Marbury Happiest When He Was ‘Playing For Ice Cream’
MORGANTOWN — Death had been chasing Kerry Marbury for a long time but like everyone else who chased him, on the football field, on the track, in a life that had so many twists and turns, it had a tough time catching him.
The former West Virginia football star died last Sunday in Fairmont, the area where it all began and where he straightened out a life that had gone wrong.
The cause of death, confirmed by former Mountaineer basketball star Warren Baker, who taught with him at Fairmont State, was not immediately known. He was 67.
A former peewee football teammate of Nick Saban, the Alabama coach and a lifelong friend, Marbury once held WVU’s single-game rushing record, going for 291 yards against on Oct. 23, 1971.
He had 200 yards by halftime and carried just 22 times, missing part of the third quarter with a leg injury. That surely kept him from reaching 300 yards and there were some who said 400 yards were not out of the question.
To put the record in perspective, he held the Mountaineer record for 33 years until Kay-Jay Harris came along and broke it in 2004 with a 337-yard outburst against East Carolina.
After Harris had shattered Marbury’s record, he reached him on the phone.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Marbury, that I broke your record,” he remembered Harris saying to him.
“Kay-Jay, congratulations. Break the rest of them. I’m trying to fade into oblivion,” Marbury recalled answering.
With the ability and speed he had, there was no way he would ever slip into oblivion.
“I always felt that Kerry had more natural God-given ability than any other running back at West Virginia University,” Donnie Young, a former assistant who personally saw Amos Zereoue, Avon Cobourne, Artie Owens, Robert Walker and Robert Alexander, once said. “Kerry could go from a standstill to a full sprint quicker than anyone I’d ever seen.”
Maybe only James Jett, an Olympian from Don Nehlen’s early 1990s teams, was faster than Marbury, but even that would have been one fine race to watch.
Marbury was a track legend in West Virginia as high school sprinter as well a spectacular runner out of the Monongah High backfield. With Saban as his quarterback, the Lions won two consecutive state titles, and Marbury finished his career with more than 6,000 yards.
He might have been better at track. He was a two-time state champion in the 100-yard dash, a three-time state champion in the 220-yard dash, ran a leg on Monongah’s state champion 440-yard team and won high point honors at the state meet two straight years.
He also held the all-time 100 record at 9.7 and ran a 9.6 in the trials.
Heavily recruited, he decided to stay home at play at WVU for Jim Carlen but before he ever got the chance, Carlen left to coach Texas Tech after beating North Carolina State, 14-3, in the 1969 Peach Bowl.
When Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden took over at WVU, problems developed, although it wasn’t what most people thought, which was Marbury becoming upset over a suspension handed out to one of his friends.
This is the story he told me in 2011:
“I was very disappointed after the Peach Bowl loss (in 1972). I hurt my ankle in the last game of the year, the Syracuse game, and I shouldn’t even have been playing in the Peach Bowl. When they brought me into the locker room before the game, they stuck a needle, probably four inches long, into my ankle. I could hear the bones pressing up against the needle.
“I was so distraught over that. I thought, ‘They treat race horses better than this.’ That ultimately led to my leaving. After the shot, I couldn’t tell whether I had a foot, let alone run. If I had broken it, I wouldn’t have known it until the Novocain wore off.”
And so he left school after his junior year and went to Canada, playing in Toronto and Ottawa.
He never regretted the decision.
“I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had in Toronto and Ottawa for anything,” he said.
But he only lasted a year in the CFL and when he came back he had his first brush with death, playing in the World Football League for the Birmingham Vulcans.
“We were in a hotel at camp and I was really sick down there,” he said in 2011. “You know, as an athlete, you know your body better than a doctor does. I was sick, throwing up, perspiring profusely, feeling very weak.”
He told this to the coach and the trainer. They responded by telling him it was an important scrimmage and he had to play.
“I made it through and did pretty well, but the trainer comes out and says, ‘You need to come off the field.’ I looked at him, like, ‘You really think so?’ The players helped me to the shower. They finally took me to the emergency room in Birmingham. I’m throwing up on the gurney, but the doctor says they couldn’t find anything wrong with me.”
He returned to the hotel.
“I’m there crawling around on the floor, couldn’t talk,” he continued. “Finally, the next day, the team doctor came and said my appendix had ruptured. I had no idea. The team doctor told me if I wasn’t in as good a shape as I was I would have died.”
Now disillusioned, Marbury drifted into drugs, did a short turn in prison, but used it to start over.
“I don’t mind talking about my prison experience. I always say prison was not an abyss for me, but the most important turning point in my life,” he said. “I was so disillusioned with sports and football, in particular. People say, ‘How can you do this or that?’ but once you come to that realization that all you really wanted was not real, it’s easy to succumb.
“If you are raised by someone with values and morals, even though you may deviate from life’s chosen path, those morals and values will come back to you at some point. That’s what happened with me,” he added.
Guided by Dr. Paul Edwards and Dr. Robert J. Dillman, he turned his life around.
“Dr. Dillman was the president [at Fairmont State]. He knew all my ups and downs. And Paul Edwards, who I still call my mentor, has been like my dad since I got out of prison,” Marbury said. “My cousin, who has passed, when I first got out of prison told me I had to go see Dr. Edwards. I was thinking, ‘Why, when everyone else in my life has disappointed me? What makes him different?’
“Well, when I met him, I found out what made him different. He didn’t know me from Adam, led me through all the hoops, got me registered in school. I wanted to make my mom proud and people who I loved and loved me proud so they didn’t just think of me as someone who had been in prison.”
He wound up graduating from Fairmont State, getting a master’s degree and then being hired by Dr. Dillman as a teacher.
And he lived a full and satisfying life, spreading wisdom to students, both the kind you kind you find in the textbooks those you only gather through life’s experience.
But he had one more hurdle pop up in front of him, being told he was suffering from terminal cancer.
There was the original anger and disbelief, the denial and then the will to fight back. Saban contacted him, set him up with a doctor’s appointment at a specialist in Birmingham, who could only confirm the diagnosis and the treatment he was following.
Later he would speak of his conversation with Saban, who had told him would set it up for him to get a second opinion.
“Second opinion? I haven’t paid for the first one, yet,” he cracked.
He fought the fight in good spirits.
“You know,” he said, “you don’t need friends when you are on top. It’s when you hit rock bottom, that’s when you need friends.”
They stepped forward and helped.
“I wake up every day and find I love the little things in life,” he said back in 2011, leading to these final two paragraphs in a story about his battle.
He suddenly found himself at times being that little kid who played with Saban in the peewee leagues of West Virginia. He’d seen a whole lot, played football in college and professionally and had come back to one realization.
“I was happier when I was playing for ice cream,” he said.