since 1995, the Blue Devils have won eight regional championships and “14 or 15 district championships,” according to Gary Chilcoat, the Varina head coach for nine of those years.
But for Marell, his talent meant nothing if he didn’t have the guidance to help use it in the best way possible. If he was going to make it to the next level, he couldn’t do it alone.
He lost his father to drugs when he was six. No one in his family had graduated high school, let alone college. He needed people at school to push him, to let him know that he could do it.
That’s exactly what Hayden and Chilcoat did.
Hayden, who was still only a few years out of college during Marell’s tenure at Varina, was more than just a coach.
“Man, we were real close,” Hayden said. “The direction I try to give Marell, and I try to do this for everybody I coach and I learned this from Coach Chilcoat, is to be a father figure to these young men. Be a character guy. Teach them how to do things the right way.
“Be the stability in the storm when they’ve got things going on and they need help.”
Hayden was the stability, and oftentimes, Chilcoat brought the storm.
“I was the hard-ass on the staff because I’m an older person,” the 61-year old Chilcoat said. “They looked to the younger assistants for guidance … people who could understand their situation better than I could.”
Varina’s football program was unlike most high school programs.
“We really demanded a lot from them,” Chilcoat said. “From grades to participating in an offseason program to summer programs to fundraising, we really did a lot.”
By his senior year, Marell was a team captain. At the end of the season, he was named first-team All-State and was the Richmond Times-Dispatch Defensive Player of the Year. He was also an All-District basketball player.
The kid without a father became a big brother to the underclassmen.
“Marell was a full-front leader,” Chilcoat said. “He stepped up, just did whatever we asked of him.”
It wasn’t always a smooth ride — but that was part of what made Marell special.
“He had some bumps along the way, but they were always ironed out pretty easily,” Chilcoat said. “You just have to like those kids that pull themselves up when you don’t have much at home and don’t have much of yourself, and to get out of situations that he’s been in on his own has been pretty remarkable.
“I just really love that trait in him.”
That trait was one of many that helped push Marell to do anything he could to accomplish something no one in his family had ever done.
“It was important to him to get a scholarship and to have an opportunity to play at the college level,” Hayden said. “He did whatever he needed to do to do that. He’d watch film with me. He would always finish every drill harder than he started. He’d study hard. He’d do the things he’d need to do in class. He improved all his grades through his high school career.”
Not only did he graduate — he was academically eligible to accept a scholarship to one of the best academic schools in the nation.
It was August 2009, and Marell Evans had just announced his decision to leave Michigan.
The soon-to-be-junior linebacker had started just one game in his short two-year career — the 2008 season-opener against Utah.
He recorded four tackles and a half sack in that game, a 25-23 loss, but was burned deep several times.
“It was fast,” Marell recalled in an interview with MGoBlue.com on August 25. “I didn’t do too good in that game. I made a couple tackles, but I didn’t play to my potential.”
Just as quickly as he earned the starting job, he lost it.
He played almost exclusively on special teams for the rest of the year under head coach Rich Rodriguez. Soon after the season ended — a season in which the Wolverines went 3-9 in Rodriguez’s first year at the helm — Marell was gone.
Most figured it was because he wanted more playing time. Others speculated he didn’t like Rodriguez’s system — Marell was recruited by former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and had played for Carr his freshman year. And there may be some truth to both notions.
But even Rodriguez wasn’t completely sure of the reason for the transfer.
“Good, young men,” Rodriguez said of Marell and defensive tackle Vince Helmuth, who transferred around the same time as Evans. “Sometimes that happens. Guys think, ‘Maybe I’m not getting a lot of reps, I’m not on the depth chart.’ I try to remind the guys that the depth chart is not going to be solid until the first week (of games.)”
Marell didn’t put the blame on Rodriguez, like most other transfers that year did. He never quite gave a reason for his transfer but always hinted that there was something other than just football on the line.
“Me and Coach Rod are on good terms,” he told the Detroit Free Press on August 12, 2009. “It was more than playing time or academics or anything like that. It was a lot of things. Coach Rod is a great coach and I wish him plenty of success. I wanted to finish my career in a different way.”
Originally, few people understood.
“The coaches didn’t understand, but I have to do what’s best for my future,” he told the Free Press.
But it really wasn’t just about his future.
While Marell was in Ann Arbor living out his dream of playing college football, his mother, Valerie, and 16 year-old half-brother, Eugene, remained home in Richmond.
Financially, Valerie often had troubles making ends meet. And in Michigan, there was little Marell could do to help. With his vigorous class and football schedule, he didn’t have time for a job.
Something had to change.
“I was thinking family before anything,” he said. “I got a brother who is on the right track, just making sure he’s OK, before I do anything about football. I was very focused on helping my mother.”
Marell and Eugene share the same mother. Eugene lost his father when he was young, too. Marell didn’t want Eugene to have to grow up without a father, like he did.
So he didn’t let him.
“I was a father figure to him,” Marell said. “When things go wrong in my life, I feel like I let him down. I do everything I can to show him the right way, and I want to help pay for his college. That’s my goal.”
He couldn’t do that from Ann Arbor.
Once he left the team, Marell spent the next five months at home with his family trying to figure out what his next move would be. He picked up a job at a nearby warehouse, working eight-hour days.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “Understanding what I had (at Michigan) and anywhere I could be, it’s as humbling as it could get.”
During the 2010 winter semester, Marell decided to enroll at Hampton University — a small Division-I school about an hour away from his hometown.
Leaving Ann Arbor was a difficult decision — and to Chilcoat, it was a mistake.
“I don’t think he got all the right people talking to him, or he just didn’t listen to them,” Chilcoat said. “But he knew when he got home that he had made a big mistake. I saw him that Christmas I think. He was getting ready to go to Hampton, but you could tell he was just sick (that he was) not getting ready to go back to Michigan.”
And it truly may have been a mistake at the time. There’s no telling what could have happened if he stayed at Michigan.
But the decision had been made. Marell was determined to go to school somewhere, regardless of whether football was in the equation.
“Academics was something I wanted to do because I am the first person to graduate high school in my family,” he said. “So coming to college is a bigger thing. It’s a blessing, a privilege.”
When he enrolled at Hampton, he originally planned on playing football there too, but a nagging injury sidelined him well before the season started. Hampton coach Donovan Rose said he never really got a chance to know Marell, but said he was “respectful” the few times he was able to talk to him.
In a matter of a couple months, Marell Evans had gone from a Michigan linebacker to a Hampton student and a warehouse employee.
His job used to be to play his favorite sport in front of almost 110,000 people at Michigan Stadium. Now, his job was to move boxes in and out of a lonely building in Richmond.
Marell attended Hampton for two semesters. He earned enough credits so that he would only need a couple more semesters to graduate.
And by the end of his tenure there, he had achieved one of his many goals.
“(My mom) is doing great,” he said in August of this year. “She’s working; financially everything is good. Grandma is doing good. Her and my mom are very close.”
He had also made enough money to put aside for Eugene’s college fund.
With his family in a secure situation, Marell Evans realized he had some unfinished business of his own.
It was the middle of January in 2011, and the Michigan football roster was set.
But when Marell contacted the Michigan coaching staff, new head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison gave him a glimmer of hope.
“First of all, Coach Mattison was the biggest reason I wanted to come back,” Marell said. “He’s the guy who gave me a chance. He told me if you mess up, you’re outta here — simple as that. One chance.”
If he got in as a student, Hoke said they might be able to offer him a spot as a walk-on.
He applied, and his credits from Hampton transferred. He was reinstated to the University.
But when Marell arrived in Ann Arbor, he had to take care of a few other things before he could worry about football.
“When I first got here in January, I worked delivery routes in Bloomfield Hills delivering the newspaper,” he said. “Financially, I was helping myself with school.”
He was no longer at home, but his priorities remained the same: family first. Then school. Then football.
And in late January, Marell got the chance to meet Hoke in person.
“He said he’s maybe got a spot for me,” Marell recalled. “I prayed every day.”
The next day, his phone rang. A year and a half after his departure from Ann Arbor, Marell Evans was a Michigan football player again.
When Marell talks about his return, it seems like even he still can’t believe it. He shakes his head, his eyelids drop. He looks up to the sky, and his voice drops.
“I’m blessed,” he says. “I’m blessed to be here.”
Chilcoat was one of the first to contact him when the news came out.
“I sent him a message right away to tell him how proud of him I was and how great that news was,” Chilcoat said. “I just think it’s a great opportunity for him, whether he plays another down or not, to just get his diploma from Michigan. That would just open so many doors for him.”
Wide receiver Roy Roundtree, a good friend of Marell in 2008, didn’t believe it when he heard his buddy was back.
“When he told me he was coming back, I thought it was a joke,” Roundtree said. “But when I saw him come out and work out with us, I was like, ‘OK, I’m happy now.’ ”
Marell jumped right into team workouts, and at the spring game this season he emerged as a front-runner for the starting linebacker position.
By the end of the spring, he had earned a full-ride scholarship. He changed his number from 9 to 51 — a symbol of his new beginning.
“I had No. 9 my whole life,” he said. “To change to this number is just different.”
He continued competing for the starting job throughout the fall. In the week before the season opener against Western Michigan, Marell was listed third on the depth chart.
He wouldn’t be starting, but that was alright.
“I’m just going to help this team whatever way I can,” Marell said in August. “From starter to special teams, whatever Coach Hoke and his staff want me to play.”
But on game day, he wasn’t dressed.
All the media heard before the Western Michigan game was that Marell was “ineligible to play.”
A Michigan spokesman referenced transfer issues — the NCAA deemed Marell ineligible because of complications with his transfer status. Both the NCAA and Michigan thought he would be able to play. But not long before kickoff against the Broncos, the news broke.
A clear answer has yet to be given as to why. Apparently, Marell did everything he was supposed to and an NCAA transfer rule has yet to be resolved. It could be fixed at any point during the season, and Marell could resume playing. But for now, he remains on the team and a member of the scout team in practice.
For Marell, who per NCAA rules is not permitted to comment on anything about his eligibility now, it’s another bump in his long journey back to Ann Arbor.
His former coaches can’t help but to be bothered by the news.
When Hayden talks about it, you can’t miss the disappointment in his voice. It trembles almost, as he tries his best to suppress his anger. Zac Hayden understands Marell Evans. He knows what he’s been through.
It’s hard to see him hit yet another roadblock. He talks to me over the phone, but I can almost feel him shaking his head.
“It bothers me, man, that he can’t be on the doggone field,” Hayden says. “You got all these prima donna guys, they want everything handed to them. They want money. They sell their bowl rings, they sell their gear and they autograph stuff to make money.
“Marell Evans is out here busting his tail doing what he needs to do, and all the sudden he gets told last minute he’s ineligible. And there’s other people at his archrival Ohio State selling stuff, and now they’re in the NFL.”
He apologizes for going on a tangent; I tell him there’s no need.
“Marell Evans is what college football is all about,” he continues. “Getting an opportunity to do something he’s wanted to do his whole life, and working his ass off. And then you got these other people, these prima donnas, that make college football look bad.”
After a few more exchanges, I thank him for talking to me. He pauses.
“Tell him Coach Hayden wants the best for him, will ya?”
Marell has yet to be on a 2011 game day roster.
But at 22, he’s the oldest player on the team. His experience and leadership have paid dividends for the Wolverines.
“I don’t know when (his eligibility issues) will clear up,” Hoke said on Sept. 12. “But he’s doing a great job being the best scout team linebacker in the country.”
Hayden wasn’t surprised to hear that Hoke was singing Marell’s praise.
“If he can’t play and he’s on the scout team, he’s going to go as hard as he can in practice,” Hayden said. “He’s going to make everybody around him better. That’s just the way he is. He’s a great kid.”
His presence is felt in the locker room, too.
Roundtree was one of many who noticed a difference.
“When I first got here, Marell took me in to show me around Michigan,” Roundtree said. “I consider him a big brother to me. He’s funny and competitive. He’s always got that mindset of getting better. On Saturdays, he’ll come in here and do extra work, and he’s just got a passion for the game.”
Junior quarterback Denard Robinson echoed Roundtree’s sentiments.
“When I first came in I met Marell, and he was one of the guys I looked up to as a leader and a big brother,” Robinson said. “He’s a great guy, and I enjoy being around him and the things he does and the things he brings out in you.
“He’s been through a lot, and he helps me with any problems I have.”
Marell Evans was given a second chance to finish what he started. So far, it hasn’t quite gone to script.
But then again for him, not many things have.
“I think going through this, he realized he’s matured,” Hayden said. “Even if he never plays a down of football, he’s going to be a better kid because he’s had to deal with this.”
Marell is still on track to graduate in December with a degree in General Studies. Although playing football helped him attain a college education, it’s a degree that can take him to places that no one in his family had ever dreamed of.
“I want do something with psychology,” Marell said. “The window is open for opportunities. I try to meet as many people as I can at the University of Michigan, and I greet everybody like it’s the last person I’ll see.
“My mom and grandma are two people I’m trying to make proud. They are definitely my inspiration, 100 percent.”
He was a Michigan football player. Then he wasn’t. Now he is again. And because of it, he’s learned more than he ever would have if things had gone as planned.
“Just be blessed,” he says. “It’s as simple as that. Just understand that everything you’ve got could be gone in one day. It’s just a great opportunity to be here right now. It’s a blessing.
“I could be working right now at a warehouse in Richmond, Virginia.”
Even on the sidelines, Marell Evans is taking nothing for granted.