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Against all odds: Brandon Marshall overcomes long road to NFL success

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Brandon Marshall's critics are getting harder and harder to find. He's far removed from a brutal rookie season in Jacksonville. He's closer to being an All-Pro linebacker than he is to the waiver wire.

But Marshall still plays like the man who drove down Interstate 95 with his NFL future in doubt.

"I try to still have that chip on my shoulder," Marshall said. "[I] try to believe that people still don't think I'm worth whatever they gave me or worth these accolades. I try to have that in the back of my mind. I still think about what that coach told me when he didn't think I was cut out for the NFL."

That coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that drafted Marshall in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, dismissed Marshall as a replaceable cog in a rebuilding team. Years later, the Super Bowl champions wouldn't feel the same way.

Marshall was constantly on unstable ground in Jacksonville. His roller-coaster career hit its first twists and turns when the Jaguars waived him in November of 2012. They re-signed him to the active roster a few days later. Two days later, they waived him again. Then they re-signed him, this time to the practice squad. A month after that, the Jaguars promoted him to the active roster. After the 2013 offseason, Marshall was waived during the Jaguars' training camp roster cuts. It was the third time the Jaguars waived him in just over 10 months. With options to try his luck in Oakland or Denver — or to keep plodding along in Jacksonville — Marshall went to Denver.

"My rookie year, I felt like there was never a lack of effort or a lack of want to," Marshall said. "I was always practicing doing the same thing that I do now. It kind of bothers me because I felt like they tried to change how I played, and they didn't like how I approached the game. And that just wasn't me."

After being waived for the final time, Marshall took a long drive south on I-95 and contemplated his coach's words as he neared St. Augustine, Florida.

"Sometimes I look back and wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in Jacksonville after my last time being cut or if I had gone to Oakland," Marshall said. "I think about it a lot [about] if I had really given in to his words. I definitely wouldn't be here today."

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That's why Dec. 4 stands out on the Broncos' 2016 schedule — the game against Jacksonville is a reunion of sorts with those who felt that Marshall would be better off leaving the NFL.

"I can't wait. That game is circled," Marshall said. "I told all my guys in the huddle to make sure that week we go hard in practice so we can win. I'm trying to get a pick-six."

For the Broncos linebacker, it's an opportunity to prove all of those doubters wrong in person, to prove he's better off without them and that they made a mistake three years ago.

"I don't have any ill will or bad blood against him," said Marshall, of his former Jacksonville coach. "It's just what he said that got me going. I would just tell him that he was wrong."

Since leaving Jacksonville, Marshall's racked up 232 tackles in three seasons, including four playoff games. He's also had four forced fumbles, two interceptions and 14 passes defensed. His 101 tackles last season were second to only Danny Trevathan on the league's best defense in 2015. The proof is in the numbers, and it's in his Super Bowl 50 ring.  Last season, despite battling a nagging foot injury, Marshall received All-Pro honorable mention recognition.

But, it wasn't a smooth transition. Marshall joined the Broncos in September 2013 as a member of the practice squad. Marshall had been there before. He knew the uphill battle that lay ahead of him and was dedicated to overcome it, but he was also still struggling with the doubt he faced in Jacksonville. Again, he asked himself, was he cut out for this?

Former Broncos quarterback and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning certainly thought so.

Manning discovered Marshall's talent during one of his many film sessions — asking the room, including then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase, "Who is this guy?"

"Those guys put the bug in the coaches' ears, 'That Brandon, he can play,'" Marshall said. "I think of it as a testament to my hard work, but I also appreciate those guys because they have clout."

Now, Marshall watches young linebackers like Todd Davis and Corey Nelson and sees versions of his younger self. He offers them the advice he wished someone had given to him many years ago.

"From my rookie season all the way to now, listening to his stories when he was a rookie and just watching him and try to imitate him when he's out on the field or out there in practice. He made me a great player," Nelson said. "He taught me how to handle myself as an individual, as a man and to stand for something that I believe in."

His lead-by-example mentality is crucial for a player like Davis, who's attempting to fill the void at middle-linebacker with Marshall replacing Danny Trevathan on the weak side.

"Our paths are kind of similar being cut so many times and finding love from the Broncos," said Davis on what he's learned from his teammate. "Just continue to work, continue to press, come ready to work and be great every day."

It's this type of mentality that's propelled Marshall to the elite status he holds now as the glue that keeps one of the best defenses in the league together.

"Say we're in a hurry-up situation, a bad situation, he's just able to put us in a call [and] get everybody under control," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said.

"He's huge, especially for the middle part of our defense." 

Just because he's now found stability in his career through a Super Bowl win and contract extension, that doesn't mean he's anywhere close to being satisfied. 

"You just have to continue to find new motivation," Marshall said. "New goals. New aspirations. Find new things to work on. I think that's what is going to keep driving me."

The struggles of his past are long gone, but that's not enough. Marshall's looking toward attaining bigger goals — and his favorite celebration is indicative of his attitude moving forward.

Brandon Marshall is ready to eat.

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