“All these people dropped what they were doing, took time off work, spent their money to travel out here, all to support me.”
Marion Grice, a rookie running back for the Arizona Cardinals, walks toward Wells Fargo Arena on Tuesday night surrounded by family. His mother and grandmother both flew in from Houston, and his cousin and girlfriend, among others, are also with him to celebrate this life-changing moment.
Grice is smiling, laughing and gesturing as he walks down the tunnel on the west side of the arena and sits on a stool in a small room. He’s wearing a maroon gown and a matching cap with the word “HOPE” adorned on the top of it.
In less than an hour he will walk across the stage, receive his diploma from Arizona State University, slide the tassel from the left side of the square to the right and officially become the first of his siblings to graduate college.
But first, with bright lights angled toward him and a camera focused on his face, he’s talking about that four-letter word sitting on top of his head.
Grice grew up in Houston and went to Chester Nimitz High School before heading to Blinn Junior College. After two seasons he accepted a scholarship to ASU.
He arrived in Tempe in 2012 and was promptly welcomed by a crowded backfield. Senior Cameron Marshall was coming off a 1,000-yard season and was on the preseason watch list for Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back. Freshman D.J. Foster entered the program as one of the most highly touted offensive players in Arizona high school football history and redshirt sophomore Deantre Lewis, author of one of the most productive rookie campaigns in recent memory in 2010, was set to come off an injury that had sidelined him the prior season.
So Grice entered camp in August with just one focus: Beat out his competition and prove he was the best running back on the field.
His attitude toward the team mirrored this mentality. Words were sparse, camaraderie non-existent. The tunnel vision he developed to push him to the top of the depth chart was also blinding him from the brotherhood yearning to embrace him.
Grice started all 12 regular-season games in 2012 and on the way picked up all-conference honors and led the team in rushing. Despite his success, teammates, coaches and staffers continued to be shut out. There was no malice intended and in fact he got along fine with everyone, but it was clear his true self was buried beneath a tough exterior.
Then on Dec. 21, eight days before the Sun Devils were set to take on Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Joshua Woods, whom Grice calls his brother, was shot and killed in Houston over a pair of Jordan’s.
Grice received the news from Woods’ sister, Joshlyn, while he was eating with the team on the fifth floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center. He dropped to the ground, his mind unable to put his feelings into thoughts, his mouth unable to turn them into words. Already alone 1,000 miles from his hometown, what was he supposed to do now without his best friend?
Graduate college? He was just trying to catch his breath.
Nearly two years later to the day, words are flowing freely from Grice as he sits in the small room in Wells Fargo Arena. He discusses how he had been forced to deal with a seemingly insurmountable tragedy in the days and weeks that followed Joshua’s death. But instead of taking it on alone, as he’d become accustomed to, a new family emerged.
Grice explains how a group of people whom he assumed didn’t care for him at all - his teammates, coaches and the athletics department as a whole – in fact cared deeply about him. During his time of greatest need, they rallied around him. He talks about how the brotherhood, the one that had existed since his first day on campus but he was initially unable to see, gave him hope.
The power of hope cannot be undervalued in a world that had taken his father from him as a sophomore in high school, charged him with a misdemeanor for a perceived prank in 2008, forced him to go the junior college route because of an academic technicality and turned something that brought him happiness – shoes – into sorrow.
“Tragedy happened to me,” Grice says. “But everyone took me under their wing and comforted me. And I really liked that a lot. So I will always consider this my family too - not just the football team, but also the staff. I really care about those guys and they really care about me.”
Hope allowed him to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29, 2012, in which he rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns en route to offensive MVP honors. It enabled him to put together one of the greatest seasons for a running back in school history in 2013, and forced him to open up to his fellow Sun Devils and form lifelong friendships.
“My best memories from playing here are my teammates,” Grice says. “I still talk to them. When we get together it gives us the chance to sit down and talk about everything we went through together.”
And now, hope has driven him to earn a college degree in communications and sociology.
“They kept pushing me,” Grice says. “They saw something in me – I wasn’t going to give up, I wasn’t going to quit fighting. And they made sure I didn’t. Their support and them having confidence in me helped me accomplish my goals.”
More than 20 of Grice’s former teammates and current Sun Devil football student-athletes are gathered around a television in the middle of their locker room on an early Sunday afternoon in November. They’re watching Grice play in his first regular season National Football League game and they’re cheering as he scores his first career touchdown as a professional in the fourth quarter.
His ASU journey, both on the field and in the classroom, may have ended, but it is clear the Sun Devil brotherhood will be with him wherever he goes.
“From here I learned, no matter what happens on the outside, this is your family.”