WSU wideout Gabe Marks leads the Pac-12 with 57 receptions and 10 TDs, and is coming off an electrifying four-touchdown performance against Arizona. Football started out as an outlet for Marks’ energy, but after his dad died, football became an outlet for Marks’ frustration.
Gabe Marks wears No. 9 at Washington State in honor of his father.
Marks was 9 years old when his dad, Michael Marks, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in 2004.
As the only child to high-school sweethearts Michael Marks and Jordanna Gersh, Gabe was close to his parents growing up. Gabe had just started playing football the year his dad died, so Michael Marks never got to see him play in very many games.
But if he could see his son today, he’d be proud.
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As the Cougars (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) prepare to take on No. 8 Stanford (6-1, 5-0) on Saturday at Martin Stadium, Marks leads the conference with 57 receptions and 10 touchdowns, and is coming off an electrifying four-touchdown performance against Arizona. He is the first WSU player to catch four touchdowns in a game.
Coming off a redshirt season last year has reinvigorated him mentally, physically and emotionally. Marks is playing with a hunger unrivaled by many, and has cemented himself as one of the Cougars’ leaders.
Football started out as an outlet for Marks’ insuppressible energy, said Gersh, who raised Marks as a single parent in Venice, Calif. Yet, after his dad died, football became an outlet for Marks’ frustrations.
“He doesn’t like to talk about it, but I think football saved his life,” Gersh said. “I think it was both therapy and a hobby, which turned into a passion and has turned into a career. But I think first and foremost, it was therapeutic for him.”
“It was a sport where he was able to be with his friends and able to connect with the guys in the neighborhood who knew his dad. His coaches were his dad’s friends.”
Out of the depths of a boy missing his father, but finding love in the form of this beautiful, brutal sport, grew a young man who would blossom into one of the most fiery competitors Venice High School football coach Angelo Gasca has ever met.
“It’s in him,” said Gasca, who’s been in coaching for more than three decades and has seen the likes of Isaac Bruce, Steve Smith and Chad Johnson up close. “When your best player is your hardest-working player, that’s our goal. That’s what Gabe was.
“When you get him onto the field, it’s hard to get him off.”
The Venice way
Venice, Calif. is an urban, beachfront city that’s close enough to Santa Monica and Malibu to attract what Gasca, a Venice native, calls the “urbanite yuppies” who “want to live in the Venice area because it’s kind of cool.”
But despite the recent gentrification, there’s a core of the city that the locals have held on to. That’s the Venice that Marks calls home.
As Marks’ close friend Zander Diamont found out when he moved to Venice from Santa Monica before his sophomore year of high school, the true Venice is a close-knit community where everybody knows each other and the locals pride themselves for being tough and real.
“It’s the ghetto by the sea,” said Diamont, who played quarterback at Venice High during Marks’ senior season in 2011, and is now a quarterback at Indiana University. “That’s what I love about Venice. It’s not your typical beach community. There’s a mix of artsy types, gangbangers and surfers. It’s a melting pot. I didn’t grow up in it, but I’ve seen the way it shapes people.”
Diamont credits Marks, who’s two years his senior, for taking in the new kid and showing him the Venice way.
“There’s a grittiness to how we play, an aggressiveness to the mindset,” Diamont said. “It’s a certain swagger from Venice that Gabe’s mom has instilled in him and his group of friends instilled in him. We don’t care who you are or where you’re from. We’re gonna play ball.”
But while Venice, with its beaches and warm climes, can be a great place to grow up, it’s also not free of the kind of gang activity that can consume young men and derail lives. After Marks’ dad died, it fell to Jordanna Gersh to ensure that her son stayed on the right path.
Said Gasca: “There are gangs, and there’s trouble in the streets. Some of our players’ fathers, we never meet them because they’re locked up or they’re dead. Jordanna was incredible the way she took her kid, got him involved and spared no expense and no amount of time to get him where he wanted to be.”
Gersh says Marks’ work ethic and single-minded focus made her job easier. Right from the time he started his freshman year of high school, he took it upon himself to outwork his competition.
Marks gets his height from his father, but he was never a big kid.
“If you looked at Gabe, you’d think he’s athletic, yet he doesn’t look like this burly football player,” Gasca said. “But he’s tough and wiry.”
Still, because of his slight frame, Marks (6-feet, 190 pounds) had to work to prove himself on the field.
“There was a lot of talent where I grew up, and you had to compete if you wanted to win,” said Marks, a redshirt junior. “There’s always a lot of talent in the (Los Angeles) area and I wasn’t always on the better end of the athletic side of it. So outcompeting guys is how I even the playing field.”
By the end of his sophomore year of high school, Marks had made a name for himself on the camp and combine circuit. But he rebutted interest from a handful of schools, such as Oregon, which wanted him to play cornerback.
Marks fancied himself a receiver. He’d grown up watching Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell light up Big 12 scoreboards in Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense, and he wanted to play in a system that would allow him to do that.
So when Mike Leach was hired at WSU and offered Marks a chance to come play in the same offensive system his idol, Crabtree, had thrived in, the receiver jumped at the opportunity.
As it turns out, Marks couldn’t have picked a more perfect situation. These days, Marks often watches Crabtree’s film in the Cougars receivers’ room under the direction of Harrell, WSU’s outside-receivers coach.
“When he came in, I was really excited,” Marks said, referring to Harrell. “I was watching this guy when I was younger. And now we share the same room. …We have a lot of film on (Crabtree) and we play the same position in the offense. So I really watch him and ask a lot of questions of Graham about him.”
Marks downplays any comparisons between himself and Crabtree, but Harrell says there’s one thing about his young charge that reminds him of his former teammate.
“They’re both just super competitive. That’s what makes them great,” Harrell said. “How competitive they both are, and the will to win. I don’t think their playing styles are similar, but I think the drive is similar.”
The fire within
The Cougars all say Marks is the most competitive person in the locker room, and on game day, he plays with an intensity that’s hard for anyone to match.
You see it every time he catches a pass in triple coverage on third-and-long to move the chains and keep a Cougars drive alive.
You saw it when he caught that crucial 9-yard touchdown pass from Luke Falk with two minutes left in the fourth quarter against Arizona, chest-bumped Jamal Morrow and punched the air in exhilaration.
But he brings it even when no one is watching. Marks treats every touchdown catch in practice as if he just made the game-winning grab in the Super Bowl, Harrell says. Falk observes that Marks frequently stays late after practice catching extra balls.
“That’s pretty remarkable for a high school kid,” Diamont says. “Gabe brings a certain intensity to the game. He’s not just trying to beat a defensive back on a play. He’s trying to rip their heart out.”
That’s why having to redshirt last season was so difficult for Marks to swallow.
It didn’t help that his redshirt year came shortly after an incident in February 2014, in which Marks was arrested for his part in a bar fight that ended with a citation on four misdemeanor charges. (One charge — minor intoxicated in public — was eventually dismissed. Marks pleaded guilty to the fourth-degree assault charge and was sentenced to community service and a probation period that ended in August. The case is now closed.)
However, that incident, coupled with Leach’s policy about not commenting on his players’ health, made people wonder whether Marks had been redshirted as a punitive measure.
In reality, 2014 was harder for Marks than anyone had realized. The receiver missed spring ball last year because of a grievous illness — Harrell termed it an “infection” and Gasca said it was bad enough that it was “beyond football-serious, life-threatening serious.”
“We knew he had to redshirt when he got sick in March,” Gersh said. “He kind of forced himself out there and he got a concussion in fall camp because he wasn’t ready, and that’s when Leach shut him down.”
At the time, the receiver took the news hard. He’d made an immediate impact for the Cougars, starting as a true freshman, and leading WSU in receptions and receiving yards as a sophomore. Why had his body betrayed him?
“We were disappointed at first and Gabe had a hard time accepting it because his whole life, his identity, was in playing football. Mentally, he was upset, mad and angry,” Gersh said. “One of his biggest struggles was that he thought everybody was going to forget about him.”
Marks now says that redshirting last year was a good thing for him, and that it allowed him to grow. Gersh agrees — she thinks it gave Marks a chance to find his identity outside of football, and to be a regular college kid, free of the pressure to perform on a weekly basis.
Plus, he’s not the sort to sit around and sulk. After he accepted the fact that he would have to redshirt, Marks’ inner competitor won out over his disappointment and he resolved to be the best practice player the Cougars had ever seen.
“Every day he was starting fights and lighting up the defense and just taking it personally when the scout team wasn’t doing well. And if they were doing well, he was talking trash,” Harrell said. “When you see him wanting to win that bad just at practice on the scout team, that’s what you want.”
That’s the only way Marks knows how to play.
“He’s always had to prove that he belongs. That’s really where his competitiveness came from,” Gersh said.