Thursday morning I woke up around 5, as I always do, but as I got out of bed I heard my phone beeping. I had gotten a text message in the middle of the night.
The news was not good. The message read, "Give me a call. I just heard Eric Marshall died tonight at Warren (Road) Gym."
The text was from a close friend, Gerald White, a former basketball star at Richmond Academy and Auburn University. He was drafted in 1987 by the Dallas Mavericks and is now a professional basketball scout.
My first thought was this is not possible. I had spoken to Eric just a few weeks ago. He was just named assistant coach of Greenbrier High School's varsity basketball team for the 2009-10 school year. He was only 24 years old and he was such a great guy.
"Please, God," I thought, "Let this be some kind of mistake."
Unfortunately, it was no mistake. Eric Marshall collapsed while playing basketball at the Warren Road Community Center gymnasium and was pronounced dead at Doctor's Hospital at 7:43 p.m. Wednesday. A great basketball player, a son, a husband and a father was gone.
Marshall moved to Columbia County from Hawaii in 2001. The school year already had started, so he did not begin playing with the team until it was holiday tournament time. The Wolfpack were struggling with a 1-6 record.
However, with the 6-foot-3 lanky guard, Greenbrier's fortunes changed. The 'Pack won the Columbia County Christmas Tournament with Marshall garnering MVP honors, and they won 11 of their final 19 games despite a tough region schedule.
I recall head coach Garrett Black contacting me to tell me about his newfound talent. While Black knew his latest addition to the team was good, he did not yet realize just how good he would become.
After Christmas, Marshall posted four 30-point performances, including 38 versus Evans and a 37-point outing against a Statesboro team ranked No. 3 in the state.
For the season, Marshall averaged 21 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and captured The News-Times Player of the Year Award. Greenbrier had found something the county had not had in my lifetime: a basketball superstar.
Marshall's late arrival caused the recruiting process to go rather slowly. However, by the time Christmas rolled around in 2002 he had several college suitors. His game had no weak spot. He could shoot, pass, score, rebound, defend. He had a great attitude, and he was extremely coachable.
So it was no surprise when Winthrop had Marshall in for a visit but failed in an attempt to pressure Marshall to commit to the Rock Hill, S.C., school. Winthrop knew that once the bigger programs saw Marshall they would be out of the mix, and once they did not get an immediate commitment they chose to sign another player.
The following week the Marshall family visited Wofford University in Spartanburg. They enjoyed the visit, and after getting burned by Winthrop, they chose to commit to the Southern Conference program.
As his senior season rolled around, it was clear he was good enough to play at a higher level, and teams did come calling, including UGA. Marshall, though, was set on joining Wofford. After a senior campaign in which he averaged 26 points, 10.5 rebounds and more than five assists per game en route to his second county player of the year award in a row, he was ready to take his game to the next level.
Marshall was a starter from the time he stepped foot on campus at Wofford. But he had several major knee operations and he rarely played at 100 percent. He still was one of the school's all-time best players, averaging nearly 16 points per game through the first 20 games of his senior year. That is when he blew out his knee again, ending his college career.
Marshall could have had a career playing professionally overseas had it not been for all his knee ailments. Instead he returned to the area after graduating from Wofford. By this time, Marshall had a wife, two sons and a job with Richmond County Housing and Community Development, with plans to get into coaching.
Just a month ago, those plans had come together when he was named as Greenbrier's top assistant to new varsity coach Casey Heckathorn. What a great fit. The young athletes at Greenbrier could search long and hard and not find a better role model. You see, because as good as Marshall was on the floor, he was even better off the floor. He was quiet, but led by example. He was ultra-competitive, but he played the game the right way.
Coaches appreciated his throwback style. At the 2003 CSRA Georgia/Carolina High School All-Star Game a group of coaches were discussing the talent on the court while the game was going on when one coach quipped, "You guys can have all the other kids, give me five of the Marshall kid and I will play any of you anytime." Another coach said Marshall was not playing like it was an all-star game; he was playing like it was the last time he'd ever get to play.
Knowing Eric, that is exactly how he was playing Wednesday night at Warren Road Gym. It was his final time playing the game he loved.
Thursday morning, as word of his passing was getting out, I spoke to his former high school coach, Garrett Black, who was obviously heartbroken. Black said he was incapable of expressing what kind of person Eric was and what a huge loss it is.
Don't feel bad, Coach. There isn't a Pulitzer Prize-winner alive who can properly put into words the hurt many are feeling. I certainly do not have the proper words to explain the sorrow I feel for Eric's friends and family.
He was a special young man who had many more things to accomplish in his life.
I just hope Eric realized how much he meant to us.
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