Brennan Marion, a star football player at Greensburg Salem High School and the University of Tulsa, was recently named offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at William & Mary, a university in Virginia.
Sounds simple, right?
The path Marion had to take to get there was anything but.
Marion grew up in Pittsburgh, telling the Courier in an extensive interview in November 2018 the many schools he attended—Reizenstein, Wilson Christian Academy, Westinghouse, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Woodland Hills, Greensburg Salem.
He told the Courier that he wasn’t immune to the violence that was his environment growing up. His cousin was shot while he attended Westinghouse as a sophomore. During his junior year at Steel Valley, he was ruled academically ineligible to play football, having to deal with his grandmother’s passing.
Marion, a Homewood product, never played a full year of high school football until his senior year, in which he attended Greensburg Salem High School in Westmoreland County. There, Marion was a standout in football, basketball and track, and he had plans to play collegiate football after graduating from Greensburg Salem in 2005.
Thus, Marion left home. As in 2,600 miles from home, en route to Los Altos Hills, California, site of Foothill College, a community college. He went the “JUCO” (Junior College) route, playing there for one year, but after Marion and his head coach “didn’t see eye to eye on some things,” Marion said, he left Foothill and went to nearby De Anza College, another junior college about 45 miles from San Francisco.
Marion is open about saying he endured some tough times back in Pittsburgh in his youth. Now barely a few years into adulthood, he was about to endure another tough stretch—homelessness.
“The coach (at De Anza) promised us a living situation, and he couldn’t make that happen,” Marion told the Courier. “There were a few of us guys from out-of-state. We would live in the locker room at De Anza, sleep at (teammates’) houses…once we couldn’t find anywhere else to stay, I decided, we’ll stay in the press box. We slept outside a few times, we rode the bus at night, we stayed in motels…”
Marion estimated four or five days per week he was homeless during the first two months of the football season. “We used to have to steal from the grocery store to eat,” he said. “One time we slept in the hallway at the school.”
Sometimes, however, Marion and a few teammates would use a fellow teammate’s car and sleep in the car, “in the church parking lot.”
Times were bad. But then again, times were good for Marion as far as the football field was concerned. Marion topped all receivers in every receiving category in the junior college circuit, was an All-American, and made the Dean’s List.
Marion’s outstanding play landed him a scholarship at the University of Tulsa, where he continued to shatter records. In 2007 and 2008, he caught 82 total passes for 2,356 yards and 19 touchdowns. His 31.9 yards per catch in his junior season (2007) was an NCAA record.
Now, the NFL scouts were taking notice. Taking notice of Pittsburgh, of Homewood, the man named Brennan Marion. Who would he become? The next legendary receiver, like Jerry Rice? Terrell Owens? Marvin Harrison?
The NFL scouts didn’t care about Marion’s past. They weren’t worried about his bout with homelessness, all they cared about was that talent. Great hands, great footwork, his burst of speed, the ability to elude defenders, his explosiveness.
For Marion, the bad fortunes seemed to be in the past. It was time for the National Football League. The bright lights. The big paychecks.
Then came Dec. 6, 2008—the Conference USA Championship Game between the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the East Carolina Pirates. The game was played in Tulsa, on Chapman Field, where fans had become used to Marion’s incredible athletic prowess. They watched in stunned silence, however, when he tore his left ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in his knee on his team’s final offensive play of the game.
Marion’s team lost the game. NFL scouts shied away. A possible second-round NFL draft pick in 2009 ended up going undrafted.
The Miami Dolphins eventually signed Marion in 2009, but he re-tore the same ACL in training camp.
The next year, he served as offensive coordinator for a high school in Union City, Calif., but still had that itch to play professional football. Marion went to Canada to play for the Montreal Alouettes—except that on his second day with the team, he again tore his ACL.
To make matters worse, Marion recalls, “While I was at the doctor’s office, the (Dallas) Cowboys called me to sign with them.”
Yes, those Dallas Cowboys. America’s Team.
However, this third ACL tear was it for Marion and his dreams of playing professional football vanished.
Thankfully, that year at James Logan High School in Union City revealed a new love for Marion—coaching.
“The biggest thing that got me to love coaching is I had kids from Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, rough backgrounds, and I thought my life story was rough…a lot of those kids had it worse,” Marion said about his time at James Logan in 2010. “Being able to really impact their lives, getting them to believe that there’s more out there in life, it was really great to help and serve those kids.” In fact, Marion said the high school players saved his life. “They got my life together as far as drinking, partying, the depression of being hurt, thinking I’m going to play in the league.”
Coaching and having a daughter, Mariah, were the catalyst to launching Marion’s next journey.
In 2013 at age 25, he earned his first head coaching position at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo, Calif. He took the team with a 1-9 record the previous season to the playoffs in his first season.
Marion then came back to Pennsylvania as the head coach of Waynesboro Area Senior High School. A team that went 0-10 the season prior to Marion’s arrival finished with a 6-4 record in the 2014 season, a feat that was lauded by many in the coaching landscape. It was the Waynesboro Indians’ first winning season since 1992. Marion featured a no-huddle spread offense that produced more than 500 yards of offense and 36.6 points per game.
After some coaching stints at a few smaller colleges, Marion landed at Howard University in Washington, D.C., as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017.
That’s where his uptempo, hard-to-stop offense, nicknamed Go-Go, was molded. Under Marion and Howard’s head coach, Mike London, the team pulled off a huge upset—beating UNLV, 43-40, in the 2017 season opener. The UNLV Rebels were a 45-point favorite, making Howard’s win the largest point-spread upset in college football history.
During the 2018 season, Howard’s football team scored 55 points twice, along with a 41-point performance in a win over Bethune-Cookman, Sept. 22. The team averaged 33.6 points and 470.8 yards per game with Marion calling the offensive shots.
“Coach Marion has done a great job with our offense,” London told the Courier in November 2018. “He’s done a great job with (quarterback) Caylin (Newton) and our offensive staff works well together. (Us) having a great young mind like Coach Marion has been beneficial for us. He’s going to be a head coach one day for sure.”
After Howard completed its 2018 season, it was announced that London would become the new head coach at William & Mary, another FCS (football championship subdivision) school, though it plays in the Colonial Athletic Association (Howard plays in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference, which houses nine other HBCU football programs). It was a no-brainer that London would take Marion with him as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
The College of William & Mary should sound familiar to Pittsburghers—it’s where Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin attended college. He was a three-time starter at wide receiver for the William & Mary Tribe between 1990-94. He had 101 career receptions for 2,046 yards and 20 touchdown receptions. Tomlin graduated in 1995.
Tomlin is regarded by his players for his leadership style, his “the-standard-is-the-standard” mantra, and his unique motivational tactics. But before Tomlin was ever a household name as an NFL head coach, he spent years coaching in the college ranks; five colleges to be exact—anywhere from graduate assistant, to wide receivers coach, to defensive backs coach.
Coaching is hard. It’s not for everyone. Not only do you have to know your Xs and Os, but you must have a genuine concern for your players. Only then will they give you their all. Marion, who’s climbing the coaching ladder, has a genuine care for his players. “I loved high school coaching because you could really develop a kid. You have so much time to mold them into great young men,” he said. “But college, you provide an opportunity for people to be successful and change their family lineage to get an education…the only way to sustain a good life is education.”
Marion earned his bachelor’s degree in organizational studies from Tulsa in 2009. Now with a second child, also named Brennan, he’s made many people in his hometown proud, including his father, Jeff Marion. “He kept fighting, he never gave up, he wasn’t coming back to Pittsburgh empty handed, and he didn’t,” Jeff Marion told the Courier.
Jeff Marion, also a youth football coach in Pittsburgh with the Lincoln Rams, took some of the youth football players to Howard University in November 2018. There, they saw the workings of a college football program while Brennan Marion talked with the youth about never giving up on their dreams.
He’s “giving back to some other kids that are just as talented, come from the same streets, same background, same lack of opportunity (as his), and showing them a path,” Jeff Marion said about Brennan.
And high school football players in the Pittsburgh area are aware of Brennan Marion. Hollis Mathis, the state championship-winning quarterback for the Penn Hills Indians, recently announced his intentions to play football at William & Mary. Jeannette senior standout receiver Marcus Barnes also committed to play at William & Mary.
Brennan Marion can truly say he’s been all over this country. A kid from Homewood, whom, as his father Jeff says, overcame the odds, becoming not only a star football player, but a college graduate, a coach on the rise, and most importantly to Brennan himself, a leader of men.
“Thank God for the ball; that saved my life,” Brennan Marion told the Courier, stating that sports are oftentimes the vehicle to get kids like himself out of adverse situations.
Brennan Marion also thanked his grandmother, Charlene Marion, who passed away in 2003 and was an immense figure in his life. “As she was passing away, she asked me, ‘Can you really (try to) make something of yourself?’ That’s what turned the switch on for me, and I did everything to honor her.”
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