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Legacy worth leaving By Mollie Walker

Photos by Caroline O'Connor and Katherine Mayo

Marquis Young’s presence is infectious.

Anybody who’s taken the time to get to know him says he’s someone you always want to be around, someone who stands out but is intense, yet at the same time sometimes a jokester.

Young was real and carried himself so genuinely from the day he met his Massachusetts football coaches and teammates. The 6-foot-1 running back’s persona was the first thing anybody noticed about him, shortly followed by his remarkable athleticism.

“We knew he had good speed, we knew he had agility, but his personality was one that stuck out,” said running backs coach Darrius Smith. “He was a young man who was going to be a try-hard kid, he was trying to impress, trying to do things correctly and it was important to him that he succeed.

“He has a bold presence.”

He’s always prided himself on wanting to leave a legacy at UMass. But as Young participates in his fourth and final season with the school and football program, he believes that his time in college has meant a lot more than just having impressive stat lines.

It was a time when a boy from Fairport, New York believes he truly grew up, on and off the field. He readily threw himself into football and became the person that he promised himself and his family that he’d always become.

Football is like a sanctuary for Young. Coming from a neighborhood where stardom doesn’t come easily or often, he knows that hope is what youth cling to in order to feel capable of achieving their dreams.

“As kids we all said — all my friends and everyone I grew up with — that we’d make it big and come back to our community and this is big time for me,” Young said.

It was the Kathy Holt Boys and Girls Club in Rochester, New York that made it possible for Young to make it to Division I football. The values instilled in him at the neighborhood facility, designed to hold youth programs in hopes of inspiring young people to realize their full potential, helped shape the man Young is today.

The senior has spent his collegiate years trying to give back to not only the boys and girls in his community back home, but within the community in Amherst as well. Young made a point to mention how, for a lot of young kids, there might not be a support system or access to resources and money, but just a few minutes with someone who has achieved their dreams can go a long way.

“With football, not being one of the top schools or biggest schools, to some kids it really doesn’t matter,” Young said. “Just to see me on TV is big time for them and that helps them believe in themselves.”

Smith recalled how the coaching staff didn’t know what to think of Young when he first arrived to the program, except for his desire to win. He was playing behind veteran back Jamal Wilson and had yet to establish a role for himself within the roster.

It was an 83-yard touchdown run against Notre Dame in 2015 that put Young on the map. It marked the longest rushing attempt from scrimmage by a UMass player since R.J. Cobb went 84 yards in a 2002 matchup with Delaware. It also was the longest rush by a true-freshman in the modern era of UMass football that dated back to the 1978 season. The Fighting Irish went on to be 10-3 that year.

“I think the thing that amazed me about the play was, from the sideline, I could see it was getting blocked incorrectly and what he did was natural ability, he navigated himself through the mush of the bad blocking aspect,” Smith said. “And then when he hit this next gear, it was a gear – we’d seen him run and run fast out here and beat guys in sprints – but it was a gear that none of us expected from him.

“And then to be pulling away from two of the top corners in the country at that time, that played for Notre Dame – both of them were talented high school sprinters – they weren’t catching him. That was the shock factor,” Smith added.

Since then, Young has only built on his speedy identity, showing teams time and time again why giving him an inch of space is a bad idea. He registered 90 rushing yards in this season’s home opener against Duquesne and had a diving play into the end zone at Boston College to even the score 7-7. And most recently passed 3,000 career rushing yards with his 71-yard performance against Georgia Southern on Sept. 8.

Now, there isn’t a single team who isn’t preparing to face the heat from No. 8.

But what Young has, that many other athletes cannot be taught, is a passion to compete and an insatiable will to do it for others.

It was a regular training camp day when Young noticed that head coach Mark Whipple had been off the field for some time. When he finally resurfaced, Whipple delivered the news that Paul Gorham, the director of football operations, had passed away.

Gorham had been battling idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, that prompted a double lung transplant in 2012. Circulation complications also caused Gorham to lose both of his lower legs and have to use prosthetics throughout the end of his life.

As if it were a reflex, Young recalls how the tears instantly started streaming down his face. Whipple allowed the team to take a couple of minutes to gather themselves, but for Young, the only place he wanted to be was his late coach’s office.

After entering Gorham’s office, Young took a seat in the black mesh chair and pondered his special relationship with Gorham. Gorham’s struggle with his personal life and health complications was a common ground for he and Young, who felt that someone truly understood him, resulting in an instant connection.

“It’s funny too because when I found out the news, I was crying and bawling my eyes out, but if he was there he would’ve told me to stop crying and be a man or something. I probably would’ve started laughing,” Young said. “So I started laughing mid-way through my cry, just imagining what he would’ve been saying if he was right there next to me.”

Young took to Twitter to publically dedicate his first touchdown against Duquesne to Gorham, adding “Rest in Peace,” to the post.

“I just knew that if we were going to play this game and we were going to win this game, I was going to do it for him,” Young said. “He was always there for me and I wanted that first touchdown to be special. That’s why I didn’t even throw my hands up or do my celebration or anything.

“I prayed in the game and let him know that the touchdown was going to be for him.”

Even the staff and players that Gorham didn’t know too well were still influenced by his story and resilient fight to survive. Young says it is obvious to the team who they are fighting and playing for.

“I didn't make it big on social media, but ‘Angels on the Field’ is my thing,” Young explained. “Everyone that I’ve lost in my life, I just call them ‘Angels on the Field’ and so when I have a real good game I say ‘I brought the angels with me.’ So now he’s in that little pack.”

That pack of angels also consists of Young’s late mother, Miesha Young, who passed unexpectedly in her sleep at 27 years old. He was 10. Her birthday is in August, right around the time when Young is preparing for his football season every year.

Getting up and going to practice used to be difficult for Young on the day of his mother’s birthday, but as time passed he has learned how to effectively cope with the pressure of the day.

On that day, he wants to be perfect.

He’ll step on the field and burst through every hole, catch every pass, finish every block and run faster than anyone near him, to be perfect for his mom.

Young says that his mom hoped he’d be something special one day. She was one of the first kids in her family to graduate from high school and was the only athlete in her family, playing basketball and running track. Sports have always connected Marquis and Miesha.

“I think I was on Mighty Mites at the time, so I was seven years old and It was my first time [playing]. And she came to the football game,” Young recalled. “We lived around the corner from the football field, so she’s seeing everybody – like dads – grabbing the helmets and shoulder pads [from their kids]. And I just put my head down because I don’t have no pops, but she took my shoulder pads and was like ‘give me your shoulder pads and helmet’ and she took the heavy shoulder pads and walked me home.”

“That's one of the memories that I can vividly see when we talk about it.”

The 24-year-old knows that his mom has been with him every step of the way, joking that she was probably in the room right at that moment. Believing that she’s there makes every day a little easier for Young, while also knowing he has another angel to play for.

“I wonder if I’m faster than her, that’s the real question,” Young smiled. “I’ve always wanted to know if I was faster than her.”

Whipple remembers when Young came in as a freshman at 175 pounds. He was undersized — the average NFL running back usually weighs upward of 215 pounds — but it was Young’s work ethic that was striking to the four-year head coach.

“He’s put on probably 30 pounds [since freshman year],” Whipple guessed. “He kept his speed and really worked on his hands, really studied the game, understands protections and understands the pass game better.

“He’s always been a positive guy. He leads by example and he’s a hard worker,” Whipple added.

Smith, who came to UMass in the spring of 2015 after a stint at Villanova, believes that Young is on pace to be one of the top backs in UMass’ history — even in the country. He thinks that by the end of his final season, the recognition and results that Young has always deserved will come.

“He’s going to have to put up the numbers and he’s going to have to showcase his talent on a national stage every time we get an opportunity to,” Smith said. “Those things aren’t given, they’re always earned.”

Young says he’s treated every day of his senior year so far as if it were his last chance to do something great. For someone who has such high expectations of himself, that mindset has made Young into a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to working on his game.

Since 2015, Young and the Minutemen have won just 10 games. It’s no secret the struggles that the Minutemen have faced since joining the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, but for Young, it was always a possibility to get better.

Coming into the football practice facility at 6 a.m. to watch film before Whipple even walks in the door is an ordinary start to the day for Young. He says he will just sit in the auditorium and look over his pass protections, routes, his catching and cut abilities, even if it’ll make just a sliver of improvement to his game.

“I have a tough time feeling like, even on the play that I made a big play or big touchdown, I always look at it like I could’ve done something better,” Young said. “That's why I always come here, because I want to be able to reach my highest potential.”

Even though success hasn’t always come easily for UMass football, Young has always had an appreciation for his team. He mentioned how he’s had teammates play like individuals, while others are more team-oriented. He can also recall teammates that didn’t see eye-to-eye on what the common goal was, which added to the team’s frustrations.

But, in Young’s opinion, one part of the team has always been consistent.

“Since I’ve been here, Coach Whip has always been a hell of a coach,” Young said. “He’s done whatever he had to do to help us figure out that we are a good team and give us confidence, believing that we all have a common goal that we want to accomplish.

“Most importantly, we believe in Coach Whip.”

Whipple considers Young to be a role model for the younger players on the roster, noting how much he’s matured since his freshman year. Both Whipple and Smith have recognized Young’s influence on the team and made sure he knew that his demeanor would set the tone for everyone else.

The three-year running back coach says that if Young is upbeat, everything and everyone around him is upbeat.

“He has one of those presences where it exudes,” Smith said. “When he is in a room his personality exudes. His laughter exudes.”

What a legacy to leave.

Mollie Walker can be reached at molliewalker@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @MWalker2019.

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