Nick Marshall's Long and Bumpy Road to the 2014 BCS National Championship

Justin Lee@@byjustinleeContributor IJanuary 4, 2014

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Nick Marshall sat in the passenger seat of a car headed countless miles away from home.

Beside him was his new coach, Jeff Tatum, who was sitting behind the wheel and driving Marshall farther and farther away from the state of Georgia—and farther and farther from his supposed destiny.

It was February 6, 2012, and everything had just fallen apart.

Just a few days before, Marshall had been dismissed from the University of Georgia's football team due to a violation of team rules. Before he even knew it, Marshall was off to Kansas to get back in school and play for Tatum at Garden City Community College—nearly 1,300 miles from his hometown of Pineview, Ga.

"We packed his clothes up and drove out there, and started a new lease on life," Tatum said. "His mom and his high school coach thought it was the best for him to get as far away from Georgia as possible, as quickly as possible."

Marshall had ridden the first four hours or so of the 20-hour journey with his old high school coach, Mark Ledford. They met Tatum in Birmingham, Ala.—where Marshall took all of his clothes and piled them into the back of Tatum's van, before riding with him for the rest of the seemingly endless drive.

Through the trip, Marshall spent some of the time sleeping in the passenger seat. At times, the two talked about the offense they would soon be running at Garden City.

Other times, they'd talk about how Marshall was going to turn his life back around.

Here was Marshall—considered a legendary high school athlete in some circles in southern Georgia—heading West, without a car of his own, exiled to junior college with no intention of coming back any time soon.

This wasn't how Marshall's career was supposed to go.

Marshall did it all at Wilcox County High School.

He was a two-sport star and a high school sports hero, out in a rural area where there never is much going on besides high school sports.

He thrilled the community both on the football field and on the basketball court for the tiny Class A school—becoming a noted prospect in both sports in the process.

On the gridiron, Marshall became famous for his lightning-quick feet and his near-mythological arm strength. During his junior season, Marshall led the Patriots to a Class A state title—after single-handedly accounting for 331 of Wilcox County's 339 yards of total offense in its state championship game win over Savannah Christian in the Georgia Dome.

By the time his football career was finished, Marshall had set a Georgia all-classification record for career touchdown passes with 103 over four seasons.

But, at the time, football was just his second sport.

Marshall had twice been named AP Class A Player of the Year in basketball—and for the majority of his high school career, he thought that's where his future was.

That thought process ultimately led Marshall to the University of Georgia, where arrangements were made so that he could play basketball for hoops coach Mark Fox and football for head coach Mark Richt—albeit as a defensive back rather than a quarterback.

Marshall stayed in Georgia and signed with his home-state institution, becoming a part of the Bulldogs' famous "Dream Team" recruiting class in 2011, which saw a number of the state's most high-profile prospects stay close to home and sign with Georgia.

As a freshman, Marshall saw limited time for the football team as a defensive back, but he was all set to burst onto the scene in a big way during his sophomore campaign, and eventually make his basketball debut under Fox—and add to the lore of his dual-sport legend in the state of Georgia.

Everything was going according to plan, until the script flipped on Feb. 3, 2012, when Richt unceremoniously dismissed Marshall, Sanford Seay and Chris Sanders from the team. Reports indicated that the incident involved theft of money from a Georgia dorm room.

Three days later, Marshall was on his way to Kansas with Tatum.

Courtesy Daniel Reyes, Garden City Community College

"It was so urgent to get back in school," Marshall said at a BCS press conference Thursday. "When I made the decision to do that, I put my mind into what I needed to do to get out there and get better at playing Division I football."

Once he was in Garden City, Marshall didn't have a car of his own. He couldn't quit and go home even if he wanted.

"You really can't get in trouble," Marshall said. "There is nowhere to party. You focus on your schoolwork and football and that's the thing I did when I was out there."

Jan 2, 2014; Newport Beach, CA, USA; Auburn Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall at the 2014 BCS National Championship press conference at Newport Beach Marriott. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What's more, Marshall wasn't going to be satisfied by earning just any spot on a Division I roster.  He was going to be coming back as a quarterback.

"I think all along his heart was to play quarterback," Tatum said. "As soon as we got in the van, and headed back to Garden City, that was the first thing. Before I put it in drive I said, 'You do understand, you're going to play quarterback for me? If that's a problem, you need to let me know right now.' And he said, 'No Coach, I think that's the best thing for me.'

"I think deep down in his heart, even the whole time he was at Georgia, I think he really wanted to play quarterback. But he is such a good kid, he didn't want to rock the boat or buck the system or anything like that."

Marshall also decided to give up basketball for the time being, focusing entirely on the quarterback position.

"After the state championship game his junior year, I think that's when he really fell in love with football and knew that would be a great career opportunity also—that he was just as good in football as he was in basketball," Tatum said.

If the Georgia Dome is where Marshall found his love for the game, Garden City is where he found his focus.

Courtesy Daniel Reyes, Garden City Community College

Auburn's tremendous turnaround in 2013 comes as no surprise to Tatum.

Tatum saw Marshall spark a similar turnaround at Garden City a year ago.

In fact, Tatum says he could see it coming even before that.

It started with a team-building exercise in the spring of 2012, when Tatum took Marshall and the rest of the football team on a road trip to watch an away Garden City basketball game.

The opposing school's baseball team was also there in the stands.

"Our guys are hollering at their baseball team on the other side of the court, and they're hollering back, and all of a sudden they started hollering 'two-and-seven,'" Tatum said. "(Marshall) looked at me and said, 'Coach, what are they saying?' I said, 'They're saying two-and-seven.'

"'Well why are they saying that?'

"'That's because we went 2-7 last year.'

"He said, 'Oh, I didn't know that. Don't worry about this year, Coach. We won't be 2-7. I promise you that.'"

That, Tatum says, was the moment when he knew his team would turn the corner with Marshall at quarterback.

"It wasn't one of those where he was telling me what I wanted to hear," Tatum said. "He really, truly believed that we were not going to be 2-7 because he was going to help our football team be a better team."

That fall, Marshall led Garden City to a 7-4 record, passing for 3,142 yards, and 18 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,095 yards and 19 more touchdowns.

In the season finale, Marshall returned to the game from injury to lead a game-winning drive and defeat Copiah-Lincoln, 31-29, in the Mississippi Bowl.

"In our bowl game, when we got behind there at the end of the game, I went over to him and he got a little banged up on the next-to-last drive, and I didn't want to get him hurt," Tatum said. "I went over to him and I said, 'Nick, I need two throws.' And he said, 'OK, Coach.' And when I turned around it was like, 'He's gonna do it.' And then he makes the two throws, and we go down and kick the field goal to win. To him, that was just what was supposed to happen.

"All these things that have happened positive to Auburn all year, he's one of those guys that truly expects good things to happen to him and his football team."

Nov 16, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers wide receiver Ricardo Louis (5) catches a tipped ball by Georgia Bulldogs defensive back Josh Harvey-Clemons (25) and scores the game winning touchdown at Jordan Hare Stadium. The Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 4
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

"It was 4th-and-18," Marshall said at a BCS press conference Thursday, recalling the miraculous play that defeated his former team earlier this year, "and we was in the huddle and Coach Malzahn gave us the play and as we were getting ready to break, Ricardo Louis looked at me and told me to throw him the ball.

"I put my trust in him and he put his trust in me to throw him the ball."

For Marshall and Louis, that play was all about trust.

So was many of the things Marshall has been able to do with the Tigers this year.

"Those guys want to play with him and play hard when he's out on the field, because they know that, when he's out there, that he believes in them and that they're going to go make plays," Tatum said.

While Auburn continued to shock the world each week this season, making the most improbable of runs to the BCS National Championship Game and completing the best turnaround in the history of college football, Marshall stayed the same calm, collected person throughout.

Dec 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall (14) runs onto the field prior to the 2013 SEC Championship game against the Missouri Tigers at Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

"He's a leader, without being a vocal kind of guy," Tatum said. "If you want into a room, he's not the guy that's going to be jumping up and saying 'let's go'—the rah-rah type guy. He's one of those that's quiet, kind of behind the scenes as a quarterback, being real positive. And then also he has that calming effect. When he talks to people, it just kind of settles them down. He's got that calmness about him."

It's from that calmness that comes belief—and from that belief, the "miraculous" plays that Auburn has been able to string together seemingly all season.

"It's like Coach Malzahn said, at the end of the game we're going to find a way to win," Marshall said. "We have been doing that the whole year."

Tatum—who has since left Garden City to become the head football coach at Mississippi Delta Community College—has been able to follow Marshall and Auburn all season. He was in attendance at Jordan-Hare Stadium for both the Georgia and Alabama games to close the season.

Marshall and Tatum still talk regularly every week. Before arriving at Auburn last June, Marshall took a few classes at Mississippi Delta during the preceding summer semester, because Tatum was there.

Now, Tatum will look on as the player he helped convert back into a quarterback goes head-to-head with the Heisman Trophy winner on the biggest stage in college football—and as the kid from rural Georgia who was supposed to be a cornerback looks to win a national championship.

No, this isn't how Marshall's career was supposed to go.

So far, it's been even better.

Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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