Brandon Marshall is falling down.
It’s a late-summer practice on a predictably steamy afternoon in Bourbonnais, and thousands of Bears fans line the field to catch a glimpse of the player wearing No. 15.
Never before has the crowd seen a Bears receiver quite like this.
In his blue practice jersey that features Nike’s swoosh logo on both shoulders, Marshall is easy to track as he sprints toward the end zone. The first thing one notices is his impressive size – 6-foot-4, 230 pounds – that dwarfs opposing cornerback Tim Jennings by 8 inches and 45 pounds. The second thing one notices is his never-ending arms, packed with muscles and covered in dark tattoos.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler certainly notices.
As Marshall approaches the right corner of the end zone, Cutler spirals a pass toward where he expects his receiver to be moments later. But as Marshall turns toward the ball, he loses his footing and falls backward toward the grass.
Somehow, it doesn’t matter.
Somehow, Marshall extends those arms and reels in Cutler’s pass high above his head a split-second before falling on his backside. In bounds. For a touchdown.
It’s a practice touchdown, but still.
“He makes it pretty easy,” Cutler says. “I think you could probably throw to him.”
These are the happy moments.
But what about when plays go awry? What about when games are lost?
Because Marshall, who joined the team in March in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, is not only one of the most accomplished wide receivers to wear a Bears uniform. He also is one of more than 50 million Americans who have a mental illness.
Marshall, 28, has borderline personality disorder, or BPD.
It’s a life-changing diagnosis that cannot be condensed to a couple of paragraphs. But it means that Marshall exhibits at least five of nine symptoms that indicate a pervasive pattern of instability in personal relationships, self-image and emotions.
It means that a misstep is possible, even though Marshall receives treatment.
“If he is diagnosed properly, he’s got quite an uphill battle to be on a team in a high-stress situation,” says Dr. Timothy Hayes, a licensed clinical psychologist at C&H Counseling Solutions in Crystal Lake. “The more pressure we’re under, the more it pulls us to the extreme of our coping mechanism.
“And if he’s built up coping mechanisms that fit this list of BPD, he’s going to need some real good support and real good therapy and have to have a real strong personality to make it through.”
* * *
Brandon Marshall is standing up.
It’s a surprisingly warm Friday in mid-March as temperatures climb into the 80s, but Marshall looks comfortable in his black double-breasted suit, pink shirt and lime-green tie as he faces a bank of TV cameras and reporters at Halas Hall.
Five days have passed since the Bears acquired Marshall, and the Pennsylvania native has arrived prepared to discuss his turbulent past and hope-filled future. He discusses his BPD diagnosis in July 2011 and his visit to a Massachusetts clinic for treatment.
The fact that Marshall is alive to talk about such things is rather remarkable.
At a New Year’s Eve party in 2006, Marshall allegedly got into an argument with several men at a Denver nightclub. The men turned out to be gang members. Hours later, the men drove up next to a limousine carrying some of Marshall’s teammates who also had been at the party, sprayed bullets into the side of the vehicle, and sped off as Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams bled to death at age 24.
More than four years later, in April 2011, Marshall was rushed to a South Florida hospital and underwent emergency surgery after his wife allegedly stabbed him in the stomach with a kitchen knife during a domestic dispute. Marshall remains married to Michi Nogami-Marshall, who told police she acted in self-defense.
Those were the worst moments.
But these are the happy moments. Marshall sits next to Cutler, whom he calls a close friend, and speaks excitedly about his mental-health foundation, Project Borderline.
Since his diagnosis, Marshall said, his life had gained purpose.
“Our mission is to use my experiences and my family's experiences to educate, and break this stigma of mental illness,” Marshall says. “Statistically, one out of every five of us walk around suffering from something.
“A lot of people are afraid to talk about it. It's taboo in our communities. But I'm willing to use myself, make myself and my family vulnerable, to break the stigmas.”
Discussing his battle with BPD was the most difficult challenge of Marshall’s career.
“It was scary,” Marshall said. “But this thing is bigger than me. We’re losing lives.”
Perhaps by speaking out, Marshall can save some.
“I think it’s admirable that he was willing to talk about it,” Hayes said. “Here is a person who has achieved at a very high level in his own field, and he’s doing it with this extra burden. He’s a remarkable individual to have achieved at that level and still have all of these difficulties facing him every day.
“In that sense, he already is a role model. If he slips up and there are problems, he’s already demonstrated that he might not be perfect, but he can achieve at a high level even though he has all of these weights and difficulties to face.”
* * *
Brandon Marshall is sitting still.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the final week of August, and the Bears’ preseason finale is two days away. A couple of reporters approach him to request an interview, but he smiles and declines.
“I think I’m supposed to talk next week,” Marshall says.
It’s a cop-out, but players deserve a break from questions every now and then.
Maybe he’s tired. Maybe he’s having a bad day.
Regardless, Marshall handles the situation well, and reporters head elsewhere.
So far, Marshall has fit in seamlessly with his new teammates and coaches.
“What a great leader he’s been in my meeting room,” says Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. “I can’t vouch for what’s happened in the past. Only he can. And he makes no excuses for the way things have happened. But he’s just been fantastic with the young guys, sharing stories. Sharing technique. Teaching them.”
Yet questions will dog Marshall throughout the rest of his career.
Will today be the day he relapses into trouble? What about tomorrow?
Marshall knows that he cannot silence every skeptic.
“There’s nothing I can say,” Marshall says. “Unfortunately, sometimes, perception is reality. And I’m OK with that. I understand those are the seeds that I planted early on in my career.
“But the only thing I can do moving forward is come to work every day and be the best teammate I can be, the best wide receiver I can be, and also be an asset to this community. I think that is more important than the football part.
“Football is easy. That’s something I’ve done since I was 6 years old. I can catch a ball in my sleep. I can make a guy miss easy.
“But the most important thing for me, my biggest goal, is to be mentioned with some of the other nominees for the Walter Payton Award [as the NFL’s man of the year]. My mission starts in the community here.”