It was the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLVIII, and Brandon Marshall was trying to open up a seam for Denver Broncos teammate Trindon Holliday to run through.
In the living room of his northwest Las Vegas home, Ron Smeltzer, Marshall’s coach at Cimarron-Memorial High School, watched with pride as the cameras found Marshall in the midst of the return.
“There he is!” Smeltzer yelled, his wife Joyce joining in him in unison as No. 54 looked to make a play.
“It’s so good to see a kid who had to struggle doing what he’s doing,” Smeltzer said, choking up with emotion. “Honestly, I didn’t know if Brandon would be good enough to play in the NFL. So many things have to go right for you to make it. But I knew he was good enough to play college ball, and from there, you never know.”
Marshall, a three-year starter at linebacker for the Spartans and a 2007 graduate, would go on to UNR and start for Chris Ault for four years. He was under-recruited out of high school because at 6 feet 1 inch and 202 pounds, not many coaches thought Marshall could hold up physically at the Division I level, let alone in the NFL.
Today, he is a solid 240 pounds. The Jacksonville Jaguars had given up on him earlier this year after taking him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. But the Broncos signed him as a free agent earlier this season, and he found a spot as a backup linebacker and special teams player. Sunday, he was on football’s biggest stage in MetLife Stadium.
The two have stayed in touch. Smeltzer, 72 and two years removed since he last wore a headset on the sidelines, texted Marshall earlier in the week with a message: “Those who work hard will be rewarded.”
Once a coach, always a coach.
Marshall texted back: “Smelts, I appreciate it truly.”
Smeltzer, a former UNLV assistant under Bill Ireland who coached professionally in the Canadian Football League as an assistant with the 1985 Grey Cup champion British Columbia Lions and later as a member of Ron Meyer’s staff with the Las Vegas Posse in 1994, knows talent. And he recognized that Marshall was gifted on the football field.
“We went to the UNLV team camp the summer of Brandon’s senior season, and we talked about expanding his role,” Smeltzer said. “I remember him wanting to play running back, and I told our coaching staff Brandon was too good a player not to play offense. We already had a really good running back in Eddie Wide, so we made Brandon a tight end. But it was more like an H back. We put some special plays in for him, and he was terrific.
“He never complained about his role. All he wanted to do was help the team. That’s the kind of kid he was, and I think Denver saw that when they signed him.”
Joyce Smeltzer taught at Cimarron-Memorial, and she remembers a polite, mature young man on the school’s Tenaya Way campus.
“He was just a gentleman,” she said. “He took responsibility with everything he did. This opportunity couldn’t go to a better person.”
Smeltzer’s lone regret? That his friend and fellow CMHS coach Greg Spencer didn’t live to see this day. Spencer died from esophageal cancer in 2009.
“I think he would have been awfully proud,” Smeltzer said.
Unfortunately, Sunday will be a tough day for Marshall to remember. Yes, he got to play in the Super Bowl. But like his Broncos teammates, Marshall was unable to do anything to stop the Seattle Seahawks.
He was in on an early tackle at 5-0, but things went downhill quickly for Denver. The score was 22-0 at halftime, then Percy Harvin returned the second half’s opening kickoff 87 yards to extend the lead to 29-0.
“Get him, Brandon!” the Smeltzers yelled at the TV.
But the pleas were in vain as Marshall was just one more person in orange making a futile chase to run down Harvin and the Seahawks. Seattle ultimately rolled to a 43-8 rout.
Still, Smeltzer reveled in seeing one of his guys on the field. Even if he was on the wrong end of a lopsided score.
“It’s such a thrill to see him play at this level in this game,” he said. “It’s a bigger thrill to see what he’s done with his life.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at 702-387-2913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.