Two-time Super Bowl champion inspires by example at MLK celebration
Palm Beach State College welcomed Leonard Marshall, former NFL defensive lineman and New York Giants “Ring of Honor” legend, as its keynote speaker at PBSC’s 25th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Jan. 18 in the Duncan Theatre on the Lake Worth campus. He shared his life experiences in a conversational-style presentation, moderated by Tania Rogers, anchor and reporter for WPTV NewsChannel 5.
Marshall spoke about the traumatic effects of segregation growing up in Louisiana during the civil rights era and how Dr. King’s legacy impacted his life. He reflected on what it was like to attend an all-Black elementary school and its transition to a segregated one, how he started playing football and set his sights on a career in the NFL, and the path he took to continue his education.
The event was attended in person by more than 600 people, including PBSC students, faculty and staff, community members, elected officials and 160 local high school students. It was also livestreamed on PBSC’s other campuses.
Marshall’s life began in Franklin, La., where he was born in 1961.
“Growing up a black child in Louisiana was challenging,” said Marshall, who attended a Methodist school for black boys from three to seven years old. Life at this school would dramatically change for Marshall as the school started integrating with white students a few years after the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964.
“Those years were extremely formidable in my development. When schools began to integrate, it became a way of life and I had to adopt it. It was quite a challenge, but I was able to see the forest despite the trees, and I knew that in order to level the playing field, I needed to have the full playing field as my arsenal.”
As a child, Marshall also noticed that most people in his hometown were African Americans who were descendants of slaves and worked in the sugar fields—something he says he didn’t want to do which initiated his higher aspirations.
One of these aspirations came while watching Buffalo Bills player Wallace Frances during a game.
“I told my dad, at 9 years old, that one day he’d watch me do that on TV,” Marshall said.
His father laughed at the idea, but Marshall was determined to have the last laugh. He not only accomplished this, but he also became a New York Giants “Ring of Honor” legend and was a starter on the Giants teams that won Super Bowl XXI and Super Bowl XXV.
Marshall fit college into his NFL career, finishing his bachelor’s degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University and getting an MBA at Seton Hall University, where he became an adjunct professor and still teaches there. He believes his success on and off the field is because he has remained humble.
“I don’t think of myself as this NFL superstar/Super Bowl winner/Hall of Fame athlete. I think about taking my story, my journey and sharing it to touch other people’s lives and inspire them. I’m proud of the lives I’ve touched just as much as I’m proud of those two trophies I have in my office.”
This desire to help others came from being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“That legacy means a lot because it impacted my life. And it has dynamically changed the lives of all of us in this room,” Marshall said. “One thing I take from Dr. King’s time is when you see something, say something. When you don’t agree with something, don’t agree to disagree after the fact, agree to disagree because you have a voice. Recognize your voice, recognize your position, and if you really believe in your position, stick to your gut.”
Marshall also believes it’s important for people not to let challenges or failures derail them.
“I was 15 pounds overweight during my rookie year at training camp and they named me the fat kid,” said Marshall. “In the next off-season, I was determined to become the best physical specimen I could be. I worked and grew and worked some more and the next thing I’m the NFL’s best defensive lineman.”
Marshall also noted that everyone in life is going to come to points where they will be challenged, or things won’t go their way.
“It’s how you respond to failure that’s a true question to your integrity and discipline. And, when you make a mistake, learn and grow from it.”
Marshall says he is motivated daily by the following quote told to him by New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells: “As long as you remain green, you’ll continue to grow; it’s when you think you’re ripe, you’ll begin to rot!” Marshall encouraged the audience to adopt a similar mindset.
The theme “Strengthening Our Community Through Service” was highlighted throughout the silver anniversary celebration and embodied by the five honorees, who were awarded Palm Beach State’s MLK Leadership Awards by PBSC President Ava L. Paker, J.D.: The Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County; Barbara Cheives, president and CEO of Converge & Associates Consulting; Loverly Sheridan, PBSC alumna and founder of Buddy Ambassadors; Sherry Fletcher, a PBSC student development advisor who has a history of distinguished service with the National Council on Black American Affairs; and Charles McConnell, a PBSC student active in student government and helping people with addictions.
Parker also presented a plaque to Marshall, who makes service a priority and has received several awards for his charitable work.
“We’re so delighted that we can all come together and celebrate the great work and legacy of MLK but also celebrate the great work that you each continue to do every day. It is so very clear that our MLK Leadership Award recipients are living out the meaning of Dr. King’s life by continuously giving back to our community. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give out one final award today. Leonard, we were so inspired by your words and by your message. You, too, are living the dream and are a living example that we all can follow,” said Parker at the event.
To watch the ceremony, visit www.palmbeachstate.edu/mlk. To view photos from the event, click on the image below.