When Marcus went to Washington, D.C., in May to receive one of Prudential's Spirit of Community awards, a nonprofit organization called K.I.D.S. gave him $25,000 worth of sports-logoed coats to distribute to needy kids in Denver. "Marcus was ecstatic about that," says his mom. "That's what makes him tick, making a difference for others."
Marcus has also shown how celebrity, a warm smile and a way with words can work magic with middle schoolers. His Just Say Know literature is strewn with Houstonisms like "Sometimes success comes down to whether you reach for the opportunities or reach for the excuses" and "Is your character rich enough so that people will want to invest in your dreams?" Standing in front of an eighth-grade class at Gove Middle School in January 1998, he worked the audience like a seasoned motivational speaker. "I can tell just by looking which of you are not going to be successful in life," he said, and then walked around the classroom studying faces. Kids who were slouched at their desks discreetly straighten up, sliding up their chair backs in slow motion. "Aw, I'm just kidding," Marcus said with a grin. "But didn't you feel your heart stop? That's because you want to be successful."
The essay contests, with their fifty-buck payoffs, reflect Houston's belief that it takes more than a lecture to get kids to establish goals and priorities. "Our schools pay attention to the problem kids and provide incentives for them to achieve," he says. "But you also need incentives for the good students to keep on achieving." Some of the winners of the second Just Say Know essay contest got not only cash prizes but also a stretch-limousine ride to the 1999 Jefferson High homecoming game, paid for by Houston. Revealing a flair for showmanship, Marcus ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game—something your average foundation head can't do. "I think eighth grade is critical," Marcus says. "It's when kids develop their own vision and decide what crowd they'll hang out with."
Interestingly enough, it was when Marcus was an eighth-grader that he went to the dance that transformed him into a civil rights activist. At the end of the dance, which was sponsored by Brotha 2 Brotha, an African-American community service organization, a fight broke out between a couple of youngsters in the parking lot, and the police responded by pouring some 60 uniformed officers into the fray. "I couldn't believe what I saw that night," Marcus recalls. "There were racial slurs [being thrown around], people getting maced, people getting hit with batons."
According to Marcus the officers weren't anything like the nice policemen from the D.A.R.E. program who had visited his middle school to hand out football trading cards and anti-drug pamphlets. "It was like night and day," he says. "To label a police department for the actions of a few bad officers would be wrong, but what I witnessed was also wrong." With the help of his father and other adults who had witnessed the melee, Marcus joined his brothers, four other students, an adult and Brotha 2 Brotha as plaintiffs, hooked up with the ACLU, and took the city of Denver to court. The police dispute the allegations, and five years later the case is still under review by the federal district court in Denver. The litigants, however, are on the verge of reaching an out-of-court settlement. Marcus is no longer one of the plaintiffs because he wasn't one of those allegedly harmed by the police.
When Amnesty International called in '98, Marcus faced a difficult choice. The trip to Holland conflicted with two football games, one of them against archrival Montbello High. His coach and teammates wanted him to stay and play, but Marcus decided that the conference in Amsterdam and the chance to speak at The Hague were more important. "He left the U.S. as a 17-year-old kid," Herman says. "When he came back, he wasn't a kid at all."
Houston's football skills haven't suffered from the distraction of human rights advocacy. Last year he ran for 1,743 yards and scored 23 touchdowns for Jefferson High. He also was named the nation's top running back by Parade and SuperPrep magazines. Four games into his college career he has gained 332 yards as a tailback and is one of the few bright spots on an 0-4 Colorado team.
Against USC on Sept. 9, Houston gained 150 yards on 25 carries, including a run of 32 yards, and added a 27-yard pass reception and run that left Trojan defenders sprawled in his wake. "He's every bit as good as advertised, if not better," says Barnett, who didn't play Houston in last week's game against Kansas State because of an injured hip but expects to have him back this week against Texas A&M. "His vision is great, he runs with leverage"—that word again—"he hits the holes, he runs outside, he catches the ball, he blocks. He's almost too good to be true."
The real miracle is that the 6'2", 205-pound Houston is so approachable and unassuming. He answers all the mail he gets from Europe and Ghana; he talks on the phone with kids who want to discuss a problem or get a pat on the back for a good report card; he even smiles at strangers. When he scored his first college touchdown, on a five-yard run against Colorado State in the season opener, he didn't grandstand in the end zone; he just grinned and handed the ball to the ref.
Ask Houston to finish the sentence, "If I had a multi-million dollar NFL contract, I'd buy....", and he'll still cross out "buy" and insert some noble alternative like "rebuild Matsekopi." "Football complements me," he explains, "but it doesn't define me."