Humphrey learns from dad's mistakes
Son of former Bama tailback is a top 2014 recruit with Crimson Tide offer
Editor's note: This is Part 4 in a five-part series looking at some of the top prospects in the 2014 class.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Three months ago, Bobby Humphrey started work at Bryant Bank. Fitting that the former Crimson Tide running back found work with the company started by Paul Bryant Jr., son of the late University of Alabama coaching legend.
Bobby, now in his mid-40s, has settled into life here in a suburb southwest of Birmingham. He has a beautiful wife and five children. He runs a track and field training center on the side and talks glowingly of all his children's athleticism.
For the Humphreys, competition is in the DNA.
But there's more to the Humphrey name than cleats and scoreboards. There's a history that Bobby began 27 years ago, when he went from a boy growing up in the shadow of Legion Field in the Elyton Projects to a young man making waves as a fleet-footed running back in the Southeastern Conference.
Bobby tiptoed through his freshman season at UA before breaking down the door as a sophomore, rushing for 1,471 yards and 15 touchdowns. When the 1987 season began, Bobby was being hailed as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. He ran for 1,255 yards and finished 10th in the balloting.
A foot injury the following season ended talk of a second run at the Heisman, but the Denver Broncos had seen enough, selecting him in the first round of the supplemental draft.
Under the bright lights and the burden of weighty paychecks, something changed in Bobby. The sure-handed ball carrier began fumbling his life away off the field. After a successful rookie campaign, his attitude changed. In 1989 he was arrested for driving under the influence, and two years later he held himself out of camp for 14 weeks while negotiating a new contract. A year later, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins.
On Jan. 31, 1993, Bobby was arrested in Columbus, Ga., after police responded to a window being broken on the fourth story of the Hilton hotel. Bobby and former UA teammate Vantreise Davis had fought and shattered the window. When police entered the hotel room, they found cocaine laid out on a table. Nine days later, Bobby was shot in the leg after an altercation in Alabaster, Ala.
The Dolphins brought him back for another season, but he was never the same. By 1994, at age 26, he was out of the league, never to return.
As Bobby tells it, he folded when the moment of truth came.
"It could be drugs, alcohol, cheating on a test -- I teach my kids it's OK to say no," Bobby said. "I wasn't able to do that."
Marlon has an even simpler way of putting it: "He used to be a very dumb football player."
The 16-year-old, fresh-faced kid has never seen his dad fail, but he knows the stories. They are stories he has never had to hear in hushed tones. Bobby -- a churchgoing man who held a street ministry for some time -- has given his testimony from the pulpit with all of his children in attendance.
"It's never been about me, but at one time I thought it was," Bobby is fond of saying.
Marlon, for his part, is an unassuming teenager, shy around strangers but quick to cut up with friends and coaches. Until he entered high school, he wouldn't speak to anyone he didn't know. People in church would ask Bobby what his son's problem was. He didn't know, nor did he consider it a problem. His boy was smart, and when he had something to say he'd say it. So Marlon listened and learned.
In the ninth grade, the light went on for Marlon. He began to excel in track, winning the gold medal in the 2010 Junior Olympics. The confidence was infectious, spilling over onto the football field. Coaches switched the former running back to the secondary, and Marlon quickly discovered he liked being the one delivering the hit, rather than being on the receiving end.
"He started developing," Bobby said, calling 2010 his son's breakthrough moment. "He started getting bigger and started to believe."
Hoover coach Josh Niblett said he took notice of Marlon's physical gifts in the ninth grade, and more so last year, but it was even earlier that he saw Marlon had what it took mentally to play the game.
"We knew when we took him out for spring ball in eighth grade that he was special," Niblett said. "Not only is he just a football player, he has football savvy and football knowledge. He understands what a China Concept is. If he saw the inside receiver release inside and there were two receivers on this side, you'd hear him call, 'China! China! China!' because he knows the corner-route is fixing to come up over the top of him.
"When he was in eighth grade, he understood that concept. For some kids it takes until the end of their career, some in college."
But the real "wow" moment for Marlon came in the first game of his sophomore year. As Bobby tells it, the week leading into Hoover's nationally televised game against Mississippi high school football powerhouse South Panola was wrought with anticipation.
Marlon was supposed to play backup cornerback. On Thursday, Niblett announced that he would start. Suddenly Bobby's nagging to Marlon that "them South Panola boys are good" meant something more.
"I'm telling you, he was scared," Bobby said, chuckling. "We were scared, too."
Bobby and Barbara sat high in the stands for kickoff. On the first series of his first career start, Marlon blocked a punt. He made a few big tackles, and late in the fourth quarter he intercepted a pass to ice the victory for Hoover.
"My wife and I look at each other and ask, 'Is that our son?' " Bobby said. "It kept going and he kept making plays. We left there spellbound."
Six months later, Marlon picked up his first scholarship offer from the University of Alabama. Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan State, Mississippi State, North Carolina and Tennessee have since followed suit.
Life has changed for Marlon, whether he has realized it or not. Bobby insists his son continues to behave like a teenager, having to be told to go to the pool and do what 16-year-olds do. But not every 16-year-old gets pulled into Nick Saban's office to talk about his future. Not every 16-year-old can run a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash or rank in the top five nationally in hurdles.
"My dad just tells me to be humble," Marlon said. "I have two more years of this, so I don't need to rush anything."
Bobby has continued to preach to Marlon the dos and don'ts of the recruiting game. As a father he has followed a hands-off policy, though, letting his children learn on their own.
"Without experiencing things, you haven't learned anything," Bobby tells them.
One of his sons learned that lesson the hard way. Mardrecus was arrested May 12, along with two Razorbacks teammates, for allegedly burglarizing dorm rooms in Fayetteville, Ark. Reports claimed the value of the stolen merchandise was nearly $5,000. The news went national and Bobby was forced to issue a news release declining comment on the arrest.
"I think every parent worries about that. You raise them right and when they leave, you pray they do the right thing," he said.
As Bobby was being interviewed for this story, a call from Mardrecus' lawyer came on his cell phone. There would be a meeting to plan the defense strategy. It was a short call, reminding the family of the appointment.
For his part, Bobby handles it all with grace. Maybe it's his own history, but he manages to maintain something close to optimism.
"It's always disappointing to hear bad news about your kid, but I realize kids make mistakes," Bobby said in response to the call and the subsequent line of questioning. "You just pray he learns from it."
A moment later he adds: "He'll be all right."
Bobby doesn't dwell on the arrest and the upcoming trial. He learned from his mistakes and is a shining example of the value of a second chance. For Marlon, he hopes there won't be a need for second chances. Just because his dad went down a bad path and his older brother has hit a rough patch, it doesn't mean the future is written in stone for a football player brimming with talent and limitless potential.
If Marlon chooses to go to Alabama -- and that's certainly not written in stone, either -- another Humphrey will be wearing a crimson No. 26 jersey inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Humphrey name has its connotations, its legend that goes beyond the field. But to Marlon, being compared with Dad is just fine.
"They know when 26 is out there, it's Humphrey," Marlon said. "It's pretty special having him. I like that."
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