Keith Marshall wants to make sure he gets this right. He wants his words to be precise. Whatever Marshall has done in his lifetime he's done it well. Already at the age of 17, he's been labeled a lot of things: An athlete, a classroom prodigy, a potential superstar. And right now, Marshall is the No. 1-rated high school running back in the country (ESPN.com, Rivals.com and Scouts.com all agree). Marshall, who sits on a bench outside of Shelley Lake on a recent afternoon, leans in as he hears the question - What has made you successful? - and thinks for a few seconds.
"This is going to sound bad," says Marshall, who measures his words carefully. "I don't like being second to people in anything."
The upcoming test, though, once football season starts Friday, is one Marshall will try to manage but knows he can't: living up to the expectations of those who have named him the best prep running back.
"You're looking at a kid who ... I think there's an unspoken, unjust pressure for him to be successful in all things," Millbrook coach Clarence Inscore said.
A senior, Marshall has always accepted the expectations and challenges.
He'll tell you about this summer when he spent his offseason - which really isn't the right word - working on his visible gift: his 4.23 40-yard-dash speed.
He ran, from high school track meets to national events that sent him to the dry heat of Wichita, Kan. But something happened in those three months, something that's dangerous for every team on Millbrook's schedule this season: He became faster.
Reggie Angry was one of the first people to notice. As a senior last year at Millbrook, Angry had a dream of reaching the NCHSAA 4-A state track meet. His best shot was in the 4x100-meter relay. Marshall, who joined the team late, wanted to run in the event.
Angry really didn't know what to think of Marshall. He knew Marshall was football royalty. But could Marshall perform under the pressure at the 4-A Mideast Regional meet? And why would he even run and risk potentially having a career-damaging injury? After all, Marshall had only one week to practice with his teammates before the race.
Millbrook won the relay handily, with Marshall the anchor, in 42.29 seconds. After the race, Angry was ecstatic.
"I was a doubter; I'm not even going to lie," Angry said in May. "I think for him to have all the football stuff on the line and for him to come out and help us just speaks toward his character. He's a special athlete."
That may have been the last time anyone in the Triangle publicly doubted Marshall's ability and desire. Since then, analysts and fans have anointed him as the best. So this season has become whether he will prove them right or wrong.
"He's the type of kid that comes in silently, and when he leaves that stadium, people will know him," said Chris Love, Marshall's track coach. "I think everybody is trying to discover who he is."
Every morning, you wake up eager for football practice. Across the Triangle area, whether in classrooms, in offices or at their home, you know coaches will center their game plan on stopping you in order to beat Millbrook.
You get a call from Nick Saban. One from Les Miles, too. A Georgia fan puts this message out on the Internet: Keith Marshall + UGA = Heisman Trophy.
Everyone loves you. You're flattered.
But part of you has a question that creeps into your head: When did all of this start?
Almost two years ago to the date is when. That was Marshall's first varsity football game against Garner, an area powerhouse. On his first play, Marshall took the handoff, raced through the line and broke two tackles simultaneously on his way for a 57-yard touchdown.
Denise Marshall, Keith's mother, was in Richmond that night with friends from college. She smiled when she received the text message after her son reached the end zone. Then she received another text. And another one. And another.
Keith Marshall scored four touchdowns that night. On two of them, no one came close to touching him.
"I was very emotional and very proud," Denise Marshall said. "My phone was blowing up the whole time."
When Keith Marshall came home, he logged onto Facebook. More than 150 notifications were waiting for him. A few days later, North Carolina offered him a scholarship. Soon after, a few weeks into the 2009 season, recruiters from every major college tried to catch up to Marshall.
"It's kind of like he's above this level, he's too advanced for high school," said Malcolm Harris, a defensive lineman for Millbrook. "You can tell he's supposed be in college."
Now, people - recruiters, the media, fans - want to know where Marshall will go to play college football, which forces him to check his phone or email frequently, even during interviews. Marshall plans to pick a school in December, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to find answers, even if Marshall doesn't have them yet.
A few weeks ago a local TV station interviewed Marshall. Most of the questions were fine, ones to get an idea of what he's thinking. Some, however, felt framed the wrong way.
"Do you ever get tired of the phone calls from recruiters and coaches?" the reporter asked him.
"Yeah, it's kind of annoying," Marshall answered, "but I know it's a blessing."
A few days later the TV station ran the clip, but only the first five words from Marshall.
"I'm not very outgoing," he said. "I knew what I had said; that's not the whole thing. I don't want people to think I'm cocky."
In terms of his image, it's a minor mistake for Marshall. But the cameras, microphones and recorders are zooming in, and multiplying, the closer he gets to December.
The more time passes the more people are asking for your time, for you to say something new.
Now you're on the cover of ESPN Rise magazine for North Carolina and the magazine names you the X-Factor. Now NCPreps.com has you as its preseason Player of the Year. Now the season is just five days away. Everyone will be watching your every move on the field.
You need an escape, so you call your friend, Malcolm Harris, the defensive lineman. The message: You want to go fishing.
Marshall and Harris are the only fishermen on Millbrook's team. They have fished in Shelley Lake, Falls Lake or at private ponds around the area.
In a time of instant gratification and the ability to express opinions with a few clicks on a cell phone, Marshall values the silence that comes with being on the water. Harris, who has taught Marshall different techniques, noticed that for Marshall, fishing is a challenge for different reasons: He can learn to relax and become a patient hunter.
At a private pond near Leesville a couple of weeks ago, Marshall's rod snapped into two pieces. Harris let Marshall use his. Minutes later Marshall was reeling in a five-pound bass.
"I didn't think he was going to catch anything with it," Harris said. "That got him even more hooked."
In between the casting and reeling, Marshall can think about his future. His days of fishing are numbered once he graduates in December. He also knows this will probably be Harris' last year playing football - and that it needs to be a special one. Harris, and the rest of the Wildcats, have asked Marshall to be vocal, to lead, naming him a team captain.
Add that to the list of expectations.
"I'm one of the leaders of the team because of all the attention I get," he said. "I want to win the conference championship and make a run in the playoffs."
If there's anything that's eluded Marshall so far, it's the Wildcats enjoying the same level of success he's had.
Each Friday night people will come to see you. They'll expect you to score on every opportunity. Can you carry the Wildcats to a title? Can you rush for 2,000 yards? Can you handle the pressure? The expectations are unreal.
But you smile, because you know you've been blessed with the gift. You smile because you know the challenges make you better.
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