- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Those who watch Venric Mark play football won't be surprised to learn that he grew up loving a different contact sport: boxing.
Northwestern's 5-foot-8 running back dynamo sprints through piles, not away from them (his favorite play: inside zone). He carries a massive chip on his shoulder and often gets in the face of his pursuers, like a bantamweight meeting a cruiserweight before the opening bell.
Most football players Mark's size prefer to dance around, looking for space. Mark has the speed and the moves to do so, but more often than not he just lowers his shoulder.
"He's got a fighter's mentality on the field," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "He's fearless."
That fearlessness and intensity always has been there. But the reasons that drew Mark to boxing as a high school athlete have underscored his development as a college football player.
"It's not the violence, it's not just being able to punch something, it's the feeling that comes with it," Mark said. "It's mainly holding yourself accountable. If you fail, it's on you. You have someone teaching you and showing you what you're supposed to do, and now you have to go execute that. You're by yourself.
"Then, you put on the gloves and go into the fire."
Mark left burns on many opposing defenders during a breakout season in 2012, earning All-Big Ten honors as a running back and All-America honors as a punt returner after averaging 18.7 yards per runback with two touchdowns. The Doak Walker Award semifinalist led the Big Ten and ranked 12th nationally in all-purpose yards average (166.6 ypg) and recorded the second-highest single-season all-purpose yards total (2,166) in team history.
Few FBS players made a bigger one-year leap than Mark, who stood out on special teams early in his career but seemed out of place as a wide receiver. He moved to running back before the 2012 campaign.
Although Fitzgerald takes the blame for Mark's delayed rise at running back -- "Obviously, we were not very bright, and that starts with me," he said -- Mark also had to go through a maturing process.
"He's really grown up," Fitzgerald said. "We're incredibly proud of him, to watch a young man who came into our program very talented, but at the same time, needed to kind of buy into that team concept. He has been an evolution from Day 1."
Mark's oldest brother, Victor, introduced him to boxing while Venric was in high school. They would train at Houston's Main Boxing Gym, spending a few hours before Venric's classes started, and then returning at night.
Victor, who had been introduced to the sport by a friend after high school and fought bouts in Mexico and South America, put Venric through ropes work, abdominal work, lifting, lateral movement exercises, the speed bag and the heavy bag before finishing with sparring sessions. Although the training helped Venric's hand-eye coordination for football -- most colleges recruited him as a return specialist/receiver -- it did so much more.
"He's always been intense, and he never had a positive outlet to show it," Victor Mark said, "so he’d internalize things, and it would come off as an attitude problem. It's like a kid being stuck in timeout. It’s frustrating. Between football and boxing, there aren't many other sports where you can go out, give your all and truly be accepted.
"[Boxing] was something natural for him. It gave him something to express himself, but in a controlled, positive way."
Boxing also helped Venric blend personal responsibility with being a good teammate.
"The teamwork is done behind the scenes," Victor said, "but when you get out there, every second is you. You fight the fight."
Mark had another boxing mentor in his godmother, Jamie Garza Graney, and her son, Myles, Mark's best friend. Garza Graney began boxing at Main Gym in 2005 and saw the physical and psychological benefits of the sport.
She starting taking Myles and Venric with her for workouts.
"When you have mentality to power through things, you take that to everything you do," Garza Graney said. "When [Mark] would go to the gym, it was a similar mentality. You see the realness in people. If you're in a boxing gym, it's not a 30- or 45-minute workout. You’re in there for hours. He loved it. It was tough, it was hot, Houston's 100 degrees in the summer, no AC. It was great.
"When you’re taking yourself beyond what normal people do, you figure out who you really are."
Venric always had the toughness to succeed. As a 17-year-old, Venric joined Victor for a pickup football game against players from a semipro team called the Texas Copperheads.
Standing just 5-foot-6 and maybe 150 pounds, Venric brought down a 310-pound ball-carrier.
"I saw him make that transformation from boy to man," Victor recalled.
Venric never competed in the ring -- his mother wanted him to focus on school and his other sports -- but continued to incorporate boxing into his training regimen at Northwestern. He still works the speed bag and the heavy bag in Northwestern's weight room.
When he's back home in Houston, Victor puts him through speed and agility training -- "What Apollo Creed worked on with Rocky in Rocky III," Victor explained.
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will join Mark on the speed bag and jokes that his backfield mate is an "ultra featherweight," to which a grinning Mark replied, "Kain does not know boxing. I would actually beat Kain up."
Mark never shies away from confrontation, but he knows he has to be smarter about taking contact this season. His body took a toll last fall, especially late in the Big Ten season.
Mark has improved his size and strength, and Fitzgerald expects to see a different player on the field this fall.
Then again, Mark can't hide from who he is.
"I’ve always been the smallest guy, always had a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I've tried to tone it down. I’ll come to practice [and say] 'OK I’m going to be quiet today.' Then I make a big play, boom, the chip’s back, I start talking.
"I can't get rid of it."
Northwestern hopes that edge leaves opposing defenders on their backs all season long.