Classes at Millbrook High ended last Friday, but Keith Marshall and Justus Hoffmann stick around and kill time in the hallway. They are leaning on a wall in their navy blue football jerseys - Marshall wearing his No. 4, Hoffmann his No. 56 - while other students rush for the exits.
Most of the girls who walk by say hi to Marshall, the guy who always makes the Friday night highlights; the boys acknowledge Hoffmann, the guy who does the hard, dirty work in the football trenches.
This is a snapshot of how the two teenagers differ. But there are other, more visible differences.
Marshall, the son of a former NFL player, is 16, black and a lean 180 pounds. Hoffmann, the son of a former high school player, is 6 feet 1, 250 pounds; he is white and 17, though he looks older than his years. Yet Marshall and Hoffmann have formed a bond built on having to depend on each other.
The two met six years ago, somewhere between the first bus stop around 6:45 a.m. and their short ride to Baileywick Elementary and West Millbrook Middle schools. Marshall was a fifth-grader, and he learned on the bus ride that Hoffmann was a sixth-grader.
"When I found out he was only a year older than me, I was shocked," Marshall said. "He was way bigger than everybody."
With curiosity, Marshall asked questions. Hoffmann answered them. And the heart of most of their discussions was football. Although the two lived five minutes from each other and their ride to school each day was short, they had plenty of time to share their dreams.
Now, their rides to and from school are in Hoffmann's white, 2007 Ford F-150. Plenty of his peers could give Marshall a lift, but he hops inside Hoffmann's pickup. This way, the two can talk more about the dreams that helped forge their friendship and about how both want to reach the same goal: playing Division I college football.
Clarence Inscore has coached the Millbrook Wildcats for 11 years now, and he has plenty of tales to narrate about his time as coach.
One Friday morning, Inscore, a PE teacher, sits in a chair and starts telling a story about Hoffmann. Inscore prefers to speak about Hoffmann before Marshall because Hoffmann, a senior linebacker, is a lot further from a Division I scholarship.
At this point, Hoffmann hasn't received a single offer. He has been rated as a two- or three-star recruit, Inscore said. Recruiters have shied away from Hoffmann because he doesn't fit the desired size and height for his position. His 4.84 speed in the 40-yard dash doesn't help, either.
Inscore knows those numbers don't show how good a football player Hoffmann is.
"If you get caught up in his height, weight and 40-yard dash time, he may not be the most impressive kid," he said. "But if you come to a game on Friday night, he's going to stand out."
Last season, Hoffmann led the Wildcats with 142 tackles (21 for losses) - enough to be named the Cap Eight Defensive Player of the Year. But Inscore knows if a college takes a chance on Hoffmann, it'll also get a proven leader.
Inscore illustrates that point with an anecdote, which centers on Hoffmann's reaction to the Wildcats losing to Wakefield 33-31 two years ago. The loss cost Millbrook its undefeated season. After the game, the coach noticed his seniors weren't crying - but Hoffmann was.
"That just stuck with me because here's a sophomore that should be following the lead of these seniors," Inscore said. "Instead, the seniors are trying to follow the lead of the sophomore."
Now, transitioning to talk about Marshall, Inscore spares no superlative. A rare athlete, he says Marshall is one of few running backs who can sprint 40 yards in 4.25 seconds and also bench-press 275 pounds. ESPN has rated Marshall a five-star player - making him one of the best in the country - and he is on its top-150 watch list, which led Nick Saban, coach of No. 1-ranked Alabama, to call Marshall a few times this season.
Inscore will never forget the first time he saw Marshall play.
In his first junior varsity game as a freshman, Marshall bounced a run to Millbrook's sideline. A Sanderson defensive back had the perfect angle for the tackle. Instead of running out of bounds or trying to run the defender over, Marshall hurdled the defender before making a cut back to the middle of the field for a touchdown.
Inscore was impressed. Hoffmann had a similar reaction when Marshall scored a touchdown on his first play in a varsity game.
"He has the ability to get through little holes that might not even be there," Hoffmann said. "He's able to read plays, and that's pretty special."
Even if there is an obvious contrast between Hoffmann and Marshall, Inscore insists the two teens are successful in different ways because they share a common philosophy.
"They both want to be the best," Inscore says. "Not just at Millbrook or the state of North Carolina - the best. They don't settle."
What many don't know is how that philosophy started to drive the two friends apart.
For Marshall, the scholarship offers have piled up quickly.
Marshall gets so many offers that he finds it hard to remember all of them: Clemson. Florida. Georgia and Georgia Tech. North Carolina. Notre Dame. Virginia Tech ...
"It's pretty cool because there are like 12 five-star players in the nation, and I'm real good friends with one of them," Hoffmann said. "It's been good to see him grow up."
But for a while, Hoffmann said he wasn't pleased that colleges weren't courting him, too. His father could tell.
"I think Justus has always been proud of Keith," John Hoffmann said. "But ... I think he'd be lying if he said he wasn't envious."
John Hoffmann reminded his son to be thankful for what he did have: letters that offered optimism.
"I told him, 'Forget that you don't have any offers, you're a linebacker. The best you can do is start smacking people,' " John Hoffmann said.
Just as Justus Hoffmann let his father's words soak in, Inscore asked him last season to play on the offensive line. Hoffmann agreed.
With little depth at the tackle position, Hoffman lined up at left tackle to help the Wildcats reach the playoffs. The Wildcats did so, but Hoffmann worried about what recruiters thought. By playing left tackle and spending some time at fullback, Hoffmann opened holes for Marshall to gain 1,166 yards in nine games. Marshall said he doesn't understand why his friend has no scholarship offers, but he saw how Hoffmann sacrificed for him and the team. Marshall also remembers how Hoffmann was first to protect him against opponents.
"I looked up to his work ethic," Marshall said. "I always saw him doing extra stuff, and I always wanted to do that, too."
Marshall's father Warren could see Hoffmann's desire to be great, too. Warren knows what it takes to reach a dream. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1987.
Warren Marshall invited Hoffmann to participate with his son in offseason workouts last summer. In the heat, the two teenagers did agility drills and plyometrics and built core strength.
John Hoffmann said he's witnessed many fathers who cared only about their sons. So it pleased him to see Warren Marshall go out of his way to talk to Justus after games.
At Millbrook, Inscore allows everyone - the parents, teachers and student body - to be on the field after the game. It's a tradition Inscore started to let everyone be a part of the team.
Early this season after a victory over Knightdale, Warren Marshall walked over to Justus Hoffmann, whose father was watching from the stands.
"If you don't get anything after this game," Warren Marshall told Justus, "there's something wrong with college coaches."
"Thank you," Justus responded.
"There are people watching you," the elder Warren said. "Don't feel like Keith is the only one on the field."
Although he didn't get any offers the following week, Hoffmann said the compliment resonated with him. Keith and Warren Marshall also made a promise to Hoffmann: They would do their best to get him a Division I scholarship.
"I look at it almost as an obligation, quite frankly," Warren Marshall said. "I've been fortunate enough to be around kids who just needed a little push."
Hoping for the best
Before Hoffmann can take Marshall home, he notices someone from the parking lot. Hoffmann sees his father on the field. In the 90-degree heat, John Hoffmann is bent over painting the large blue cat's paw logo at midfield. The father jokes it's the only way he can still get on the field.
The pair greets John Hoffmann, whose hands are stained blue, as is the white towel around his neck.
"I've always wondered how the field was painted," Marshall says. "Thanks for doing this."
"You ready to play tonight?" John Hoffmann asks.
"Yes sir," Marshall says.
A few hours later, No. 4 Millbrook will stay undefeated with a 28-18 win over Southern Durham.
Keith Marshall understands the next few games will be the most important in Justus Hoffmann's football career. He thinks if the Wildcats can stay undefeated, and if his father can persuade recruiters to take another look at Hoffmann, maybe he will get that D-I scholarship.
"I want to help him any way I can," Keith Marshall says. "Anything he needs, I'm going to try to help him because he's done a lot for me."
Will Marshall and his father's help be enough? Nothing is certain.
As for now, Marshall rides in the passenger's seat of Hoffmann's pickup. Of course, the two friends will talk football, and the dream that continues to drive them.
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