Gersh photo

When dad died, Washington State's Gabe Marks, then age 9, made a vow

IT’S BEEN 12 YEARS but Jordanna Gersh, the mother of Gabe Marks, still has the letter. At age nine, the year her son started playing football, Gabe wrote it to his father Michael, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight on a residential street in Venice not far from home. The letter is equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful. And now, through the passage of time, it has proven prophetic.

In it, the young Marks doesn't understand why his 30-year-old dad is gone and wishes they could speak.

But he assures his dad that one day, "I’m going to be on TV ...  I know you’re going to want to see what your son has become..."

“He’s just such a good person,” Jordanna, her voice catching, says of her son as she replays the letter.

Gabe and Michael Marks (Gersh photo)
Michael and Gabe loved going to the movies together, playing video games and going to the beach.

"Gabe's dad was funny, quiet, he loved music ... he liked to boogie board in the ocean," remembers Jordanna. "He was a laid-back guy and Gabe is a lot like his father -- he didn't like a lot of attention, cared for his family and friends and would protect them to the end. He was a great father, he was hands on to the very end."

That end came when three individuals from another neighborhood, basically looking for any random victim, came across Michael walking down the street and shot him. The three were arrested the same day, Jordanna said. One was sentenced to life in prison. Another, a juvenile, was incarcerated until he was 25 and one other was acquitted.

Gabe in high school visiting his dad's grave (Gersh photo)
Gabe wears No. 9 because that's how old he was when he lost his dad. And to understand how the 6-0, 188-pound Marks became a Cougar record-setter and one of the nation's most-talked-about receivers heading into 2016, you must to go back to that childhood, to the loss of his father, and to a remarkably generous decision by his mother.

MARKS' DRIVE TO SUCCEED is well known. The latest evidence came this spring when new WSU receiver coaches Dave Nichol and JaMarcus Shephard praised the rising senior for treating every practice like the Super Bowl.

“Gabe would always want his friends here at the house, he never wanted to go spend the night out ever. What happened was one day all five of them came over -- and never went home. So I went from raising one to raising five. And Gabe had a good childhood, they all had a good childhood,” Jordanna said.

All came from single-family households but Jordanna says it was a tightly knit community where everyone would take care of one another's kids. Jordanna seems caught off guard by anyone's surprise she would so readily take on the daunting responsibility of raising four other kids.

“Well, you just kind of do it,” said Jordanna. “And they were all good kids, they all loved living here, so you just do it. It wasn’t that hard. And they all helped each other (but) I really don’t know how I made ends meet feeding five boys. But we did it, and they had the best childhood. And I didn't mind in the beginning his friends constantly spending the night because it made me feel better knowing where my son was, because the streets were so bad out here at the time.

"I grew up with the mothers and fathers of these children. We’re all from the same neighborhood and the mothers were okay with it because we're all from the same struggle, and they knew that they were safe here. If it meant having four more boys here permanently, so be it, rather than my fear of what could happen to my son in the streets. I did not want him to end up like his father and so it was my insurance... Gabe attracted the four other boys being the natural leader so everyone wanted to stay at Gabe's house."

JORDANNA HAS BEEN IMMERSED in Gabe’s football career from the start. She was the “team mom” for all of his Pop Warner and high school years.  And while the travel costs add up, she attended nearly every WSU game last year and has been on hand for the vast majority of Gabe’s college games.

Gabe Marks: Pop Warner, Venice High, Washington State (Gersh photo)

“He was angry that he lost his dad but I think what he did was he took it out on the field,” says Jordanna. “I had him first in basketball because he was always so tall… but one day as they get older in Venice, the boys all play football… I’ve been a football mom ever since he started playing.”

“Even though he wasn’t old enough at four years old, I wanted him to be do something in sports, to be occupied, so I had him in basketball. And back then, you weren’t allowed to tell us you didn’t want to play. You were going to play because that was the way... to keep you out of the streets, so you don’t get into any trouble.”

THE DOMINOES ALSO HAD TO fall just right for Marks to wind up at Washington State. Marks was a longtime pledge to SMU and set against looking elsewhere, Jordanna says. But in December of his senior year at Venice High, SMU head coach June Jones was in talks to go to ASU and Marks’ SMU area recruiter Adrian Klemm was headed to UCLA. The uncertainty caused Marks to reopen his recruitment.

As fate would have it, WSU assistant coach Jim Mastro came down to do an in-home with future Cougar Teondray Caldwell -- not knowing Caldwell was one of the four boys Jordanna had long ago taken in as her own.

“And so Gabe opened the door and Jim Mastro was like, ‘Wait a minute, am I in the right house?!’” said Jordanna. “And Gabe said, 'Hold on, I’ll go get my brother Teondray' -- and so Jim immediately goes into the hallway and calls Mike Leach. And Gabe has said it a lot of times, he loves Mike Leach, he loves the Air Raid, so when Mike Leach flew out here and came to my door and offered him, he snatched it and we were done."

Caldwell played two seasons at WSU, starting eight games at running back before being passed up on the depth chart. He switched to safety in 2014 and started a game but then left the program midseason. He's back home in Venice, Jordanna says, working with at-risk youth. 

MARKS ARRIVED AT WSU AS something of a contradiction: uber-confident in his abilities on the field but quiet and soft spoken away from the gridiron. Jordanna says, with a laugh, he came out of high school “cocky and big-headed because he was always the star.” 

But more people have started to see Marks’ generous and humble side in the last year or so, Jordanna says. The catalyst was an infection (according to former assistant coach Graham Harrell), one that necessitated Marks redshirting in 2014 after playing his first two years.

“I think when he had to redshirt that brought him back down,” says Jordanna. “It was actually a blessing in disguise and it was the first time he was able to be a normal student. He grew up a lot this last year. He was always funny and cracking jokes, but he was also quiet and never really wanted all the attention. The person he is on the field is not the person he is in real life.

“He always roots for and defends the underdog. His roommate for the last what, three years, has been Parker Henry who was a walk on who (earned a scholarship). He’s always been friends to people who are genuine to him. He really wants to help people -- like Kyrin Priester, he’s always helping him on the field. It’s not just about him, he wants his whole team to get there.”

JORDANNA SAID SHE AND Gabe remain close to former WSU outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons. But Simmons’ departure to Oklahoma left Gabe feeling adrift.

“When Dennis Simmons left, Mastro was the one I knew and the one Gabe felt safe with," said Jordanna. "Mastro has been nothing but true to his word. Before Gabe was even offered, I was dealing with Mastro with Teondray. Teondray couldn’t qualify at Nevada because of academic issues and Mastro told Teondray, ‘I promise you when you (qualify) no matter where I go I will get you that offer,’ and when he kept his word, I was so impressed by this man."

It wasn't all smooth sailing. In the offseason before Marks redshirted, he was arrested after a bar fight in Pullman. Mastro, says Jordanna, was not pleased. Some tough love followed, and the two butted heads for a short time before the weather cleared. In the end, Jordanna says, it strengthened their relationship.

“Mastro was hard when he needed to be hard on him, but he was also always there for him. He’s an amazing man and an amazing coach and I can’t say enough good things about him. We’re so lucky at Washington State, I don’t think people realize: Mastro cares so much about these kids, even the ones that aren’t his position kids,” said Jordanna.

JORDANNA, AN executive assistant with an investment fund, made the difficult call to take herself out of Gabe's decision on whether he would turn pro early last year. She told him she was going to support him no matter what he decided. But once Marks decided to return, she felt one emotion above all else.

Jordanna and Gabe at WSU's spring game (Gersh photo)

“I was relieved -- I wasn’t ready (for him to leave WSU) and I was most happy because I wanted him to get his degree,” said Jordanna, who went on to mention several people helpful to Gabe in making his decision. "And I’ll tell you this: Mastro was a huge influence on why Gabe stayed for a fifth year at Washington State.”

Marks is scheduled to graduate in December. He is taking two courses this summer with one more left in the fall semester to complete his degree in sociology.

Marks is also on pace to shatter the Pac-12 all-time career record for catches. After 104 receptions last year, he needs just 67 to match all-time leader Nelson Spruce, who just graduated from Colorado.  Marks is a virtual given to be selected next year in the NFL draft.

“I promised myself after his father died I would do everything I could to keep him on the right path,” says Jordanna. “It was a blessing that he found football and loved it so much. There were times when all the other boys were in bed on a Sunday and he was up and going to football training with B2G, a football skills training club home to high school all-stars. The NFL isn’t anything for me, it’s just my son has worked so hard at his craft and he deserves to get a fair chance to do what he loves. That's all I want, for him to do what he loves.”

Gabe Marks’ letter to his father, age 9
Dad, what’s up. Why weren’t you there?
Why didn’t you stay?
I needed you and now you’re gone.
What did you die for?
Dear dad, I hope you’re happy with what you see.
Your son has got some problems and now you can’t speak.
You’ll see me again.
Oh yes, I’m going to be on TV.
I’m going to save you a ticket, I know you’re going to want to see what your son has become.
We’ll speak again, dear dad.
Gabe Marks


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