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Mile High Morning: Brandon Marshall recalls how he channeled JAY-Z during his record-setting 21-reception game


The Lead

Over the course of a lengthy discussion with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his podcast, “The Dale Jr. Download," former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall touched on many topics — encouraging a focus on mental health, building his post-NFL career and several highlights from his football career.

One memory that Earnhardt asked about specifically was the moment that Marshall cemented his place in NFL record books, when he caught 21 passes in a 2009 game against the Colts. As Marshall looked back on it, he recalled feeling the performance was better than the statistical achievement.

"I love this game not because of the 21 catches but because of performance and being in the zone," Marshall told Earnhardt. "… People study people like you and I, right — like, how do you get in the zone? You see people out in the [Silicon] Valley and in tech companies, like, how do I get in the zone? Right? And so they're trying to build applications and build products that can help people get into that zone, which is damn near impossible. But this is a real thing."

In the midst of a third consecutive 1,000-yard season, Marshall had emerged as one of the league's best young receivers. He had neared this level previously with an 18-catch game in 2008, which put him in a tie for second place for the most receptions in a single game.

But Marshall could tell he could be even better.

"Before the game, I went to Michael Smith, who was reporting for ESPN at the time," Marshall said. "… I said, This is going to be the greatest game of my life. And I just took off. I said, I'm telling you now because I want you to report. I want you to know I said this before. I was crescendoing all week. I was tapping in. And what I was focusing on was being locked in on a moment and nothing else."

Marshall was undeniable in his focus, his drive and his performance. To some degree, he felt like JAY-Z.

"The entire game, if you watch that game, I get up [when] I get hit hard or I make an amazing catch, I'll just get up, flip the ball to the ref and I'll just walk back to the huddle," Marshall said. "I was actually channeling my inner JAY-Z at the time. JAY-Z was just ascending to something different, and I was like, Man, it's, like, effortless for JAY-Z. How he poses for his pictures, how he talks, the business moves that he's making. And I'm like, That's me and football. I'm gonna channel that. That was my swagger on the field that day."

But being in the zone meant that Marshall wasn't counting his catches. He didn't know he was approaching an NFL record until around the start of the fourth quarter when his teammate Kenny McKinley approached him on the sideline and started looking at him in what must have been some sense of wonder.

"It just felt weird," Marshall said. "I was like, Bro, why the hell are you staring at me like this? And he's like, Bro, you have 18 catches. You know you're about to break the record? And I looked at him and I said, Man, why the hell you ain't tell me this before?! Why you waitin' so late?"

Midway through the fourth quarter, it seemed like the record would surely be Marshall's. On the Broncos' first drive of the period, he caught five passes, including one for a touchdown. He was now tied for the NFL single-game record, and it seemed like stopping him would be impossible.

The Colts' best chance at keeping the ball out of Marshall's hands, it turned out, was keeping it in Peyton Manning's. The Indianapolis quarterback helped marshal a seven-minute touchdown drive that left little over two minutes on the clock.

Down 12 points, the game was practically sewn up, but the Broncos made it their goal to get Marshall the record.

"I went to Coach [Josh] McDaniels and Kyle Orton and I was like, I need one catch to break this record. Get me the ball," he recalled jokingly. "That was the first time I came out of that zone. They was like, All right, we got it, we got it, we got it."

Denver's first three plays were a bust. Kyle Orton's first two passes fell incomplete, and then Dwight Freeney sacked him on third down.

"It's fourth down now — this is it," Marshall said. "And I go over in the huddle, Kyle's trying to call a play. I said, Screw all of that. Keep your eyes on me. Don't worry about where I go, I'm going to get open. I was supposed to run like this 20-yard seam route down the middle of the field versus Cover 2. It bends in to the middle. I said, Don't worry about all of that. Just watch me and I'll get open. So I end up running outside, threw the guy off me, ran a slant, got to a little safe space. I caught the ball, and that's how I broke the record."

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