By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006
If an individual personality embodied the Washington Redskins, a team flush with expectations and visions of a season-long invitation to prime time, it might be Clinton Portis on dress-up day, Marcus Washington's energy and optimism, Chris Cooley's carefree charm or Sean Taylor's moody, smoldering fire.
But on a team of outsize characters, Lemar Marshall, the Redskins' understated middle linebacker, is best known for reading books. The subject is often politics or religion, but always nonfiction, always provocative and serious, always, as defensive tackle Joe Salave'a says, "deep."
On this day in training camp, when his teammates are discussing him, Marshall is reading "Every Man, God's Man: Every Man's Guide to Courageous Faith and Daily Integrity," part of a series of books popular among evangelical Christians. His teammates are respectful and measured. Washington, the strong-side linebacker who starts beside Marshall, calls him "religious." Randy Thomas, an offensive lineman, says Marshall is "humble." Salave'a refers to him as "the glue to our defense."
But, as Washington points out, Marshall, 29, also sports harmless contradictions. While his outward appearance appears solemn, almost foreboding, Marshall is actually easygoing. He is quiet but does not brood. He is serious but approachable. His face is dark, unlined and fierce -- the way an NFL middle linebacker should look -- but it can quickly soften and burst into a smile.
Washington sees Marshall as a man with two personalities. There is the man who lives Monday to Saturday, and then there is Marshall on Sundays.
"He's just Catfish," Washington said, referring to the nickname given Marshall by former Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot because Smoot once said Marshall's whiskered, goateed face resembled that of a catfish. "I'd summarize Lemar as a down to earth guy. He's just a guy. But once he gets on the field, and hears the stadium crowd, he becomes a playmaker. He's definitely one of those two-personality guys."
In his first season as a full-time middle linebacker, Marshall gained the trust of assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams last year with his durability and grasp of the defense. He led the Redskins in tackles with 98, unassisted tackles with 79 and interceptions with four. Williams spent much of the end of the year praising Marshall's decision-making, inviting him to fuse his instincts with his knowledge of the defensive system to, in effect, become an on-field extension of his coach.
"There aren't too many surprises now. Last year, I was hesitant at first and I got more and more comfortable," Marshall said. "I just want to come out the same way I finished last year."
But the offseason was not kind. Ask him how many surgeries he's had over the past eight months and Marshall won't say, opting instead to spread his index and middle fingers wide apart, making a peace sign. Two. Two times he went under the knife. One on a shoulder that bothered him all of last season, though he played all 16 games, and the second on his right knee.
There was, then, no down time for Marshall. The few days he and his wife had planned in Puerto Rico, or maybe Aruba, were canceled. Every day he found himself at Redskins Park, the team training facility in Ashburn.
"I can't call it an offseason. When I had the surgery in January, I was in here every day for treatment," he said. "Instead of having a plan to be better than you were last year, my plan was just to get healthy. I spent all my energy on getting better. It was just a slow process, a long process.
"I had my priorities. This game is only here for a short time, and this is a great opportunity that you don't know how long will last. We'll have to push that little vacation off until next year."
So many of the name players on the Redskins' defense carry more cachet than Marshall. Taylor, Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers were high draft choices. Washington, Adam Archuleta, Phillip Daniels and Cornelius Griffin signed big free agent contracts. Remaining in Ashburn was, Marshall said, the fear talking. It was the fear of squandering an opportunity to continue what he had become: a starting defensive player in the NFL. It is an achievement that may appear modest for higher-profile players, but for Marshall it is another vindication for a man no one wanted when he finished at Michigan State five years ago.
"He's probably the humblest guy I know. He doesn't say much. He always has kind of a quiet sense of humor. Not a loud talker. He just goes to work," Thomas said. "But he's got a chip on his shoulder. He took a different route than everybody else. He was free agent, got released. He knows the tough side of it."
When Marshall took over the starting linebacker job after Antonio Pierce left as a free agent for the New York Giants in 2005, he immediately found himself judged not by what skills he may have brought to the position but by what he wasn't. Although he stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 232 pounds, some thought Marshall -- who played defensive back in college -- wasn't big enough for middle linebacker. Others wondered whether he was too reserved for a position traditionally filled by brasher personalities.
"The middle linebackers that have played for any length of time for me have gotten more and more liberties," Williams said. "He's playing himself into shape. The things that Lemar can do from an athletic middle linebacker position, is that his defensive back skills really help him in the passing game with breaks on the ball. It really helps him in the passing game on his instinct and his reflexes on very fast throws underneath."
His teammates also heard the same concerns that Marshall was incapable of success at middle linebacker.
"That was the one thing that everyone kept saying, was that he was too quiet to handle the spot, not outgoing enough to make the calls. But he's not quiet on the field," said Daniels, the team's left defensive end. "He leads by example. He's going about his business. You have to communicate, but you also have to know how to communicate it. I think Lemar knows how."
Redskins Notes: The Redskins announced that nine players would be left out of tonight's preseason game at FedEx Field against the New York Jets. Cornerbacks Springs (abdomen), Ade Jimoh (sternum) and Curry Burns (hamstring) were scratched, as were wide receivers Ataveus Cash (hamstring) and Richard Smith (ankle). Linebacker Kevin Simon (abdomen), Daniels (back), offensive lineman Jim Molinaro (knee) and running back Portis (shoulder) also were out. None of the nine players practiced for much of the week. The status of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (hamstring) will be a game-time decision, Coach Joe Gibbs said.