Few names carry the weight that Martin Luther King Jr.'s does — the magnitude of a name synonymous with an enduring and uncompromising fight for equality and justice; synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, which aimed to reckon with decades of racial injustice; and synonymous with a dedication to nonviolent conviction to change society.
So even though Brandon Marshall hadn't heard of the Illinois Commission on Diversity & Human Relations (ICDHR) when they told him in February that he would be the 2018 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance & Celebration "Courage Award" honoree, he knew it was quite the achievement.
"To even be mentioned [together] is a great honor for me, even though my struggle was nothing like his struggle," Marshall says.
On the ICDHR website, they wrote that they honored Marshall "to recognize his efforts to improve community relations between police and youth in [the] Denver Colorado metropolitan area."
"He was persecuted on many levels," Marshall says. "Physical. They tried to tear him down from every angle. He kept his philosophy of nonviolence — 'Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can.' And the fact that he kept his principles and still rocked with it, regardless of if he was beaten or hit with water hoses or whatever it may be, that's huge."
Marshall's fight for social justice began in 2016 and has continued ever since, as he has had conversations with the Denver Police Department as they prepared changes to their use-of-force policy in the past two years.
"Through my activism, at first I was trying to create awareness," Marshall says. "But my main thing was to create change and to start the conversation and wake people up and open people's eyes to certain issues that's going on in our world today, to a lot of social injustices that go even deeper than racism. [My goal was] definitely to open people's eyes and hopefully create change and hope to really create a society that respects equality and promotes equality."
Marshall has also taken part in a police-training simulator that put Marshall in the middle of situations officers face in the line of duty.
"I feel like I had to go and talk to the police and work with them and go on ride-alongs, do simulators and have conversations," Marshall says. "That was part of the whole reason I did it. I didn't want to just do it and seem like I was against them. I wanted to take a knee, protest, but still work with them in hopes to maybe change something."
Naturally, there was pushback. Some of it, like tweets he received, were easy to forget. But one letter he received at UCHealth Training Center was much more concerning.
"It was a death threat, a letter that called me all kinds of racial terms and derogatory terms, saying that this is going to leave me in a wheelchair, threats and stuff like that," Marshall says. "So I definitely did receive some persecution on it. It was tough. Then somebody came outside and burned a shirt of mine or a shirt that had my name on it, outside the facility. It was a few things that I had experienced. I was able to just keep pushing through."
Letters like that one intended to discourage Marshall from continuing his protest through fear.
But he also received plenty of support. His family was behind him, as were friends and well-wishers who supported his cause. Marshall was honored in 2017 when the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Alumni of Color picked him for their 2017 Courage Award. His actions to spur change and to do so working with local police were a point of pride for people inside and outside the organization.
"Brandon made a point last year, but he carried it forward," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said last August. "He just didn't make a stand on the field before the games, he actually went out in the community and did something and talked to different people. He went and talked to law enforcement and got involved in the community. I was proud of Brandon in not only did he show his support for what it was last year, but also he went out and did something in the community."
Making an impact on the community — whether by trying to help community relations with police or through his Williams-Marshall Cares Leadership Program, which offers mentoring to children between 14 and 18 years old or in other ways — has become a focal point for Marshall, and even though he'll always cherish his professional-football career and the Super Bowl 50 victory that has defined it, he values the ability to change communities even more. "I value more someone who created change and brought about change in my community and different communities," Marshall says. "I feel like that has a longer-lasting impact. I was able to maybe change some lives, maybe save some lives, able to steer people down different paths, just being somebody who could be a major influence on someone's life. I think that's more important than any accolade I could receive, football-wise."